A series of incidents on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan has generated fears of renewed violence between the two countries. The escalating tensions have highlighted the fragility of last November’s Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, which put an end to six brutal weeks of war that killed an estimated 6,000 people.
Earlier in May, Armenia said that Azerbaijani forces had advanced 3.5 kilometres into its territory, crossing the Armenian border at Lake Sev, which is shared between the Armenian region of Syunik and the Lachin District of Azerbaijan. The acting Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, called the move “an act of subversive infiltration.” Azerbaijan confirmed the advance, but denied that it constituted an infiltration of Armenian territory. Azerbaijan claimed that the troops had simply relocated to an area that had been inaccessible during the winter but is nevertheless in Azerbaijani territory.
The two countries have had no formal state border since both declared their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, meaning that maps of border regions rely on Soviet-era demarcations, leaving ample room for dispute. Moscow has offered to mediate new demarcation talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Armenia has refused to consider such talks until the Azerbaijani forces are fully withdrawn from the area around Lake Sev.
Each country has also accused the other of opening fire in recent border shoot-outs. On May 26th, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said that Armenian troops had shot at Azerbaijani forces from positions across the border, and that their side did not return fire. The Armenian Defense Ministry claimed that an Armenian serviceman was killed when Azerbaijani troops opened fire on May 25th.
On May 27th, Azerbaijani forces captured six Armenian soldiers at the border of the Azerbaijani-held region of Kalbajar. Azerbaijan claimed that the group was attempting sabotage, planting landmines on supply roads used by the Azerbaijani military. Armenia claimed that the soldiers had been completing engineering work, and that they had not crossed the border before they were captured. The U.S. State Department has called for the soldiers’ release.
Last year, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bloody war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Nagorno-Karabakh has an ethnic Armenian majority, and it had been under Armenian control since Armenia’s victory in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, fought in the 1990s. With support from Turkey, Azerbaijan built up its military power for decades, and last September, another war broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This time Azerbaijan triumphed, and the Russian-brokered ceasefire of November 9th, 2020 left Azerbaijan with a significant portion of Armenia’s former territory, including parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Tensions in and around Nagorno-Karabakh and other disputed ethnic enclaves have remained high ever since. 2,000 Russian peacekeeping troops, deployed as a part of the ceasefire agreement, remain in the region.
In light of the recent incidents at the border, it is imperative that efforts are taken to avoid escalation moving forward. Emphasis must be placed on new demarcation talks to resolve the ongoing border crisis that threatens to fuel fresh outbreaks of violence.
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