Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s visit of to the occupied Azerbaijani territories, on March 25, 2017, and his recent statements pertaining to Armenian military drills there demonstrate Yerevan’s unwillingness to settle the conflict via peaceful negotiations. During the final phase of military exercises in the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), Sargsyan declared, “In one year [after April 2016], we fortified our border and armed our troops to the extent that today our frontline is simply unrecognizable. Today, our guys are following the movements of the enemy in the depth of its own territory. Today, super modern, devastating striking power aims at the entire territory of our belligerent neighbor, including its vital infrastructure. And today, the commander-in-chief of Armenia, without batting an eyelid, will give, if needed the order to strike with the Iskander [theater ballistic missile system]. In the neighboring country [i.e. Azerbaijan] they know it all too well” (President.am, March 25).
Armenia’s provocative warlike gestures and the bellicose rhetoric of its high-ranking officials contrast sharply with the Armenian government’s stated commitments, both under international law and within the ongoing political process toward the resolution of the conflict with Azerbaijan. According to Azerbaijan’s permanent mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Armenia’s recent military drills in occupied Karabakh as well as President Sargsyan’s aggressive statements during his illegal visit to this internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory are a clear manifestation of the continued illegal use of force by Armenia against Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan appealed to all OSCE members to act in unity to reverse such flagrant violations of the Helsinki Final Act. The Armenian president’s statement contradicts the Bishkek Protocol of 1994—the basis for the ceasefire in Karabakh. Whereas by entrenching and building up its military positions as well as transferring military equipment and hardware to the occupied territories, Armenia is taking advantage of the cessation of military operations to consolidate the status-quo of occupation, Baku argues (Mfa.gov.az, March 27).
Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense declared that the country will suppress any threat from Armenia immediately and decisively. The Armenian president’s statement on the possible use of Iskander operational-tactical missiles is a militarily provocative step, aimed at his domestic audience. Moreover, the aggressive tone of his speech was designed to strengthen the shaken authority of his “criminal gang” and increase his pre-election rating, the Azerbaijani defense ministry told APA on March 27, just days before the Armenian parliamentary election.
On the anniversary of the April 2016 victories of the Azerbaijani army over Armenian forces in Karabakh (known as the “four day war”), Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with a group of servicemen. He pointed out that the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan possess weapons capable of destroying any strategic and military facility. “Azerbaijan demonstrated merely a small percentage of its capabilities during the April  battles, and this once again shows that the April battles were a provocation by Armenia,” the president asserted. He also stressed that international organizations monitor everything in the occupied territories. “They know the capability of our long-range rockets and drones. We mostly did not use them,” Aliyev added (President.az, March 31).
Azerbaijan has repeatedly stated that it prefers to resolve the conflict through a negotiation process, based on the principles of international law and respecting the territorial integrity, sovereignty and internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. But as a result of the continued failure of the peace process, Baku could increasingly see military means as the only option to restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
After the April clashes, Baku signed additional contracts for the purchase of sophisticated weapons. “We ordered the most advanced, high-precision and destructive weapons, some of which have already been delivered to Azerbaijan. Unlike the leadership of Armenia, we do not show them off for propaganda purposes. At the right time, we will once again demonstrate what we have” President Aliyev stated, without elaborating further (President.az, March 31).
A year has passed since the “four day war” between Armenian and Azerbaijani military forces along the Line of Contact (LoC). But the situation along the LoC remains explosive. Immediately after the escalation, Armenia pushed ahead for the delivery of new weapons and sophisticated equipment from Russia, based on the $200 million military loan agreement from July 2015. Notably, the Armenian military received Russian-made Iskander ballistic missile systems, which were demonstrated during the Independence Day military parade in Yerevan on Sept. 21, 2016 (see EDM, September 26, 2016).
Although the level of violence during the “four day war” was the highest in perhaps decades, ceasefire violations have always been fairly commonplace along the LoC. Dozens of people die every year as a result of exchanges of fire (see EDM, April 14, 2016; May 5, 2016). The most recent deadly skirmish took place on February 25, 2017, at midnight, when the Armenian Armed Forces attempted to penetrate positions held by Azerbaijani troops. In particular, Armenian forces were trying to seize advantageous positions in the Khojavand-Fizuli direction of the front (see EDM, March 2).
The recent Armenian incursion attempts and the overall escalation of the situation at the front should be interpreted as an extension of Armenia’s political provocations in Karabakh. Specifically, Armenian authorities held an illegal “constitutional reform” referendum in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan on February 20, 2017 (Azernews.az, February 20). Together, these moves sought to strengthen the seriously weakened social support base of Armenia’s ruling regime ahead of the parliamentary elections. Moreover, the spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hikmat Hajiyev, argued that Yerevan’s political and military provocations deliberately escalated the situation and undermined efforts for a peaceful solution to the conflict. He further suggested that the timing of the Armenian actions was designed to divert the attention of the international community on the eve of the annual commemoration of the 1992 Khojaly Massacre, thus overlooking Armenia’s responsibility for this tragic event (Azertag.az, February 25).
The latest ceasefire violations along the LoC, as well as the arrest of travel-blogger Alexander Lapshin, a citizen of Russia, Israel and Ukraine, by Belarusian authorities and his extradition to Azerbaijan have brought new perspectives for pushing the conflict resolution process forward (see EDM, February 13, 15). However, without a significant diplomatic commitment, the risks of further serious hostilities in Karabakh remain extremely high.
By: Najiba Mustafayeva