Did coronavirus cause the most recent Azerbaijan-Armenia escalation?

“The situation internally in Armenia is so bad with coronavirus, its leaders want to deviate the attention of the masses,” said Leyla Abdullayeva.

By MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN  | JULY 18, 2020 16:20

COVID-19 may have been the catalyst behind the recent military escalation on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border in the Tovuz region, some analysts believe.

The short and deadly series of attacks served as a distraction from the novel virus, which has ravaged both countries’ economies and rocked their already precarious political situations.

“The situation internally in Armenia is so bad with coronavirus, its leaders want to deviate the attention of the masses,” said Leyla Abdullayeva, head of the Press Service Department of the Azerbaijan Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Similarly, Tevan Poghosyan, president of the International Center for Human Development, an Armenian think tank, told The Jerusalem Post that “Azerbaijan’s internal situation, its economic collapse and that it got hit hard by coronavirus” likely led to recent attacks.

He said that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev must have considered “if they would start a conflict, it would deflect from internal issues and make coronavirus look like a small drop in comparison to the conflict.”

According to the Azerbaijani narrative, on July 12, the Armenian army attempted to attack Azerbaijani positions with artillery fire in the direction of the northwestern Tovuz border district, withdrawing after suffering losses following retaliation from the Azerbaijani military.

The attack violated international law and the existing cease-fire agreement between the two countries, Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the United States, told the Post.

According to the Armenian narrative, Azerbaijani soldiers drove a military combat vehicle toward the border. Armenian soldiers issued warnings, after which the Azerbaijani soldiers abandoned the vehicle and retreated. Shortly after, the Azerbaijani troops launched an attack and attempted to capture the Armenian military position by using artillery fire and Armenia retaliated.

Anna Naghdalyan, the Armenia Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said the attack was an attempt by Azerbaijan to “impose its will” on the country and “show its military advantage over Armenia.”

The escalation has resulted in bloodshed on both sides, including the death of a 76-year-old Azeri civilian who was killed by mortar fire.

The latest clashes were considered unusual, even though the two former Soviet republics have been in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994, because they occurred in the Tovuz region, roughly 300 kilometers from contested Nagorno-Karabakh.

Moreover, the attacks occurred close to the region’s oil and gas pipelines, including the Southern Gas Corridor, which provides vital energy security for Europe, raising concerns among the international community.

Some analysts said that Armenia was attempting to expand the scope of the confrontation and to involve external actors such as its Collective Security Treatment Organization allies, which is why it chose the Tovuz region.

Armenia is considered to be occupying Nagorno-Karabakh since 1991, in violation of four UN Security Council resolutions and against US State Department policy, which does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country and “supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a cease-fire agreement in May 1994, but it has never been fully observed and from time to time fire erupts.

However, the theory that COVID-19 sparked the outburst is seen as equally likely.

So far, according to Worldometer’s coronavirus tracking system, Armenia has suffered 34,001 cases of corona and 620 deaths.

The country has been operating in a state of emergency since the peak of the first outbreak. The capacities of its hospitals are exhausted. The pandemic, like in most parts of the world, led to income loss, layoffs and lockdowns and many citizens face serious financial problems.

Critics have accused the Armenian government and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of handling the crisis ineffectively, which analysts believe could turn into a political crisis.

“The Pashinyan administration had to face several serious challenges at the same time,” Azerbaijani-Israeli analyst Arye Gut told the Post. “The economic crisis in the country because of COVID-19 and internal political intrigues intensified, as did pressure from the opposition and opponents of Pashinyan himself. In this case, the only way out of the impasse could be a small war with Azerbaijan to distract attention of its people from the serious socio-economic problems within the country caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The coronavirus has led Armenia to disaster, and the country is in a terrifying epidemic situation,” he concluded.

At the same time, according to Worldometer’s coronavirus tracking system, some 26,165 Azeris have been infected with coronavirus and 334 have died. The World Health Organization reported that Azerbaijan was among the top countries in Europe whose health care system was at risk of collapse from overburden due to the pandemic. The country’s authorities have expressed concern over its ability to handle the continual crisis, raising fears of a shortage of doctors.

Last month, during a visit to a hospital in the city of Ganja, it was reported that President Ilham Aliyev warned the public that “everyone must know that doctors also get infected, and doctors also die.”

He said “we have gotten all available doctors involved in this work. We do not have double this number of doctors. If this pandemic spreads even more – let’s say, if we have 300-400 infected people today and their number increases tomorrow, where shall we place them? Even if we do place them – hospitals are being built and we have empty beds – how can we increase the number of doctors?”

Vagif Dargahli, a spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, told the Post that the border has been quiet but tense since the recent outbreak and said that Azerbaijan is not preparing for war.

“We want to be at peace,” he claimed.

Nagdalyan expressed similar sentiments: “There is no alternative to the peaceful resolution to the conflict.”