Analysis by Emil Sanamyan
After more than eighteen months of cease-fire, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces are poised to return to the tactic of tit-for-tat attacks characteristic of the “war of attrition” period prior to the April 2016 war. This is caused by Azerbaijan’s unhappiness with the fact that the new Armenian government is opposed to any unilateral compromises demanded by Azerbaijan.
Initial signal of frustration came from its foreign minister Elmar Mamedyarov. In an interview with Kommersant published on May 27, Mamedyarov blamed the past Armenian governments for refusing to compromise in negotiations and noted that the Aliyev regime “decided to give some time to the new Armenian government to become familiar with the details of negotiations.” This “transition period is now over,” he said, and they now expect the Armenian side “to show political will” to withdraw from former Azerbaijani districts, but are worried that the new Armenian government is not ready to do that.
Mamedyarov also restated another Azerbaijani demand for the Armenian side to hand over two Azerbaijanis sentenced to prison for double murder in Karabakh in 2014, in exchange for Armenian civilian hostages held by Azerbaijan. Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan refused to support any such exchange; at the same time Nagorno Karabakh unilaterally released an Azerbaijani serviceman taken prisoner in 2017, though he refused to return to his home country.
Leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan last met at the end of March and foreign ministers followed up in mid-April, producing a statement on readiness to take mutual humanitarian steps, including media exchanges. It appears those steps have yet to be taken, with another ministerial meeting expected but yet to be agreed. (UPDATE: One June 14, plans were made public for a ministerial meeting in Washington on June 20. In a statement the Armenian ministry said that recent days’ cease-fire violations by Azerbaijan “have created unfavourable environment before the meeting,” suggesting that it will focus on ways to strengthen the cease-fire.)
First signs that the security situation was beginning to unravel were already apparent at the end of April, when several shooting incidents were reported. Things went back to quiet as Azerbaijan prepared to host the Europa League final on May 27. But on May 30, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry accused Armenian forces of shooting death of its army’s battalion commander. The Armenian side denied it was involved and subsequently reports surfaced that the officer was killed at a training ground, some distance from the Line of Contact.
Still, a prominent regime spokesman Aydin Mirzazade urged Azerbaijani forces to kill Armenian leaders, including Pashinyan (though Mirzazade subsequently walked back the statement), and Azerbaijani forces increased the tempo of sniper attacks. As a result, an Armenian soldier was reported killed on June 1 and, after investigating circumstances of the May 30 incident, Armenian forces retaliated and an Azerbaijani soldier was killed on June 9. On June 12, Karabakh Defense Army reported aggressive flights by Azerbaijani aircraft, both manned and unmanned, and on June 13 another soldier’s death due to sniper fire. Also on June 13, Azerbaijani defense ministry published a video of Armenian surface-to-air missile fire attempt to shoot down its reconnaissance drone hovering in an area about 15 kilometers from the Line of Contact, inside Armenian-controlled territory.
Complicating the matters are continuing political disagreements between Pashinyan and the leadership of Nagorno Karabakh. On May 28, Armenian media noted Bako Sahakyan’s absence from the First Republic commemorative events. On June 11, Pashinyan’s most vocal critic in Artsakh, retired general Vitaly Balasanyan was formally dismissed as Sahakyan’s national security adviser. On the same day, Sahakyan shifted former army commander Levon Mnatsakanyan – fired last December – to the politically sensitive post of chief of police. Meantime, Karabakh’s former prime minister Arayik Harutyunyan appears to have secured Pashinyan’s support for his bid for the presidency and pledged to stabilize Stepanakert-Yerevan relations.