Rifles and body armor at Talish area military post. Image courtesy of Salpi Ghazarian / CivilNet
Rifles and body armor at Talish area military post. Image courtesy of Salpi Ghazarian / CivilNet

Analysis by Emil Sanamyan

The intense fighting launched by Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh in April 2016, the worst since the 1994 cease-fire agreement, made clear that there are few real safeguards against such escalations beyond those imposed by the parties to the conflict on themselves. While first Azerbaijan, and then Armenia agreed to return to the “truce” within days, this was due not to outside pressure, but to the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders’ desire to avoid even greater human and material losses.

Lessons of that April war are likely to dictate future steps by the parties, when it comes to selecting the timing and nature of future escalations, particularly for Azerbaijan, the side seemingly most unhappy with the Karabakh status quo, and whose leadership is going through a period of turbulence resulting from declining energy revenues. Lack of any visible international sanctions for Azerbaijan’s conduct in April, including documented atrocities, means that future decisions by both sides will flow from calculations of military and domestic political expedience.

Trending towards escalation

The military stand-off between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh and elsewhere along their border has in recent weeks been showing signs of relatively minor, but noticeable escalation. Beginning on February 8, after an eight-month break, Azerbaijani forces resumed artillery attacks at Armenian positions and Armenian forces have been reciprocating. There have been frequent exchanges of mortar and sniper fire. Since the start of 2017 and through February 24, at least 10 servicemen, from both sides, have been confirmed killed in hostilities

According to the Armenian military, an Azerbaijani 85mm battery has in recent weeks fired some 60 shells at Armenian positions. The artillery guns Azerbaijan is using, the Soviet-era D-44, are originally intended to be used against tanks, but can also punch through frontline shelters and observation points. On February 14, an Azerbaijani news agency APA published a video of Armenian artillery shelling of Azerbaijan’s frontline area, while also inadvertently capturing an Azerbaijani D-44 gun targeted by Armenian artillery.

Leaders on both sides are looking at various options for next steps. Both sides will likely continue to seek to avoid a full-scale war, while aiming to achieve both symbolic and practical outcomes of degrading the other side’s capabilities and resolve.

For the Azerbaijani leadership, the April war has on the balance been good politically, serving as useful distraction from intra-regime tensions and economic pressures. While territorial gains were modest, amounting to roughly 8 square kilometers (or 3 square miles), they were also significant. This was the most territory gained since 1994 and the most tangible outcome of Azerbaijan’s decades-long military buildup, estimated at a price of more than $20 billion. But the cost of the April war has not been insignificant, particularly in terms of casualties among the elite special forces, including commanding officers trained in Turkey and the United States. This is likely to nudge Azerbaijani command in favor of relying on surprise suicide drone or long-range artillery strikes.

For years, the Armenians have been the status quo side in the military stand-off, aiming primarily at limiting own casualties and protecting the defense perimeter. It is not clear if this posture will remain unchanged, considering the lessons of the April war and both the advantages and risks involved in striking first. At the same time, the Armenian leadership will soon be consumed by elections, scheduled for April 2, where the ruling party is facing some significant competition. Following its referendum on February 20, Nagorno Karabakh itself has effectively annulled the need to hold elections this year, with the president for the next three years to be chosen by parliament.

In addition to domestic political pressures, the year is chock-full of quarter-century commemorations from 1992, including the capture of Khojaly, Shushi and Lachin by Armenian forces, and Azerbaijan’s capture of Shaumyan and Mardakert (the latter retaken by Armenian forces in 1993). In the two decades since the 1994 cease-fire, there are plenty of precedents when these dates served as “excuses” for escalations and other forms of national rallying.