Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Continues Despite Calls for Peace
In the evening of September 25, the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan and in Armenia published security alerts that included updated travel advisories as a result of the increasing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The U.S. Embassy in Baku recommended that U.S. citizens should avoid travel outside of the Absheron Peninsula while the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan advised against travel to several regions in Armenia and explicitly warned against travel to Nagorno-Karabakh due to the increased risk of conflict.
Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have been building during the past few months as a result of direct attacks by Armenia on the internationally-recognized Armenia-Azerbaijan state border. As underscored by Caspian Policy Center Advisor Ambassador Richard Hoagland, these military incidents were unusual because of their location on Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s international border near the Tovuz rayon, and not on the OSCE-monitored Line of Contact. The first outbreak in the region initiated on July 12, and a second, smaller conflict erupted on September 21, resulting in the death of an Azerbaijani Junior Sergeant.
Armenia has interests in attacking Azerbaijan in this area. The Ganja Gap, adjacent to the Tovuz rayon, is critical for railways, roadways, and energy pipelines. As Azerbaijan is a critical transit hub and as the country relies on exports of oil and gas, threats to this region disrupt Azerbaijan’s political and economic stability. Russia also has its own interests in disrupting this transit corridor, and exported seven shipments of military equipment to Armenia immediately after the July conflict. These shipments included advanced devices, bolstering the diversity and supply of Armenia’s arsenal.
In the morning of September 27, military operations began around the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Hikmet Hajiyev, Assistant to the President of Azerbaijan, announced that real results had already been achieved, with a number of strategic heights, territories, and villages having been liberated. By the afternoon of the same day, Azerbaijani forces had liberated seven villages in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
After the escalation of the conflict and Azerbaijan’s strategic victories, several countries and international organizations issued public statements. The Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group issued a joint statement calling for an immediate ceasefire and for Armenia and Azerbaijan to resume negotiations. Albania’s Prime Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Edi Rama issued a statement calling for the ‘return to the ceasefire before the human toll of this conflict increases any further.’ Rama also urged for resuming negotiations without preconditions as soon as possible. Saeed Khatibzadeh, a Foreign Ministry Spokesman from Iran, also called for an immediate ceasefire and the start of negotiations. The U.S. State Department issued a statement calling for ceasing hostilities and encouraged both sides to use existing lines of communication to avoid further escalation.
Communications between high-ranking officials were also conducted on September 27. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, and following their call, Erdoğan issued a statement identifying Armenia as the ‘biggest threat to peace and tranquility in the region’ and pledged support to its ‘Azerbaijani brothers with all its means as always.’
Despite its role as a Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, Russia has once again shown an imbalanced approach to resolving the conflict and has instead shown preference for supporting Armenia. It was reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke by phone, but the details of their meeting were not made public. As stated by Major General U.S. Army (Ret.) Michael Repass, an advisory board member of the Caspian Policy Center, “Russia has stoked the fire of instability by providing vast quantities of armaments to Armenia for free, by providing additional forces on the ground in Armenia, and by conducting joint exercises with Armenian forces.”
Despite the outward support for the Armenian forces, General Repass described limitations that Russia is facing in the current confrontation. Russia is already heavily engaged in Syria, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Libya, and most recently, Belarus. According to General Repass, “if Russia has to prop up Armenian forces against Azerbaijan, and potentially Turkey, then Russia will be stretching its advisory capacity thin.” Russia relies on Nagorno-Karabakh as a strategic wedge in the region, and Russia cannot afford for Armenia to lose badly to Azerbaijani armed forces. Repass indicated that Russia and Turkey are already facing off in Syria and Libya, and adding the element of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Russia backing Armenia and Turkey backing Azerbaijan, could heighten this friction. Russia is likely aware of this quandary and is likely attempting to mitigate the risk of conflict with Turkey, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov engaged in intensive talks with Turkey’s foreign minister to try to encourage negotiations.
Former Ambassador to Azerbaijan Robert Cekuta also noted that the current situation has the potential for dangerous engagement by outside powers. Ambassador Cekuta explained that there are press reports of suspicious shipments of probable military items from Iran into Armenia, and Tehran demonstrates a history of taking advantage of every opportunity for mischief if it thinks that it might benefit the Iranian regime. Like Iran, Russia has a long record of creating disruptions and using those disruptions to its advantage.
With the U.S., France, Russia, and Iran all calling for yet another ceasefire, Ambassador Cekuta expressed the need for action. The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories undermines peace and security in Europe, and the U.S. should be taking an active role in bringing the parties to make progress towards a solution. Ambassador (ret.) Richard Hoagland, a former U.S. co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, complemented this view, stating that, “by international law, Armenia invaded and occupies the sovereign territory of another sovereign state, Azerbaijan.” He continued and explained that “fundamental U.S. policy is to support and protect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all nations.”
Open source intelligence has indicated that the Russian Federation Air Force conducted another flight with an Antonov AN-124 on September 27, following a similar route as previous flights from Rostov-on-Don to Yerevan, indicating that the Russian government is continuing to supply Armenia with additional military equipment. Footage of military equipment allegedly being trucked across the border from Iran into Armenia was also released on September 28, indicating that Iran is continuing to support Armenia’s attempts to perpetuate its occupation of Azerbaijani territories despite calling for a ceasefire. As stated by Ambassador Hoagland, “it’s important to remember that all governments, including our own, have public policies but also engage in activity that can sometimes contradict their public policy. In other words, what you see is not always what you get.”