Since the start of this year, the fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the vicinity of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has reached its highest level of intensity since the signing of the 1994 cease-fire. Not only have exchanges of fire become more frequent; both sides are now reportedly using mortars and other heavy weaponry, not just automatic rifles. They are also increasingly targeting civilian settlements, according to the OSCE's Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a political solution to the conflict, a tactic that the Minsk Group co-chairs have branded "an unacceptable escalation."
What is more, the geographic focus of hostilities has shifted from the so-called Line of Contact that separates the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces entrenched to the east of the disputed enclave to the frontier between the two countries. Three Armenian civilians were killed last week by Azerbaijani artillery fire in Armenia's northeastern Tavush district that borders on Azerbaijan, and four more were injured. An Azerbaijani woman was injured on September 23 in the village of Kemerli in Gazakh district on the Azerbaijani side of the border, according to Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry representative Hikmet Gadjiyev.
The death toll this year is likely to exceed last year's figure of 72. There were 31 fatalities during January-April 2015 alone, according to Jasur Sumerinli of the Caspian Defense Studies Institute.
That increase was almost certainly due at least in part to the use of mortars and other heavy weaponry. Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna in late March, Armenian Ambassador Arman Kirakossian accused Azerbaijan of using 120-millimeter artillery for the first time since the 1994 cease-fire.
Two weeks later, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry similarly accused the Armenian side of using mortars.
There have of course been periodic upsurges in the fighting before. In early September, Lieutenant General Movses Hakobian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, said the current intensification in fighting, although particularly serious along the border, did not compare with that of July-August 2014.
But the transition to the use by both sides of heavier weaponry renders the status quo increasingly tenuous. Even in 2011-14, when cease-fire violations were confined to the use of sniper rifles and sporadic attempts by Azerbaijani commandos to penetrate behind Armenian lines, some analysts expressed apprehension that threat misperception and tactical overreaction could result in a small local exchange of fire spiraling out of control and triggering a full-scale "war by accident." The deployment of heavy weaponry compounds that danger. As Lawrence Sheets of the International Crisis group put it, "it will only take one miscalculation."
In a statement released in late January, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs implicitly blamed Baku for what it termed "the rise in violence that began last year." "We called on Azerbaijan to observe its commitments to a peaceful solution of the conflict," the statement continued.
Assuming that the perception that it was Baku that deliberately intensified military activity in January is correct, the question arises: Why did Azerbaijan take that calculated risk?
Western observers consider it highly improbable, despite Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's militant rhetoric and the massive increase in defense spending, that the Azerbaijani leadership is seriously contemplating a major offensive, for the simple reason they could not be sure of winning. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has quoted unnamed senior Azerbaijani officials as saying their country has no intention of attacking Armenia but seeks simply to engage that country in an arms race it cannot afford, as then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan had done with the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s.
Former Armenian Deputy Defense Minister Vahan Shirkhanian, for his part, told the Armenian daily Zhoghovurd in mid-August apropos of the most recent rise in tensions that "I don't think Azerbaijan will be so foolish as to start a war." He reasoned that if that had indeed been the intention, it would have been logical for the Azerbaijani side to seek to lull the enemy into a false sense of security and then launch a major attack when one was least expected. Shirkhanian suggested that Baku is hoping instead to clinch more concessions from the international mediators.
If that is indeed so, those hopes are almost certainly misplaced. The peace process has for all intents and purposes been deadlocked for the past four years, largely because of Azerbaijan's insistence on the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven Azerbaijani districts contiguous to Nagorno-Karabakh that they have occupied since 1992-93. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in December 2011, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov argued that "the Armenian military withdrawal must be comprehensive, and it needs to take place now."
When the OSCE Minsk Group reacted to last week's fatalities by urging Azerbaijan "to accept an OSCE mechanism to investigate cease-fire violations," which Armenia has already done, Mammadyarov countered by calling for "the creation of a mechanism and plan for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Azerbaijani territories they seized."
True, such a withdrawal is one of the so-called Basic Principles put forward by the Minsk Group for resolving the conflict. But the Minsk Group has consistently rejected Azerbaijan's efforts to peg progress toward a negotiated settlement to fulfillment of just one of those principles. In a joint statement issued at the G-8 summit in Enniskillen in 2013, the U.S., French, and Russian Minsk Group co-chairs affirmed that "we continue to firmly believe that the elements outlined in the statements of our countries over the last four years must be the foundation of any fair and lasting settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These elements should be seen as an integrated whole, as any attempt to select some elements over others would make it impossible to achieve a balanced solution."
More recently, U.S. co-chair Ambassador James Warlick told the Russian daily Vedomosti that "we always speak of a complex resolution -- you can't take just one aspect and affirm that this is the basis for a solution to the conflict. We must look at the peace process in its entirety."
Alternatively, the intensification of military activity over the past nine months may have been intended to enhance Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's image as a strong leader in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in November.