Widespread reports have emerged in recent weeks, both in Armenia and in Azerbaijan’s press, that the Azerbaijani military has made territorial gains along Armenia’s border with the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan. Armenia’s authorities have insisted that new Azerbaijani military positions are within Azerbaijan’s own territory and Azerbaijan’s authorities have remained tight-lipped.
Nakhchivan has been at the centre of a renewed Armenian–Azerbaijani war of words in recent weeks. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev visited Nakhchivan on 16 May and claimed missiles stationed there could ‘destroy any enemy target’. This was followed two days later by a visit from Armenia’s defence and foreign ministers to a military base close to Nakhchivan.
Tensions escalated on 20 May after the death of Azerbaijani serviceman Adil Tatarov on the Nakhchivan section of the Armenian–Azerbaijani border. According to Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry, Tatarov was killed in a combat mission countering a ‘provocation’ from Armenia.
Azerbaijan claimed the Armenian army started ‘provocative actions’ two days after Armenian Defence Minister Davit Tonoyan and Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, visited military posts near Nakhchivan on 19 May, to ‘study the operative situation’ there.
Following Tatarov’s death, the press-secretary of the Armenian Defense Ministry Artsun Hovhannisyan reminded Azerbaijan on his Facebook page that conducting ‘engineering work and other provocative activities are the reason for skirmishes’ and that ‘the Armenian armed forces have been warning that destructive steps could not be left unanswered’.
‘Huge’ territorial gains
On 8 June, Nakhchivani news agency Nuhchikhan reported that Azerbaijan had ‘liberated’ 110 square kilometres near the ruins of the village of Gunnut, in Nakhchivan’s Sharur District, showing a picture of locals allegedly visiting their relatives’ graves ‘for the first time in 26 years’. The agency has also claimed that the new territorial claims now allow Azerbaijan to control Armenia’s main highway between Yerevan and Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh.
On 9 June, Samad Seyidov, Chairman of the Azerbaijani Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, dubbed the reported territorial gains a ‘triumph of the Azerbaijani army and people’. However, Azerbaijani officials have not extensively commented on the reports.
The authorities in Yerevan have insisted that any changes in Azerbaijani military positions occurred within their own territory, calling the claims of a territorial advance ‘provocative’, but mostly aimed ‘for domestic consumption’
In relation to the images from Gunnut, Armenia’s Defence Ministry said Azerbaijan had requested the Armenian military allow a group of Azerbaijanis visit a cemetery in the village, which they allowed due to Armenia’s ‘commitment to humanitarian norms’.
On 12 June, Defence Ministry press-secretary Artsrun Hovhannisyan posted a video on his Facebook page, allegedly showing the visit to Gunnut ‘recorded from an Armenian position, which maintained full control over the ruins of the village’.
Reports from within Armenia have contradicted the official stance that no territorial changes occurred. On 26 May, the editor-in-chief of Armenian online newspaper Hetq, Edik Baghdasaryan, told EurAsia Daily that ‘Azerbaijanis were able to move their positions ahead in the neutral zone and take control of huge territories’.
Armenian blogger Pandukht cited on 5 June two social media posts, later taken down, reporting Azerbaijani military advancements on 27 and 30 May. One post was from an Armenian resident of the village of Areni, who posted pictures and expressed fears about ‘new Azerbaijani positions in Areni’ and reported a ‘panic in the village’. Areni, in the Vayots Dzor Province, borders the north-east of Nakhchivan. The original poster declined OC Media’s request to comment.
While some Armenian sources speak of a ‘neutral zone’, there is no formal agreement between the two countries regulating such. According to analyst Emil Sanamyan, the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan has never been officially demarcated and the current line remains an ‘informal reference point’ to the administrative line between Soviet Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan. Sanamyan said that ‘the actual border is demarcated by military outposts and trench lines’, with both sides having jockeyed for advantage over it since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Conflict around Nakhchivan has broader regional implications than around Nagorno-Karabakh, as Turkey is obligated to defend Nakhchivan under the 1921 Kars Treaty, a commitment reinforced by a 2010 agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Armenia is similarly protected from any attack via Nakhchivan under the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
‘Unacceptable and irresponsible’
Armenia’s Foreign Ministry condemned Azerbaijan’s actions at the border as ‘unacceptable and irresponsible steps aimed at escalating the situation’. They told OC Media it was ‘regrettable but at the same time very predictable practice of Azerbaijan to exploit any display of goodwill and humanistic approach [from] Armenia for its own propagandistic purposes’.
They also warned that ‘any provocative action on the Azerbaijani side will be immediately stopped and will trigger the adequate response from the Armenian side’.
Azerbaijan's authorities did not respond to a request for comment.
‘No war, no peace’
Zaur Shiriyev from the International Crisis Group told OC Media that recent changes in Azerbaijani military positions were not insignificant. According to him, Azerbaijan took control of several heights around the Gunnut, which strengthened Azerbaijan’s position.
Shiriyev quoted Civilnet’s report saying that Azerbaijan gained 10–15 square kilometres of land, which were more than the gains of the 2016 April war, meaning that ‘in some areas, Armenian and Azerbaijani military positions are now as close as 700 m to 1 km’ apart.
He said that the Gunnut was not previously fully under Armenian control, but had been unreachable by the local population and that despite gains, the ruins of Gunnut were still not fully under Azerbaijan’s control, as ‘Armenian positions are still closer than Azerbaijan’s’.
Shiriyev said that on the eve of Nikol Pashinyan’s appointment as Armenian prime minister, Azerbaijani authorities downgraded their military rhetoric and called for diplomatic negotiations. He said that Azerbaijani authorities became frustrated with Pashinyan’s call to make Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities a part of the Minsk peace negotiations as well as the new Armenian leadership’s lack of clarity about when they would be ready to hold meetings at least at a ministerial level.
Shiriyev said the peace process was in deadlock, making Azerbaijan frustrated by the ‘no war, no peace’ stalemate that ‘turns public support for the military solution to territorial disputes’. ‘Despite the domestic political changes in Armenia, the two sides haven’t returned to the negotiating table, which is urgently needed. The continuation of this fragile and extremely unstable situation could bring a return to hardline rhetoric for both sides, and therefore, active diplomatic engagement is a must’, Shiriyev said.
On 6 June President Aliyev expressed a hope that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would ‘soon find a solution through negotiations’, and that Nikol Pashinyan would not ‘repeat the mistakes’ of his predecessors. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said on 25 May that Pashinyan’s suggestion that Nagorno-Karabakh should join the Minsk negotiations as a party would ‘kill the peace process’.
‘Increasingly likely resumption of hostilities’
Richard Giragosian, Director of the Yerevan-based think-tank the Regional Studies Centre, told OC Media that the greater proximity between the sides suggested an ‘increased risk of repeated engagement and hostilities’, including in Nagorno-Karabakh.
‘For the Azerbaijani leadership, its April 2016 military offensive offered a convenient distraction from economic problems which have mounted in recent years due to a dependence on the energy sector as the country’s main driver of growth. At the same time, a second, related factor is that a repeat military victory (i.e. seizing additional territory, no matter how small in size) is simply too tempting to forego. Such temptation is especially important for the Azerbaijani government, whose sense of humiliation and loss over the Karabakh conflict not only has deep roots, but has burdened several successive leaders. Such a reversal of fortunes on the battlefield, therefore, not only endows an embattled authoritarian regime with a degree of legitimacy, but also empowers a political leadership that has little popular support’, Giragosian said.
According to Giragosian, ‘an increasingly likely resumption of hostilities stems from the absence of any real deterrence: nothing and no one is capable of pressuring or persuading Azerbaijan not to resort to an attempt to “resolve” the Karabakh conflict through the force of arms’.
Giragosian also noted that unlike in April 2016, ‘any Azerbaijani offensive would lack the element of surprise, a factor that was crucial to its initial breakthrough and subsequent territorial gains, as well as ‘defending Karabakh forces are now much better equipped and well-armed, in contrast to the military posture and disposition of its defensive units back in 2016’.
‘More urgent humanitarian issues’
Bakhtiyar Aslanov, an independent researcher on peace and conflict studies, told OC Media ‘the latest statements of the leaderships of both countries do not seem constructive, while there are several much more urgent humanitarian issues to tackle, including the issues of safe access of water resources[…] No single step has been taken to tackle such issues over the last decades’.
Aslanov cast doubt over Azerbaijan’s advancements as a ‘triumph of the Azerbaijani military’ and said such changes frequently happened but were often not covered in the media. ‘Such small-scale incidents continuously happen between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the probability of the flaring up of such incidents is not so high. At least both sides understand how costly war is, especially, those like the April war’, said Aslanov.