Publication: Armed Conflict Survey 2017
09 May 2017
Armenia–Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh) The overall dynamics of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh remained largely unchanged in 2016. Negotiations on conflict resolution were deadlocked. In the first three months of the year, Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to regularly accuse each other of using heavy weaponry and violating the ceasefire along the Line of Contact. In a dramatic escalation, on 2 April fighting broke out in Aghdara, Tartar, Agdam, Khojavend and Fuzuli – territory controlled by the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army – before spreading to other areas (the sides blamed each other, but there was little verifiable information on who was responsible). Deteriorating security, armed clashes and exchanges of fire were still a constant feature of the conflict. However, three aspects of the April escalation, which became known as the Four-Day War, were particularly disturbing: the sides’ use of more artillery, tanks and aircraft than at any time since the 1994 ceasefire; shifts in patterns of territorial control; and the number of casualties. The US Department of State estimated that around 200 people were killed during this phase of the escalation. Other sources suggested there were more than 300 fatalities, although these figures could not be independently verified. The hostilities reportedly involved the use of Grad multiple-launch rocket systems. In addition, territory changed hands for the first time since 1994. Azerbaijan gained control of an estimated 800–2,000 hectares along the Line of Contact. Although these gains were not strategically important, they had symbolic significance. Azeri officials claimed a tactical victory – as the first tangible shift in more than two decades, this was a crucial change to emphasise to the Azerbaijani population, especially given that Azerbaijan’s national identity had theretofore been largely defined by defeat.
The escalation reflected both domestic and international politics. The fall in oil prices and the devaluation of Azerbaijan’s currency had deepened the country’s socio-economic problems and increased popular dissatisfaction with political elites. Baku may have therefore used the ‘Karabakh factor’ to justify extensive defence spending and to rally public opinion behind combating the ‘Armenian enemy’ as the most readily available unifying idea. The escalation of violence appeared to be an attempt to address internal difficulties by distracting attention away from social and economic hardship. Rising prices and discontent at growing unemployment had prompted protests in several locations across Azerbaijan in 2016. Nonetheless, these considerations did not explain the timing of the outbreak of violence. The fact that the flare-up coincided with a key visit of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to the United States suggested that the attention of international audiences was also important. The deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey appeared to have been a contributing rather than determining factor in the escalation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly reaffirmed his support for Azerbaijan, stating in early April that Nagorno-Karabakh would ‘inevitably return to Azerbaijan’. He may have intended to exert pressure on Russia by further destabilising an already tense situation.