Nagorno-Karabakh: Border Tensions Escalate Amid Peace Talks

For the latter half of January, the volatile border between Armenian and Azerbaijan has begun to heat up as both countries have entered a tit-for-tat mentality. Each side blames each other for incursions into the other’s territory, which the other denies. In the most recent turn of events, Baku accuses Armenian spies of attempted espionage and snipers of killing an Azerbaijani soldier. Armenia has levied similar claims of attempted Azerbaijani covert cross-border operations.

Cross border ‘incidents’ are not unusual. Both sides consider the other territory occupied, and any vulnerable target on the other side of the border is generally considered fair game, including civilian non-combatants. However, when taken within context of recent political developments, these armed confrontations may take on a deeper meaning.

In order to properly understand the context, one must also remember the ongoing diplomatic negotiations taking place between the two governments. Political pundits have argued that the newest round of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which began in November 2013, mark a significant step forward toward the development of a peaceful settlement over Nagorno-Karabakh. However, while the baseline for an final agreement has been proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group in 2006, in practice, neither the Armenians nor Azerbaijanis are happy with the “Basic Principles.” As a result of political jockeying on both sides, the underlying baseline has been revised and continues to remain in flux.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (left) with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (right) [RFERL]

The particulars of these basic principles matter. In fact, the way that these foundational principles are finally transcribed will likely play a determining role in the final resolution of a number of contentious issues, including those of Azerbaijani territorial integrity, the status of refugees, and the degree of regional self-determination for Nagorno-Karabakh.

While external considerations of justice may have some effect on the outcome of these negotiations over principles, to a large extent, the expectation of relative power capabilities will play a major role in determining the outcome. As the ongoing violence demonstrates, neither side shies from using force to further their own ends. Therefore, within this context, the cross-border violence does not only serve the usual function of challenging an entrenched enemy, but also operates as a means to enhance bargaining leverage. This is especially true for the Azerbaijanis, who have clear advantage in sheer military capabilities. However a, Russian deterrent has traditionally kept Azerbaijan to mild border skirmishes.

Therefore, if Azerbaijan is indeed escalating their military activity along the border, signaling a willingness to engage in greater conflict despite the threat of Russian intervention, this spells bad news for the Armenian diplomatic team. Thus, to offset any added pressure for concessions from Azerbaijan’s credible power projection, Armenia must convincingly signal an equal willingness to fight the Azerbaijani’s even with the risk of standing alone without Russian aid.

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