Armenia and Azerbaijan Clash Along Their International Border
Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of violating a fragile ceasefire agreement on their international border. Clashes have taken place far from the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territories occupied by Armenia in the northern Azerbaijani province of Tovuz, in the vicinity of Azerbaijan’s Ganja Gap – a strategic, 60-mile wide area. On July 12, the Armenian and Azerbaijani Defense Ministries each claimed the other side had initiated hostile artillery fire against military and civilian targets. As of July 14, four Armenian and seven Azerbaijani servicemen had been killed, including senior officers from Azerbaijan, Major General Polad Hasimov and Colonel Ilqar Mirzayev.
Low-intensity ethnic conflict had long been part of life in Azerbaijan’s territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast and kept it as part of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. Friction came to a head in 1988 when Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional government passed a resolution to join Armenia despite it legally being a part of Azerbaijan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, war broke out, and Armenia occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories, expelling Azerbaijanis living in the area. By the time of the Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994, there were about 700,000 Azerbaijani and 235,000 Armenian refugees and internally displaced persons.
After the 1994 ceasefire, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created the Minsk Group with three co-chairs: Russia, France, and the United States. The task of the Minsk Group to this day is to monitor and eventually resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Also, there have been four separate United Nations resolutions calling for a peaceful resolution. However, the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus makes realizing these resolutions difficult. Former U.S. Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group Ambassador Richard Hoagland notes, “Some suspect that Russia likes to see the conflict continue, if for no other reason than to keep Armenia and Azerbaijan from turning more toward the West.” Indeed, Russia has its own interests in this region other than imperial nostalgia. Azerbaijan is the key to Europe’s Eurasian energy resources because it hosts three major oil and natural gas pipelines that bypass both Russia and Iran: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the Baku-Supsa pipeline, and the South Caucasus pipeline. All three pipelines run right through the Ganja Gap.
It is in the U.S. national interest to ensure that this corridor does not fall into unfriendly hands. “Azerbaijan has been an important partner for the United States in security, energy matters, and in fighting terrorism, as well as in regional matters such as actively supporting U.S. objectives in Afghanistan,” notes former U.S. Ambassador to Baku Robert Cekuta. A Europe with diversified energy sources is less susceptible to the Kremlin’s coercive energy policies. An energy-secure Europe is a strong partner for the United States, including in this part of the world where Russian, Chinese, and Iranian ambitions are all in play. With this most recent escalation of Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions taking place in the Ganja Gap itself – outside of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied territories – the conflict has the potential to affect oil and natural-gas flows from the Caspian to Europe, NATO air routes to and from Afghanistan, and the only overland route between Europe and Asia that does not cross Russia or Iran. The United States continues to use Azerbaijani airspace for access to the Middle East and the Ganja Gap to transport fuel, clothing, and food to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
This current military conflict has led to international calls for calm. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Elmar Mammadyarov on July 13 to urge a ceasefire. The U.S. Department of State has condemned the violence, urging both sides to adhere to the existing ceasefire agreement, resume negotiations, and find a peaceful settlement. And the European Union has also called for a ceasefire, adding that the “serious ceasefire violation highlights the urgency of resuming the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring on the ground.”
But despite these calls for calm, further escalation remains a distinct possibility. On July 15, President Aliyev criticized negotiations with Armenia, stating that it is a “country at war” with Azerbaijan. This followed a public protest the night before in Baku with thousands calling for military action against Armenia. And it is not just in Azerbaijan that Mars looms ascendant. Armenian citizens have taken to social media to condemn Azerbaijan, consume videos of Armenian attacks on Azerbaijani military posts, and call for war.
Given the strategic location of the Ganja Gap and the danger of the current conflict spiraling out of control, it is in the U.S. national interest to work to calm tensions. The United States should press both sides to conduct substantive negotiations within the framework of the pre-existing Madrid Principles of the OSCE. But Russia, with military assets in Armenia and viewing Yerevan as an important and friendly client in the region, appears to have a vested interest in preventing a peaceful resolution. It should be made clear to all parties (not just Russia) that the United States will not tolerate attempts to sabotage the OSCE’s Minsk Group process. A war between Armenia and Azerbaijan could spiral out of control and close the Ganja Gap transit corridor that is so important to European energy security and American military logistics in Afghanistan. A new war would offer nothing but pain and death to Armenians and Azerbaijanis alike. The United States and its European partners must leverage their diplomatic resources to halt the fighting and push the sides towards a long-overdue peaceful settlement of their disputes. Too much is at stake not to do so.