Aliyev, Sargsyan sharing a laugh in Geneva. Image courtesy of Artak Aleksanyan
Aliyev, Sargsyan sharing a laugh in Geneva. Image courtesy of Artak Aleksanyan

“We don’t have any concrete agreement, as far as resolution of the [Karabakh] issue, but we agreed to measures to further reduce  tensions so that we don’t have soldiers killed on the frontline, on both sides,” Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan said on October 16, shortly after meeting Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Geneva, Switzerland.

As far as conflict resolution “there are no easy solutions,” Sargsyan said. But “no solution can undermine Karabakh’s security and the only possible solution is for Karabakh to remain outside Azerbaijan. No Armenian leader would ever take another position on this.”

In their statement about the talks mediators from France, Russia and the United States said they proceeded in a “constructive atmosphere.”

“The Presidents agreed to take measures to intensify the negotiation process and to take additional steps to reduce tensions on the Line of Contact,” the statement said. A follow-up meeting of foreign ministers would be organized in near future.

Aliyev did not make any statements about the meeting and on October 17 his foreign affairs aide Novruz Mamedov accused Sargsyan of violating the agreement on the content of negotiations by making his own statement and “derailing talks.”

On October 19, Karabakh Defense Army reported one of its servicemen killed by hostile fire. A previous such incident occurred on October 10, in northeast Armenia.

A return to cease-fire?

From the start of the current year to date the level of tensions and associated casualties on the Line of Contact has been similar to what was observed throughout 2014, prior to further escalations that occurred in 2015-16. But still above quieter years through the most of 2000s.

According to confirmed reports, the total number of those killed in hostile fire and mine incidents since the start of 2017 had exceeded 50 people (both Armenian and Azerbaijani). By comparison the number was 19 for all of 2013, 62 for 2014, about 90 for 2015 and more than 220 in 2016. If the period from mid-1990s to early 2010s could be described as a low-intensity trench warfare, 2014-16 amounted to an insurgency-style war fighting, in which Azerbaijani forces continuously sought to ambush Armenian forces, weather through sniper fire, sudden artillery shelling, missile strike or direct small-scale attacks.

In the 18-month period since the April war, Azerbaijani forces launched four relatively small-scale rounds of escalation, but in each case quickly de-escalated after Armenian forces retaliated.

In February, two groups of Azerbaijani special forces attacked Armenian positions but withdrew, suffering losses. In May, Azerbaijani forces fired guided missiles at an Armenian air defense unit, resulting in retaliatory Armenian mortar attacks. In June, three Armenian servicemen were killed when their frontline post was hit by a high-powered grenade launcher; the Armenian side once again retaliated with mortar fire. And in July, for the first time since April war, Azerbaijani forces launched unguided missiles, 122-mm artillery and two armed drones at Armenian positions; the Armenian side reportedly responded with artillery fire. Since July, the Line of Contact has been relatively quiet, although sniper fire continued apace.

With no concrete mechanisms to prevent escalation, a political decision can translate into more deadly violence either gradually over weeks and months or as quickly as within hours of orders passed.