With global attention focused on an uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine amid a fragile cease-fire, another spike in fighting in a drawn-out conflict may be looming in a different corner of the former Soviet periphery. On Wednesday, Azerbaijani military forces shot down an Armenian Mi-24 combat helicopter near the contact line of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, killing three crewmembers. Just as in Ukraine, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is being shaped by the broader standoff between Russia and the West, but the reasoning behind the helicopter shooting remains unclear.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have blamed each other for the incident. Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry claimed that the attack helicopter violated the country's airspace and attempted to fire on Azerbaijani positions on its side of the border. An Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman disputed those claims, saying the helicopter was on Armenia's side of the border and was unarmed. Armenia called the incident an "unprecedented escalation" and warned that the consequences for Azerbaijan would be "grave."
Armenia and Azerbaijan are no strangers to cross-border skirmishes. Attacks have occurred regularly since the 1988-1994 war between the countries ended with Armenia's de facto control of Nagorno-Karabakh. Small-scale fighting along the line of contact between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh have escalated occasionally, as they did in late July and early August of this year, without ever evolving into a resumption of full-scale war.
The primary reason for this is the position of Russia, which has a 5,000-strong military presence in Armenia and serves as Yerevan's de facto security guarantor against Baku. Azerbaijan has been building up its military on the back of its energy-driven economy for the past decade and constantly talks about reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, but Baku knows it is not in a position to challenge Russia militarily. Instead, though provocations have continued along both sides of the line of contact, Russia's presence in and protection of Armenia has contained the conflict.
However, the downing of the helicopter represents an escalation of the conflict to a degree not seen since the early 1990s. Also, the Ukraine crisis has raised concerns that certain frozen conflicts in the former Soviet space, including Nagorno-Karabakh, could heat up. Azerbaijan is a strategic piece of the Eurasian puzzle given its location between Russia, Iran and Europe and its wealth of energy resources. The European pursuit of Azerbaijan as an alternative to Russian energy supplies and routing has made the country more important to Moscow. But Armenia is also key for Russia given its place in Moscow's political and military bloc opposing the West.
These competing factors have caused Moscow to become more diplomatically engaged on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue; Russia's leaders have held more bilateral and trilateral discussions over the issue than usual this year with Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. Russia does not actually want to see a resolution, but it does want to remain the chief external player in the Caucasus and can do so by playing off Armenia and Azerbaijan's deep-seated differences. The talks have not produced Azerbaijan's desired results, possibly helping explain the increase in the scope and tempo of skirmishes near Nagorno-Karabakh in the past few months. Regular military exercises between Armenia and Russia, and on the other side between Azerbaijan and military partners such as Turkey and Georgia, have also increased feelings of enmity and mistrust between the two sides.
Indeed, Wednesday's helicopter shooting occurred during the large-scale Unity 2014 military exercises between Armenia and the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Such joint drills have occurred regularly, and these particular exercises include more than 30,000 troops between the two sides. Whether Armenia sees the downing as a provocation that must be answered is unclear, though Azerbaijan's defense minister was quick to award a medal for distinguished military service to the army officer responsible for the shooting.
The anomalous and escalatory downing has raised more questions than answers. For now, we just have a downed helicopter, which Azerbaijan claims crossed into its airspace but which Armenia says was merely on an unarmed training mission. Previous incidents have resulted in flare-ups along the line of contact but subsequently died down. This incident could go beyond that, but it does not necessarily have to, and all previous indications suggest that it most likely will not.
What we know is that Azerbaijan has an interest in continuously challenging Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh for the purpose of reclaiming the territory and reassuring domestic constituencies that the territory is not lost permanently, while Armenia prefers to maintain the status quo. But we also know that Azerbaijan is not prepared to engage in full-scale military conflict over the region as long as Armenia has Moscow's de facto military backing. Azerbaijan has tried to maneuver around this issue to get more leverage from Russia, but so far this has not led to any shift in the conflict. Whether the current paradigm can change will depend not only on Armenia's reaction to the shooting, but Moscow's position as well.