Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces are engaged in their most serious armed confrontation since the so-called Four-Day War of April 2016, when hundreds of soldiers on both sides were reportedly killed and wounded along the Line of Contact, which marks the frontier of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories in and around Karabakh (see EDM, May 5, 2016). This time, the fighting began on July 12, 2020, on the internationally recognized Azerbaijani-Armenian border, well north of Karabakh. During the Nagorno-Karabakh War in the 1990s, Yerevan refused to acknowledge its direct involvement with the forces of the breakaway self-proclaimed “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”—until then an autonomous region in Soviet Azerbaijan and mostly populated by Armenians. Large-scale fighting in Karabakh ended in 1994, with a ceasefire and a decisive Armenian victory. Armenian forces took over all of Karabakh as well as occupied a surrounding buffer zone that was previously populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. All attempts to broker a political solution to the conflict by the so-called Minsk Group, co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France, or efforts by Moscow separately, have been deadlocked since. Skirmishes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces have occurred regularly up and down the LoC; but as long as they remained low-key, the outside world paid little attention.
In the latest clashes (see EDM, July 14), both sides have reportedly used mortars, missiles and heavy guns. The Azerbaijani military has employed Israeli-made drones over Armenia for reconnaissance missions and, reportedly, for aerial attack. Yerevan demonstrated footage of what appeared to be the destruction of at least one Israeli-made Erbit Hermes 900 drone. Both sides have reported casualties, including one Azerbaijani general. Each government has accused the other of “aggression and provocation.” To date, there have been no verified reports of civilian casualties, and neither side has tried to cross the border or occupy any enemy territory in recent days. Azerbaijan and Armenia have both reported a lull in the fighting on July 15; but on July 16, mutual artillery shelling resumed (Militarynews.ru, July 16).
The two South Caucasus rivals have been building up their respective armed forces for years, in anticipation of a possible full-scale showdown. Azerbaijan has the advantage of a constant stream of oil and natural gas export revenues, allowing for a much larger defense budget compared to its neighbor. Armenia was buying almost exclusively Russian hardware on credit, while Azerbaijan has purchased weapons from Russia and other countries, including modern Israeli-made drones and precision-guided, semi-ballistic long-range LORA missiles that can hit any target inside Armenia or occupied Karabakh. Baku has also purchased South Korean tanks; when they arrive, the balance of military power will be further shifted in Baku’s favor. Azerbaijan wields drones and third-generation Israeli and South Korean anti-tank missiles that neither Armenia nor Russia have in their inventories. The Armenian military (together with the proxy Karabakh army) possesses a large number of mostly Soviet-era tanks and other heavy weapons; but its Azerbaijani opponent holds a serious qualitative edge. Armenia additionally has Soviet-made R-17 (Scud-B) ballistic missiles as well as some more modern and accurate Iskander semi-ballistic missiles that could hit sensitive targets deep inside Azerbaijan, including oil and gas installations. However, the Azerbaijani military command has announced that such attacks would result in retaliatory targeting of the Armenian nuclear power plant at Metsamor, 36 kilometers west of Yerevan, probably using precision-guided LORA missiles. A precision strike at Metsamor—the only nuclear plant in the South Caucasus—could possibly cause a 1986 Chernobyl-style radioactive contamination disaster (Interfax, July 16).
Armenia is isolated and semi-surrounded by hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey. The country does have a relatively close and friendly relationship with Iran, its main trading partner and home to a large and influential Armenian community (as well as a sizeable ethnic-Azerbaijani minority). But Iran’s international pariah status puts a stigma on Armenia in Israel and in the United States. At the same time, Armenia is a long-time Russian ally, a member of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Yet, the sitting Armenian leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power two years ago, in a popular protest revolt that overthrow a Moscow-friendly regime, is seen in Russia with serious suspicion as a pro-Western revolutionary. Moscow has good relations with the autocratic regime of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and wants to dominate the entire region up to the former Soviet border with Turkey and Iran—a strategy requiring alliances not exclusively with Yerevan, but also with Baku and Tbilisi. Its presumed CSTO obligations notwithstanding, Russia resists being pulled into a conflict with Azerbaijan. Since the fighting is on Armenia’s state border, Yerevan requested an emergency CSTO council meeting, which was planned for July 13, but then called off without explanation. The Armenian embassy in Moscow called for CSTO support and solidarity “in deterring Azerbaijani attacks and possible hostile Turkish intervention” (TASS, July 14). On July 14, in Moscow, the CSTO council gathered for a regular meeting and announced, “The member nations were informed by the Armenian representative about the armed clashes and acknowledged the fact of being briefed” (RIA Novosti, July 14). Yerevan was only able to encourage its treaty allies to make a call for a ceasefire.
It seems neither Aliyev nor Pashinyan wants further escalation, but public opinion in both countries appears to be more belligerent. Angry demonstrations have broken out in Baku, with participants calling for war and the “liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Azerbaijani police used water cannons to disperse the crowds (RBC, July 15). Under heightened public pressure, an uncontrolled escalation of tit-for-tat strikes may begin expanding the fighting along the border to Karabakh, and attacks against strategic targets could commence. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced that Turkey’s military will support Azerbaijan against “Armenian aggression” (Lenta.ru, July 14). Russia has a military base in Armenia, which hosts several thousand ground troops, plus armor, fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles. These forces are not there to fight Azerbaijan but to deter Turkey (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). But if push comes to shove, the massive Turkish military would have the upper hand in the South Caucasus, while sending Russian military reinforcements to Armenia through Georgia would be a problem. If the present Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict is not stopped soon by a serious ceasefire, a nightmare scenario could suddenly emerge out of the recently published Russian nuclear doctrine: A devastating attack against Russia (or its allies) that warrants the practical use of nuclear deterrence to deescalate (see EDM, June 4).