A man shows a piece of shrapnel after attacks carried out by the Armenian army at Dondar Kuscu village near Tovuz, Azerbaijan. Photo by Aziz Karimov/Getty Images.

A man shows a piece of shrapnel after attacks carried out by the Armenian army at Dondar Kuscu village near Tovuz, Azerbaijan. Photo by Aziz Karimov/Getty Images.

Although the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is focused on the Line of Contact around Nagorny Karabakh, a new - and significant - outbreak of violence has happened some 300 kilometres away on high ground along the de jure Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

Although not a first, violence in this area has generally been contained by the proximity of major transport and infrastructure arteries, and of civilian populations on both sides of the border. Plus, unlike in Nagorny Karabakh, the extended deterrents conferred by Armenia’s membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and bilateral agreements with Russia are also – theoretically at least – in force.

Despite this, battlespaces opened rapidly, with bombardment of civilian homes, drone strikes and cyberattacks on government and other sites being widely reported by both sides. At the time of writing, combined reported casualties were already at least 16, the highest for a single incident since April 2016’s ‘four-day war’.

Most are known to be Azerbaijani combatants, including the highest-ranking Azerbaijani serviceman to be killed in action since the 1990s – the respected Major General Polad Hashimov. And, although rumoured to be removed soon anyway following a campaign of negative briefing, Azerbaijani foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov was publicly blamed in the immediate aftermath for ‘meaningless’ diplomacy and dismissed. He was replaced by education minister Jeyhun Bayramov.

Origins of the clashes

How the fighting began remains unclear. The escalation did not appear to result from a coordinated offensive operation of the kind that led to the four-day war, nor are there obvious strategic goals for either side in terms of the international border. There does appear to have been an element of surprise as an Azerbaijani vehicle unexpectedly encountered a new Armenian post, triggering deadly artillery exchanges.

Unclear boundaries in highland terrain may have played a role. Although referred to as the international border, the de jure boundary between Armenia and Azerbaijan - previously an inconsequential internal administrative boundary in the Soviet Union - is not clearly demarcated in many areas and does not coincide with lines of actual control.

Here, as in Nakhichevan - Azerbaijan’s exclave bordering Armenia and Iran - Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have been engaged in long-term, incremental competition for tactical advantage by claiming higher ground in ‘no man’s lands’. But in remote and cartographically ambiguous areas, the precise location of borders - and even place-names - are unclear, and rival forces can unexpectedly meet their adversaries.

Although clear strategic objectives appear absent, what might then have been a lesser incident escalated purposefully into a crisis – suggesting a political rationale.

A missed opportunity for a negotiations reset

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan began 2020 with unfinished consolidations of domestic power - whether bottom-up in the case of Armenia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’, or top-down in the case of Azerbaijan elite renewal. COVID-19 then added further challenges, with the government of Armenia facing significant domestic criticism for its handling of the pandemic, while numerous opposition activists in Azerbaijan were arrested, and the country’s economic vulnerability to external shocks was highlighted.

But throughout this, the frontlines did remain calm - as they generally have since the three-year period from 2014-2017 which witnessed regular skirmishes, use of heavy weaponry and four days of intensive combat in April 2016. In January 2019, the OSCE Minsk Group made the often-cited announcement that the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed on the necessity of ‘preparing their populations for peace’.

Although the quietest year on the frontline since the 1990s then followed, neither side invested seriously in a peace strategy. After a reasonable start and moves towards humanitarian cooperation, relations between President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan eventually visibly soured.

Several moves, such as the go-ahead for new infrastructure in the occupied territories and Pashinyan’s attendance at de facto leader Arayik Harutyunyan’s inauguration in Nagorny Karabakh, were received in Azerbaijan as evidence of Armenian insincerity towards the peace process.

More inflammatory rhetoric then resumed, leading the OSCE Minsk Group to call for calm at the end of June. As recently as July 7, President Aliyev expressed public criticism of the peace process and emphasised the validity of Azerbaijan’s right to use force.

Each new round of Armenian-Azerbaijani fighting serves as an audit of the various restraining factors preventing a larger war. A Russian-Euro-Atlantic-Iranian consensus on proactively containing any new Armenian-Azerbaijani war appears to still hold, although senior-level attention from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo trailed that of his counterparts.

Russia acted quickly to offer mediation, reflecting the reality that any large-scale Armenia-Azerbaijan war would test Russia’s extended deterrence guarantees to Armenia. As in April 2016, Turkey has been vigorous in its support of Azerbaijan, raising concerns in Armenia and drawing oblique warnings from Russia. On the other hand, the CSTO - much to Armenian chagrin - dithered, initially calling then postponing a meeting citing the need for more time to study the situation.

Unprecedented spontaneous demonstrations in Baku called for war with Armenia, broke into the Azerbaijani parliament and, in some cases, articulated anti-government slogans. In the absence of reliable polling, such protests cannot be taken as evidence of a popular consensus in favour of war.

But they do underline the importance of the conflict as the one issue in Azerbaijan where open protest is accepted as legitimate and cannot easily be dispersed. As losses over the past week are counted, the dismissal of the foreign minister may not be sufficient to quell public anger.

Prospects are now real of a return to the dynamics in 2014-15: recursive low-level violence aimed at influencing the diplomatic calendar and public opinion while remaining below the deterrence threshold for triggering active external involvement.