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Analysis by Taline Papazian
2018 has been a contradictory year as far as Armenia’s security is concerned. On the one hand, the number of fatalities resulting from military operations has declined, but yet on the other hand there was an increase in Azerbaijani military deployments near the borders of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s moves on Nakhichevan border were particularly significant and helped expand the geography of threats Armenia faces.
In spite of frequently heard fears that domestic instability associated with the Velvet Revolution could result in the deterioration of the security situation, this did not happen and the trend for a decline in tensions seen in 2017 continued throughout 2018. Overall, the tension level on the Line of Contact and on the Armenian-Azerbaijani borders in 2017-18 had been lower than in the previous three years from 2014 to 2016. In 2018, occasional cease-fire violations continued, but they were less frequent than even in 2017 and unlike previous years involved light weapons only.
The number of servicemen killed as a result of direct actions from the adversary in 2018 were seven, four were killed before the Velvet Revolution in April-May and three since then. There were no combat fatalities in the months of March, May, July, August and October thru December. Overall combat casualties were lowest since 2013. For the first time in years, more Armenian servicemen died in non-hostile incidents, such as vehicle accidents or committed suicide, than were killed by hostile fire.
However, throughout the spring months, as protests were underway in Yerevan, Azerbaijani forces were deployed along the Line of Contact in Karabakh, as if poised for offensive. No offensive materialized, however, and after the political transition in Yerevan concluded smoothly, Azerbaijani forces were pulled back to their bases by June.
One significant change did occur in May, in northeastern Nakhichevan, with Azerbaijani forcing occupying the no-man’s land between their old and Armenian positions, including a height in vicinity of the village of Areni in Armenia’s Vayotsdzor province and near the main north-south highway. Initially, Armenian military said it would prevent Azerbaijani forces from digging in at their new positions, but the new political leadership apparently sought to avoid an escalation and by fall, satellite imagery showed that Azerbaijani forces had built new roads and appeared to have successfully dug in in the area.
While Armenia’s leadership downplayed the changes in Nakhichevan, the Azerbaijani regime called it a great victory. In fact, Armenian forces made similar advances into other segments of no-man’s land on Nakhichevan border in 2014 and 2015, and before that in mountainous areas of northern Karabakh as well. From purely territorial perspective, the area occupied by Azerbaijan in northeastern Nakhichevan was larger than the roughly 8 square kilometers of territory that Azerbaijani forces captured during the April 2016 war.
Overall, Azerbaijan is pursuing a strategy of occupying physical space wherever it can through small-range operations. The primary purpose seems to market them for the Azerbaijani society as territorial victories over Armenia. As in April 2016, the actual territorial acquisitions are exaggerated both numerically and in their strategic significance.
The peak of deadly incidents in 2018 was observed in September, when sniper fire escalated both in Artsakh and in Armenia’s northeastern Tavush region, with three Armenian servicemen killed in separate incidents. Following that uptick, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met during a CIS summit in Dushanbe and reached the latest agreement to reduce tensions. The truce has been maintained since then.
In October, the acting head of the U.S. Mission at OSCE, Gregory Macris noted “a decrease in violence along the Line of Contact and in conflict-affected areas over the past two months.”
While a fresh round of talks between Ilham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan expected in the months ahead could help keep Azerbaijan from a new round of escalations on the Line of Contact for the time being, the likely deadlock in talks makes future escalations almost inevitable. Considering Azerbaijan’s recent moves, marking Nakhichevan as a place of military operations for the next round, the risks in terms of geography and regional implications of the Karabakh conflict have not declined, but may have in fact increased.