The recent bloody border skirmish between Azerbaijan and Armenia that early this week left eight soldiers -- five Azerbaijani and three Armenian -- dead, will not take the already “frozen” Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to its stage of armed warfare dating back to the early ‘90s, says Thomas de Waal, a prominent expert on Caucasus security affairs.
“I don’t see this [recent border skirmish] as the start of a return to [the Nagorno-Karabakh] war,” said de Waal, author of “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War,” one of the first English-language publications on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman. Tensions flared up along the Azerbaijani-Armenian border early this week.
According to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense, five of its soldiers were killed in clashes with Armenian troops on Tuesday. The ministry said in a statement that exchanges of gunfire were reported over the past two days at numerous points along Azerbaijan’s western border. Armenia also claimed that three of its soldiers died in the clashes on Monday and three more were wounded. Another Azerbaijani soldier died after a mine in the conflict zone between Armenia and Azerbaijan exploded.
De Waal believes that although Azerbaijan has more interest in starting a new conflict, its conservative phase of state-building and wealth accumulation will restrain it from any military action.
However, Elnur Soltanov, an expert from the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, dismissed the perception widely disseminated over the international media and community that Azerbaijan is the side that more often mentions the possibility of war. “The likelihood is that this is provoked by Armenia … when things go wrong in the line of contact, the automatic assumption implicates Azerbaijan as the initiator,” says Soltanov. “Therefore, Armenians could be using the occasion to make Americans feel that Azerbaijan is disregarding their recommendations on the peaceful resolution.”
De Waal considers the border clash is an effort from both sides to grab the international community’s attention, adding, “Unfortunately, either party can use the cease-fire line to ‘remind’ international actors of the dangers of the Karabakh conflict. I fear this may be what happened on this occasion.”
Just hours after Monday’s border clash, Clinton decried the “senseless deaths of young soldiers and innocent civilians” that were part of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “I am very concerned about the danger of escalating tensions and the senseless deaths of young soldiers and innocent civilians,” Clinton told reporters after a dinner with Armenia’s president and foreign minister. “The use of force will not resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” she said, urging both sides to refrain from violence. NATO also responded to the escalating tension along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, expressing its regret over the deadly clash.
However, Sabine Freizer, Europe program director at the International Crisis Group, talking to Sunday’s Zaman, opposed Thomas de Waal, describing the border escalation as serious and pointing out that it prompted Clinton to raise the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in all three countries of the South Caucasus that she visited during her recent tour.
“There has been a clear and worrying escalation in fighting since the start of the week between Armenia and Azerbaijan with a reported nine killed in various skirmishes,” Freizer said, adding, “There is a real threat that the conflict will spin out of control as Armenia and Azerbaijan get involved in a tit-for-tat exchange of fire. Once this occurs it will be very difficult for one side or the other to pull back from the brink or to win a quick war.”
The incident coincided with an official visit by Clinton to the region. In Yerevan commenting on the United States and the OSCE Minsk Group’s peace activities toward a solution for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Clinton said the US and the OSCE Minsk Group spare no effort to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, adding, “We call on all the conflicting parties to refrain from using force as the conflict has no military solution.” Clinton hoped that the US would be able to contribute to making progress on the territorial disputes in the region. “We will exert further efforts in this direction,” she said, adding that Azerbaijani-Armenian tensions could escalate into a broader conflict with terrible consequences.
According to de Waal, the situation is not too risky at the moment, adding, “The long-term tendency is very negative, and I think it is important to strengthen diplomacy into more proactive measures to prevent a new war in a few years’ time.”
However, according to Soltanov the sides could go to war only as a result of miscalculation: “No one should test the limits of Azerbaijani patience. There are not many countries in the world that have been subjected to the kind of humiliating and unbearable defeat that Azerbaijan suffered. Therefore, the unacceptability of the situation for Azerbaijan plus its increasing resources may indeed bring about the calculated choice of war unless Armenia starts withdrawing from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”
Nagorno-Karabakh -- an Armenian populated enclave within the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan -- became the main cause of a bloody war fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, leaving about 30,000 people dead and 1 million displaced. More than a decade of mediation led by Russia, France and the US under the OSCE Minsk Group has failed to produce a final peace deal, and Azerbaijan has said it may use force to try to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s defense spending is second only to Russia’s within the Commonwealth of Independent States. With high economic growth, Azerbaijan approved a $3.12 billion (6.2 percent of GDP) military budget in 2011, the largest military budget in the region.