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Apr 3, 2016 | 21:11 GMT

4 mins read

Nagorno-Karabakh Stalemate Flares Into Violence

(VAHRAM BAGHDASARYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Azerbaijani and Armenian forces clashed April 2 in Nagorno-Karabakh in one of the most violent incidents in the disputed region since the implementation of the 1994 Bishkek Protocol and its provisional cease-fire. Azerbaijan attempted to assuage the situation with its own unilateral cease-fire on April 3.

Skirmishes have become more frequent over the last year, part of Baku's military and diplomatic efforts to capture more territory. They hope to force concessions from Armenia and to break the dispute's status quo in Azerbaijan's favor.

Each side immediately accused the other of starting the new wave of violence. Armenia charged Azerbaijan with launching an unprovoked ground offensive, while Azerbaijan said that its personnel came under heavy artillery fire first, forcing it to act. Regardless of who started the engagement, what is clear is that Azerbaijan launched an offensive operation to seize territory previously occupied by Armenian forces. According to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense, its forces were able to overrun the forward Armenian defensive lines in several locations in the northeastern part of Nagorno-Karabakh. They also seized the strategically significant Lala-Tepe height, the village of Seysulan, and other elevated areas near the village of Talysh.

In the fighting, Azerbaijan reportedly lost at least one tank and a helicopter gunship, and at least 12 soldiers were killed. Armenia said 18 of its soldiers were killed and another 35 wounded. Azerbaijani forces are now establishing defensive positions in anticipation of a possible Armenian counterattack. Multiple video reports show mobilized Armenian armored columns heading to the front line. Despite the loss of forces on each side, the battle has so far been contained in a specific sector of Nagorno-Karabakh. The limited scope and tactical layout of forward positions indicate a similar military strategy to last year's skirmishes, part of a broader attempt to exert gradual military pressure on Armenia. While more intense, Azerbaijan's new strategy to actively carry out offensive operations to seize territory is still incremental, designed in part to prevent a larger, destabilizing war.

Azerbaijan's incremental strategy in Nagorno-Karabakh has the benefit of undermining Armenia's territorial holdings in a calculated fashion, while achieving at least some territorial gain. The strategy further maximizes Azerbaijan's growing military advantage, achieved by outspending Armenia in arms procurement over the last decade. This has been possible thanks to the country's intrinsic energy resources. Localized assaults such as the April 2 incident help avoid the trappings of large-scale maneuvers, unsuitable for Nagorno-Karabakh's mountainous terrain — massing forces easily tips off Armenia to impending operations. The most important advantage to the strategy is that it limits the possibility of conflict with Russia, which has a substantial military presence in Armenia. Small-scale operations that can be quickly halted are far less likely to invite Russia to intervene.

Still, the maneuvers are not without risk. Moscow could come to the aid of its Armenian allies regardless of Azerbaijan's efforts to keep Russia out of the conflict. After all, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was "studying the situation closely." And Russian officials are likely in contact with their Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts. Furthermore, Armenia could elect to upend the strategy itself, carrying out offensive operations along other sectors of the front. If Armenia chooses to respond in kind, the uncertainty that would emerge could easily lead to rapidly escalating fighting along the entire front line. This has the potential to extend beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh region, undermining Azerbaijan's efforts.

For these reasons, Azerbaijan cannot rely on the military alone in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Baku will have to continue pursuing a diplomatic solution that draws in Armenia's neighbors as well as Russia, which is working to expand its influence in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan can use its closer relationship with Moscow at a time of enhanced Russian influence in Armenia to extract a more advantageous solution to the unfavorable status quo. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Baku on April 7, the same day Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is also supposed to be in Armenia. Even before fighting began, Iranian, Turkish and Azerbaijani foreign ministers planned to meet April 5. 

The quick cease-fire announcement shows that Baku may be trying to assist Russia's earlier mediation efforts. Moscow does not want a full-scale war; if the Russians gets drawn in further, Turkey will also be compelled to get more involved as well, working to balance against Russia in the Caucasus. It is in Baku's favor for the regional powers to compete, so long as it can compel them to negotiate with Azerbaijan's interests in mind.

Baku understands that it cannot rely on its military alone to change the status quo, especially because of Russia's presence in Armenia. However, Azerbaijan can, along with diplomatic maneuvering, use its military as part of a wider strategy that forces Armenia to give concessions. But despite Baku's best intentions, the strategy could still trigger a wider conflict neither side is prepared for.

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