Special for the Armenian Weekly
2014 was the bloodiest year in the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict since the 1990’s. Here, Emil Sanamyan reviews the casualty data for the year and looks at the factors driving the escalation.
The grim data for 2014 includes 39 Azerbaijanis and 33 Armenians killed as a result of the conflict, that is, in direct combat, sniper attacks, mine incidents and, in the case of one Armenian civilian, murder in custody. If things continue as they began this year, 2015 may be as bad or worse. By comparison, the previous worst year on record, 2012, included 14 Armenian and 20 Azerbaijani dead.
Of the 39 Azerbaijanis killed last year, 22 were enlisted soldiers (18-19-year-olds), 9 contracted NCOs (nearly all members of Special Forces), 6 officers, and 2 civilians. Of the 33 Armenian names, 13 were enlisted (19-20-year olds), 6 contracted NCOs and privates, 8 officers, and 6 civilians.
Of the 33 Armenian deaths, 17 were from sniper fire, 9 died in direct combat engagements, 4 in mine explosions, and 3 died away from the border (2 murdered by Azerbaijani intruders into Karvachar and one in custody in Shamkhor). Of the 39 Azerbaijani deaths, 16 were killed in direct combat engagements, 14 by sniper fire, and 5 in mine explosions; the causes of death in 4 cases were not clarified.
Table: Total 2014 conflict fatalities by month (military and civilian)*
*These numbers do not include non-combat deaths, such as reported suicides, fratricides, auto accidents, etc., or unconfirmed reports of combat casualties. Following serious casualties sustained by the Azerbaijani Army in August, Aliyev introduced additional military censorship. With the crackdown on its media, there have been no independent reports on the Azerbaijani military from inside the country over the past four months, and there is likely to be under-reporting.
The current level of violence is worse than it was between 1988 and 1991. While credible data for the years immediately following the May 1994 ceasefire have not been published, the statistics available for the years since 2000 make 2014 the worst year on record since the ceasefire.
Drivers of escalation
So what happened in 2014? Three major factors could be identified as driving the escalation. The first two relate to the escalation’s initiator—Azerbaijan—and the third to Armenia and other international players.
On the structural level, Azerbaijan is seeking a military revanche against Armenia. The Aliyev regime has spent an estimated $9 billion on weapons purchases over the past decade. This includes $4 billion worth of weapons from Russia, $1.6 billion from Israel, $600 million from Turkey, $600 million from Belarus, and $400 million from Ukraine. But this arsenal is not yet fully in use and any large-scale military campaign can bring about unpredictable consequences and carries major risks for the Aliyev regime. So for now, both the military spending and low-level escalations on the Line of Contact serve to intimidate Armenians into diplomatic concessions in the Karabagh negotiations.
Personnel changes in the Azerbaijani military have also made a difference. In November 2013, the former commander of Azerbaijan’s internal security forces, Zakir Hassanov, replaced Safar Abiyev as the minister of defense. Abiyev had been in that role since 1995. While a trend towards escalation was evident even before Abiyev’s replacement, at the time of the Karabagh War the then-frequent changes in Azerbaijan’s military leadership inevitably resulted in escalations at the front. What is also significant is that unlike Abiyev, Hassanov is a member of Azerbaijan’s ruling clan that has its roots in Nakhichevan and Armenia. Key officials that oversee Hassanov in Ilham Aliyev’s office, Vahid Aliyev and Magerram Aliyev, are also members of this clan. All three have no combat experience and are eager to prove their worth.
Finally, there is Armenia and how its government reacts to Azerbaijani attacks. On the one hand, the Armenian military has an established record of responding to every single Azerbaijani attack if it causes Armenian casualties. In 2014, this approach contributed both to the higher casualty tally and to restraining Azerbaijan from conducting additional attacks. Because the Azerbaijani military continued to suffer heavier casualties, particularly during the worst escalation in early August, the Aliyev regime moved to ban any “bad news” related to its forces. In recent months, only limited information on Azerbaijani casualties was made public—and only after leaks in social media. While this reflects the authoritarian nature of Azerbaijan’s regime, it is also an indication of the Azerbaijani public’s sensitivity to its military’s losses. That factor was in large part responsible for Abiyev’s ouster.
On the other hand, the civilian portion of the Armenian government also has an established record—but one of inaction when it comes to any meaningful effort to counter Azerbaijan diplomatically, such as trying to oppose large-scale weapons purchases or making Azerbaijan’s aggressive behavior politically costly. Last week, the mediators from France, Russia, and U.S. finally issued a statement that singled out Azerbaijan for criticism over its lack of commitment towards a peaceful settlement. It is unclear whether there will be any meaningful follow-up to that statement. While formally allied with Armenia, Russia has directly contributed to Azerbaijan’s military build-up in recent years and is now being sanctioned by the two other co-chairs for its aggression in Ukraine. The United States and Europe have so far refused to punish the Aliyev regime for its domestic crackdowns. Any serious action by the three Minsk Group co-chairs to restrain Azerbaijan over its anti-Armenian attacks remains difficult to imagine.