Border clashes unlikely to escalate into full conflict
29 July 2020
Clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border have resulted in at least 18 deaths on both sides since mid-July.
Inflammatory rhetoric on both sides appears to be primarily aimed at distracting domestic audiences critical of each government’s handling of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis rather than at provoking a military escalation.
A full-fledged conflict is unlikely due to the presence of key strategic infrastructure in the region, as well as economic pressures in each country.
Without a long-term political accord between the two countries, low-level violence will likely continue in the coming months.
Clashes broke out between Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers on the northern part of the countries’ shared border on 12 July. It remains unclear what triggered the fighting, which follows decades of intermittent violence since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war between the two countries in 1994. Negotiations last year resulted in both countries declaring that they were “preparing their populations for peace”. After more than a year, little progress has been made to determine the status of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The clashes mark the most deadly and sustained outbreak of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the Four-Day War in 2016. The latest confrontations have employed a broader array of weaponry and tactics, including drone and cyberattacks, compared to previous fighting. Unlike the 2016 clashes that took place along Nagorno-Karabakh’s line of contact, the recent fighting has so far remained isolated to a smaller, uncontested area on the northern side of the border. Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have also so far confirmed far fewer casualties despite already having fought for a longer period than in 2016.
Appealing to the domestic audience
Both governments have exchanged inflammatory statements, but this has not led to an escalation of violence. Baku has vowed to attack a nuclear power plant near Yerevan, while Armenian authorities have said that they may respond by occupying more contested territory. However, this hostile rhetoric has so far not led to an intensification of clashes. Following the initial announcement of 16 deaths on 14 July, Armenia has only confirmed the deaths of two more soldiers in the following weeks.
This aggressive rhetoric is probably aimed at appealing to domestic audiences rather than reflective of an intent to wage all-out war. Despite a coronavirus-related ban on mass gatherings, several thousand people protested in the Azerbaijani capital and other major cities on 15 July chanting “death to Armenians”. The high-turnout and spontaneous nature of these protests is demonstrative of the popular support for assertive action against Armenia. Both the Azerbaijani and the Armenian governments have used nationalist sentiment to rally support and consolidate their power. The threats are therefore likely primarily aimed at distracting the public rather than signalling intent for a sustained conflict.
Avoiding total war
Violent conflict in the region would threaten infrastructure that is vital to both countries’ economies. The area hosts strategically important roads as well as major oil and gas pipelines that serve as a corridor from the Caspian Sea to global markets. Both governments’ economies rely heavily on the hydrocarbon trade. Around 75 percent of Yerevan’s energy needs comes from oil and gas imports, while hydrocarbons form 90 percent of Baku’s exports.
Baku and Yerevan are unlikely to escalate the fighting to all-out war, particularly as both countries are under severe economic pressure. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan predict a GDP contraction of about 3.5 percent this year, while Baku is facing a 19-year low in oil prices. Protracted conflict would risk exacerbating the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
Protracted and high-casualty conflict in densely populated civilian areas is unlikely to generate widespread popular support in the long-term. There are hundreds of civilian settlements on either side of the border. Military authorities have so far only confirmed one civilian fatality, but any widening of the conflict would increase the risk of civilian casualties at a time when both governments already face domestic pressures over their responses to COVID-19.
Foreign powers backing Yerevan and Baku are unlikely to engage in long-term military intervention. The Turkish president has said that Ankara will stand by Azerbaijan and has announced joint military exercises with Baku. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has ordered large-scale military exercises in southwestern Russia. However, both Ankara and Moscow heavily rely upon access to the South Caucasus energy market. Directly or indirectly supporting military escalation would risk damaging the region’s vital energy infrastructure.
Violence along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border is likely to continue. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan recorded regular ceasefire violations in the period following the Four-Day War in 2016 up until a few weeks ago. And the recent outbreak of violence 300 km to the north of Nagorno-Karabakh shows the volatility of the entire Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Isolated and low-casualty clashes will therefore probably continue in border areas, even outside of Nagorno-Karabakh. These will aim to influence political agendas and public opinion at a threshold that does not provoke disruptive international intervention. Foreign powers may successfully mediate a ceasefire in the short term, but a longer-term political resolution of the decades-old conflict appears unlikely.
Resolution of the wider disagreements between Armenia and Azerbaijan is unlikely for the foreseeable future. The outbreak of violence exemplifies the failure of political negotiations so far and has pushed back the peace process on Nagorno-Karabakh. While neither government is likely to escalate the conflict amid the COVID-19-related economic downturn, both governments have domestic incentives to not pursue peace either.