YEREVAN—Four Armenian soldiers are dead after a series of military engagements with Azerbaijan along the international border near the Armenian town of Berd. The latest round of fighting, which has flared sporadically between the 12th and 14th of July, is the bloodiest in at least 18 months.
Defense Ministry representative Artsrun Hovhannisyan said the confrontation was triggered on Sunday afternoon after an apparent incursion by Azerbaijani troops in a UAZ utility truck near Armenian positions in the province of Tavush was turned away by warning shots. Azerbaijani units retaliated with a more concerted effort to overrun those positions with artillery support before being repelled, with at least four Azeri soldiers killed and several more wounded according to the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense. Defense Ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan reported the Armenian pillbox came under fire once more by 82mm and 120mm mortar shells later that evening.
Civilian infrastructure, as well as Tavush Textile which has been producing face coverings to be used during the pandemic, was also targeted as the villages of Paravakar, Chinari, Aygepar and Nerkin Karmiraghbyur came under heavy weapons fire originating from Azerbaijani positions. Broadcasting from the Crisis Information Center in Tavush’s capital of Ijevan, Hovhannisyan insisted that no civilians have been harmed. Two Armenian police officers were wounded in the fighting, but remain in stable condition.
In a late night Facebook post, Stepanyan described an ongoing artillery duel along the border, but specified that no Azeri civilian settlements would be hit. “Only engineering infrastructure and military equipment [sic] is being targeted,” her post read. However, Azerbaijani officials announced on Tuesday that at least one Azeri civilian, Aziz Azizov, was killed as a result of counter-battery fire from Armenian lines, condemning the “murder” as “a bloody crime.”
On the second day of fighting, the Defense Ministry confirmed that an Armenian counterattack successfully captured new positions in the heights above the border from Azeri troops, but declined to provide any more details as the operation is still ongoing. Armenia did confirm shooting down some nine Israeli-made Azerbaijani UAVs over the 48-hour period. At least four Armenian servicemen, Major Garush Hambardzumyan, Captain Sos Elbakyan, junior sergeants Smbat Gabrielyan and Grisha Matevosyan, were confirmed dead in that day’s fighting. They were all posthumously awarded Combat Service medals, 2nd Class by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Seven more Azeris died as well, for a total of 12; among them two high-ranking military officers: Colonel Ilgar Mirzoev and Major General Popad Hashimov. The two officers were apparently killed in a drone strike––the first such sortie by a domestically-produced Armenian UAV.
News of Hashimov’s death in particular sent shockwaves across Azerbaijani society. According to Baku-based Crisis Group analyst, Zaur Shiriyev, the Major General had cultivated a reputation as a professional career officer in an otherwise nepotism-riddled Azerbaijani military establishment. A public funeral for him on Tuesday evening quickly devolved into frenzied mass demonstrations in the Azerbaijani capital. At least 30-thousand people gathered at the National Assembly building demanding renewed war with Armenia, with some even breaking into the building. The protesters chanted slogans: “Karabakh is ours,” “End the quarantine and start the war,” “Commander-in-Chief, give us weapons,” “Karabakh or death,” “Najmaddin (Azeri Chief of Staff) resign,” “We will not leave until Karabakh is liberated,” Eurasianet reported.
PM Pashinyan condemned the attacks during a government session on Monday, accusing Azerbaijan of “provocative actions.” He also warned that in escalating the situation, “The political-military leadership of Azerbaijan will bear full responsibility for the unpredictable consequences of undermining regional stability.” His call was echoed by several US Congressmen as well as the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to offer support to Azerbaijan, official statements from the United States, the European Union and Russia called on “both sides” to deescalate the situation and suggested the return of OSCE monitors to the region. These monitoring missions had been suspended indefinitely in March due to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.
The wording coming from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)––which counts Armenia as a member––has raised eyebrows in Yerevan. Armenian officials repeatedly called on the CSTO to act upon its treaty obligations and condemn Azerbaijan’s incursions into Armenia’s international border. Indeed, while the CSTO is not obligated to intervene in Armenia’s defense in the event of a potential Azeri attack along the Line of Contact (LoC) in Artsakh, Tavush lies within Armenia’s internationally-recognized borders, and thus, within the CSTO’s sphere of responsibility. Meanwhile, the LoC in Artsakh has remained quiet, Artsakh military officials said.
While both Armenia and Azerbaijan were hit comparatively hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, government responses in the two countries—and popular reactions—have been markedly different. While Armenia was one of the first countries in the region to embark on a phased resumption of economic activity in early May, it continues to manage the spread of the pandemic while avoiding renewed lockdowns. The oil-dependent country of Azerbaijan, which is seeing comparable figures to Armenia, has struggled to swallow the double effect of the shutdowns and the collapse in the price of oil. Azerbaijan’s handling of the COVID-19 situation has also been hampered by a severe lack of public trust in government institutions and rare pushbacks against heavy-handed police tactics. Analysts had predicted that strategists in Baku would take advantage of the global crisis to probe Armenian military preparedness ever since they conducted large-scale military exercises in May.
In a show of force, the Armenian Air Force scrambled a squadron of state-of-the-art SU-30SM interceptors, newly purchased from Russia. The Armenian Prime Minister tweeted a video of the jets taking off from Erebuni Airbase with a message: “On a special mission to ensure the inviolability of #Armenia’s air borders.”
— Nikol Pashinyan (@NikolPashinyan) July 15, 2020
In contrast to her husband, Anna Hakobyan has called for peace. On July 13, the ambassador of the Women for Peace campaign wrote in English on Facebook, “I call upon Azerbaijani women and mothers to exhort the military-political leadership of their country to stop the hostilities, not to endanger the lives of the children of the Azerbaijani and Armenian people.”