Armenia-Azerbaijan: one year after the ceasefire, fighting continues

A year after the Nagorno-Karabakh war, new clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have occurred

Barely a year after the signing of the ceasefire aimed at ending the second Nagorno-Karabakh war, new major armed clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have occurred. On November 16, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale offensive in the southern Armenian region of Syunik and only Russia's mediation made it possible to halt the fighting. As admitted by the Armenian Ministry of Defence, at least two combat positions were lost because of the Azerbaijani offensive, which, according to Baku, was triggered in response to a series of Armenian provocations at the border. Although the human toll of the fighting is still unclear, mainly because the two sides do not like to publicise their losses, the Armenians reported one soldier killed, 13 taken prisoner and 24 missing, while the Azerbaijanis spoke of 7 dead and 10 wounded. As usual, the two states' versions of what happened differ considerably, but what is certain is that the clashes were not a sporadic event. Rather, the outbreak of violence in recent days is the result of 12 months of continuous tensions.

In a recent interview, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that in the past year not a single week has passed without violations of the November 9 ceasefire. This means that the conflict never really ended but continued albeit at a low intensity. The only difference since last year is the point of contact between the two armies, which moved further west, passing, after the Azerbaijani victory, from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia's eastern border. Among the main elements of discord underlying the continuing tensions are the status of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, the demarcation of the border between the countries, the presence of Armenian prisoners in Azerbaijan and the issue of sharing minefield maps of the territories conquered by Baku in 2020. In this context, the implementation of the November 9 statement, perceived by Yerevan as completely unilateral and favourable to Baku, is at a standstill. Therefore, it seems likely that Azerbaijan, currently better equipped and more motivated, will continue to shift the confrontation to the military level, thus pushing Yerevan to accept its demands.

Unblocking communication routes

The main bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding last year’s statement concerns the "unblocking of all economic and transport links in the region." Notably, Azerbaijan proposes the construction of a corridor passing through Syunik, Armenia’s southern region, and connecting the country's western areas with the Nakhchivan exclave and then with Turkey. Baku's plan, however, faces Armenian opposition. In fact, although Yerevan is willing to reopen regional links, it has so far always opposed the “logic of corridor”. As a result, the Aliyev regime has started to put pressure on Armenia by setting up several checkpoints on southern roads crossing the territories conquered in the 2020 war, such as the road connecting Kapan and Goris.

The establishment of these checkpoints resulted in the isolation of some Armenian villages and caused tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan. Indeed, the favourite targets of Azerbaijani controls have been Iranian trucks heading to Armenia on which a "road tax" has been imposed. This already very tense situation is further complicated by the fact that Azerbaijan and Turkey have conducted some 50 military exercises in less than a year on the border with Armenia showing that the military solution is more than an option and that regional openness to trade remains a pipe dream for the time being.

Instability persists in the region

The clashes of recent days have favoured the repetition of last year's scenario with Russia acting as a mediator while Turkey guaranteed unconditional support to Azerbaijan. Ankara is very interested in opening communication routes in the region that would allow the country to have direct access to Azerbaijan through Nakhchivan. This explains why Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in an attempt to delegitimise Yerevan, has gone so far as to describe Armenian actions on the border as terrorist acts.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, keeps a low profile, as it is being engaged on several fronts (Belarus, Ukraine, and Tajikistan) and wants to avoid an escalation that would force it to intervene. Moscow knows that the issue of border demarcation is decisive at this stage and that is why, also through diplomatic actions, it is trying to convince the parties to sit at the table and negotiate. The recent Azerbaijani aggression should be read precisely as an attempt to raise the stakes and remind Armenia that the current forces on the field are unbalanced in its favour. In this context, it is interesting to note that despite symbolic statements, Armenia has not appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Yerevan is aware that the organization's members have divergent positions on the South Caucasus issue and have learned the hard way that the CSTO does not like to go beyond issuing communiqués.

The great instability of these days also worries Raisi's Iran, which has just emerged from a major diplomatic confrontation with Azerbaijan. Indeed, the Islamic Republic dislikes Azerbaijan's plans to build new routes that would complicate trade relations with Armenia and undermine Iran's key role as a trade route for Azerbaijani goods heading west. In light of the above and noting that the OSCE Minsk Group has practically disappeared from the region, it is clear that no cooperation or conflict management instrument, not even the much-publicised 3+3 format, has been successful so far. The absence of regional forums for dialogue does not bode well for the future of the South Caucasus, where new outbreaks of violence are likely in the short term.

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