Nagorno-Karabakh erupts after 20 years

Less than three months after the 20th anniversary of signing the ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the fiercest fighting between the sides since the war has been recorded on the ‘contact line’, near Agdam, claiming the lives of at least 18 servicemen. There were initially 12 military casualties, eight of which occurred on 1 August, following three days of sporadic fighting, with four more deaths being recorded on 2 August, in addition to several wounded servicemen. The occupying forces in Armenia admitted losing three servicemen that night. This totalled more deaths on the ‘contact line’ than during the whole of 2013.

The violence led to accusations and counter-accusations on both sides. Novruz Mammadov, Deputy Head, Azerbaijani Presidential Administration, replied in a statement to journalists by saying: “The Armenians are accusing the Azerbaijani armed forces of sending sabotage groups into the Armenian army. It does not correspond with any logic.” He also countered any possible allegations that the violence was initiated by Azerbaijan with the comment that both President Aliyev and Colonel-General Zakir Hasanov, Azerbaijani Defence Minister, were overseas when it flared up.

The upsurge in violence led to widespread international condemnation. Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General, expressed his “deep concern” over the clashes and urged the sides to refrain from further violence.

Maria Zakharova, Deputy Director, Information and Press Department, Russian Foreign Ministry, commented that: “further escalation is unacceptable” and that “we urge all the warring sides to exercise restraint, give up the use of force and take urgent measures aimed at stabilising the situation.” Speaking to the Itar-Tass agency, Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, commented: “Of course, we are worried about the events along the so-called ‘contact line’. The parties are accusing each other of provocation. That happened earlier, and unfortunately we have been observing such escalations for many years. However, this time everything is being reported and perceived in a particularly dramatic manner.”

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called President Aliyev to offer his condolences, and the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that read: “We are following with sorrow and concern the recent clashes that occurred on the ‘contact line’ with the occupied Azerbaijani territories, which resulted in the loss of many lives. We wish God’s mercy on our Azerbaijani brothers who were martyred in the conflict, and extend our condolences to their families and the brotherly people of Azerbaijan.”

Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesperson, US State Department, said: “We extend our condolences to the families of those killed or injured, and call on the sides to take immediate action to reduce tensions and respect the ceasefire. The US urges the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to meet at the earliest opportunity to resume dialogue on key issues.”

James Warlick, US Co-Chair, OSCE Minsk Group, wrote on Twitter, saying: “As you see, the situation is not frozen at all. Tell a mother of an injured or a dead soldier that it is a frozen conflict. It has not been frozen, and we are very concerned about the escalation.”

The violence led the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to request: “Armenia and Azerbaijan to take immediate action to reduce tensions and respect the 1994 ceasefire agreement. We are deeply saddened by the continuing loss of life on all sides. Recalling the statement of David Lidington, Minister for Europe, on the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire in May, we urge the parties to work with the OSCE’s Minsk Group Co-Chairs towards achieving a peace agreement.” 

Andrzej Kasprzyk, Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, said: “Recent reports of multiple incidents along the frontline are cause for concern. In line with my mandate, I will continue liaising closely with the sides, including at the highest level, with a view to assisting them in de-escalating the situation.”

Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the EU stated: “We call on both sides to immediately respect the ceasefire, refrain from the use of force or any threat thereof, and continue efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

During a meeting with Azerbaijani military units stationed in the Agdam region, President Ilham Aliyev rallied the troops, saying: “Azerbaijan is a stable country. Today, by increasing our opportunities, we have an even stronger army that is able to fulfil any task at any time. The machinery, equipment, weapons and ammunition that we have obtained from foreign sources meets the latest standards. We have purchased the latest air defence installations, and our army has been equipped with powerful artillery.

“Missile systems exhibiting a high degree of accuracy with great destructive power, combat and transport helicopters, combat aircraft, armoured vehicles and tanks, are all playing an integral role in developing the potential of the Azerbaijani army.

“A week ago, the enemy – Armenian occupation forces – attacked our positions in a cowardly fashion under the cover of night. We suffered losses and our soldiers became martyrs. May God rest the souls of all the martyrs and bestow patience on their families and friends. But at the same time, the enemy got an adequate response. The Armenian side as always hides its losses. Our martyrs who died a week ago, died in their own lands. The question arises as to what an Armenian soldier – a soldier of the occupying forces – was doing on the territory of Agdam?”

Longstanding commentator on the conflict, Thomas De Waal, Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, reflected on the gravity of the situation: “The Karabakh frontline is the most militarised area of Europe. With no peacekeepers there, it is mainly rational self-interest that keeps the two armies of 20,000 or so men, backed up by heavy weapons, from going back to war. In the last 15 years, around two to three dozen people have died every year in shooting incidents. This year, a number of factors, such as deeper cynicism about the peace process and the continuing arms race, fuelled by Russia, have made the situation much worse. 

“Armenia has lurched in a more pro-Russian direction, with the country’s course set on joining Russia’s Eurasian Union. That may have reinforced the belief in Yerevan that, in the event of conflict, Moscow will step in to defend its treaty obligations under the CIS Collective Security Organisation and come to the aid of Armenia.”

“This latest violence may have been the result of a big Armenian operation or counter-operation that came after numerous smaller Azerbaijani attacks. Once fighting kicks off, of course, the issue of “who started it,” rapidly becomes irrelevant. Without a more substantial peace process that the two parties can buy into, the violence is all too likely to recur.”