Analysis by Emil Sanamyan

Area East of Movses village in Armenia’s Tavush province where July 12-13 fighting took place. Google Maps

On July 12 and 13, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces exchanged artillery fire and Azerbaijani side engaged a tank and strike drones, as they fought to wrest control of the Gharadash (or Garagaya) high ground located between the villages of Movses of Armenia’s Tavush province and Aghdam of Azerbaijan’s Tovuz district. It appears that Armenian forces installed a new position in the area – which according to Google Maps falls within Soviet Armenian borders – surprising the Azerbaijani side and giving Armenian forces tactical advantage on that stretch of the Line of Contact (LoC).

Azerbaijani forces launched attacks to capture the Armenian post, but were not successful. As of the end of July 13, the Azerbaijani side reported four dead and several wounded and the Armenian side – five wounded in what became the deadliest fighting in over three years. With Azerbaijan’s use of Israel-built combat drones and missiles, this was the most extensive fighting since April War of 2016. The latest moves are continuation of the efforts by both sides to improve their positions on the LoC, particularly in the mountainous areas of Tavush and Nakhichevan borders.

Thus, in May 2018, Azerbaijani forces moved into no-man’s land in northern Nakhichevan opposite Armenian villages of Vayots Dzor province. On several occasions in 2019, Azerbaijani Border Guards deployed opposite the northern-most portion of Tavush border moved their positions into no-man’s land, triggering shootouts that resulted in casualties, even though last year was the calmest since 1994 cease-fire agreement. The first six months of 2020 were also relatively calm, with both sides suffering a total of seven killed in action.

Fighting was more intense in earlier years culminating in the April War of 2016. In February 2017 six Azerbaijani soldiers were killed in failed attack across the LoC in Artsakh. And in June 2017, three Armenian soldiers were killed in a surprise attack on their post near Martuni. A sole drone strike on an Armenian position was attempted in July 2017.

In the area of fighting, Azerbaijani trenches – and even part of the Aghdam village of Tovuz district – extend into what is supposed to be the territory of Armenia, according to Google Maps.

Diplomatic backdrop

The Gharadash fighting comes just days after Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev called talks with Armenia “meaningless” and his defense ministry began to threaten fresh military operations. It appears that Armenia decided not to wait for Azerbaijan to strike and took the initiative instead by moving into high ground and then defending it from Azerbaijani attack.

In public comments, Nikol Pashinyan blamed the fighting on Azerbaijan’s policy of using military pressure against Armenia, he also criticized Turkey for expressing support for Azerbaijan’s actions.

The OSCE Minsk Group which warned against escalation on June 30, renewed its call for return to cease-fire on July 13. The United Nations and the United States have also issued statements urging an end to fighting. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov phoned his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. “We are calling on the conflicting sides to show restraint and strictly adhere to the ceasefire regime,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

UPDATE: Overnight and into the morning of July 14, Armenia and Azerbaijan exchanged artillery, drone and missile strikes, with both sides suffering further casualties. With calm returning in the evening hours, death toll stood at 16, including four Armenian military, 11 Azerbaijani and one Azerbaijani elderly civilian. Among the dead was second in command of Azerbaijan’s 3rd Army Corps, which is deployed along the border of Armenia between Agstafa and Mrav mountain range.

UPDATE2: Azerbaijan confirmed one more of its servicemen was killed on July 16, in what the Armenian side described as a fresh Azerbaijani attack on Armenian post. In subsequent days, one of the Armenian servicemen wounded on July 14 passed away in a hospital. That brought the overall confirmed death toll on both sides to 18.