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Russia's Lavrov Addresses Causes Behind Deadly Clashes On Armenia-Azerbaijan Border

By Mushvig Mehdiyev August 24, 2020

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Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia / The Moscow Times

More than a month has passed since the deadly clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in July; however, the issue is not going unnoticed in discussions about regional developments.

In an interview with the local Trud newspaper last week, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed the reasons behind the skirmishes between the armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan and discussed ways to cool off tensions.

Lavrov cited the failure to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as the primary reason for border fights in July and said that the geographical factor also served as a trigger for the resumption of war in South Caucasus.

"The decision from the Armenian side to revive the old border checkpoint located 15 kilometers from the Azerbaijani export pipelines sparked heightened anxiety of some, while an unjustified response from others launched a flywheel of confrontation with the most unpredictable consequences," Lavrov said in an interview published on August 21.

The minister went on to add that Russian authorities have been working hard to stabilize the situation, including phone calls with colleagues in Armenia and Azerbaijan and meetings with representatives of organizations uniting Russian citizens of Azerbaijani and Armenian nationals.

"The Russian Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh, [Igor] Popov, all this time was in direct contact with the leadership of the foreign affairs ministries of the two countries. As a result, through active Russian mediation, a ceasefire was reached, albeit not on the first attempt, on July 16," he said.

Clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border on July 12-16 was the second most flagrant violation of the 1994 ceasefire after the four-day war in April 2016. For the first time in 26 years, the two sides used field artillery, mortars and attack drones far from the contact line in the main conflict zone — the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

The border conflict erupted after Armenian troops opened heavy artillery fire on Azerbaijani positions stationed in the Tovuz region along the border with Armenia. By the end of the fighting on July 16, Azerbaijan lost 12 servicemen, including one general, and one civilian. Although Armenian authorities confirmed four deaths as a result of the clashes, the country's civil society has denied official numbers and claim the death toll to be more than 30.

Tovuz is located in a strategically important region of Azerbaijan that houses the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines, as well as the South Caucasus pipeline — the first segment of the international Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) mega gas route. The SGC is the one and only route to carry a total of 16 billion cubic meters of Caspian gas annually to Turkey and Europe.

At the height of border fights on July 13, the foreign ministry of Russia issued a statement expressing "serious concerns over the sharp aggravation of the situation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border." It added that the further escalation is unacceptable in the light of the security of the region.

On the same day, Lavrov held phone calls with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts calling for an immediate ceasefire and adherence to the obligations reached during mediation of OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office. Lavrov has also vowed that Russia will continue fulfilling its mission as a Minsk Group Co-Chair.  

Armenia's authorities said on July 13 that Yerevan has faith in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military bloc to address the tensions on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. The CSTO includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia. The charter of the organization requires joint action of member states for protecting state frontiers. Although an emergency meeting of CSTO was called upon Armenia's request, it was later postponed due to unexplained reasons.

Yevgeny Mikhaylov, an international conflict expert based in Russia, said CSTO countries believe that Armenia deliberately caused provocation on the border to drag all of Azerbaijan's friends in the military bloc into the conflict.

"Indeed, in the bloc, only Armenia is the enemy of Azerbaijan. All other countries have successful political and economic cooperation with it. Azerbaijan, for them, is a strategic partner and ally in the region," Mikhaylov said, according to Report.az. "It is impossible to imagine that Russia and other CSTO member countries will go to war against Azerbaijan at the whim of Armenia. The main thing [Nikol] Pashinyan hoped for was to drag the CSTO into the conflict. It did not work out."

The Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is over 30 years old, is one of the main threats to peace and stability in the South Caucasus. The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the rise of anti-Azerbaijan sentiments in Armenia in 1988 due to Yerevan's illegal claim to the internationally-recognized Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.

Political tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan morphed into a full-blown war in 1991 after Armenia launched an armed attack on Azerbaijan. The bloody war lasted until a ceasefire in 1994. Armenian forces killed 30,000 Azerbaijanis and displaced one million throughout the hostilities. Armenia forcibly occupied Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven districts around it.

The lands that comprise 20 percent of Azerbaijan's internationally-recognized territory remain under Armenia's occupation to date. Yerevan continues to defy four UN Security Council resolutions which call for the withdrawal of its forces from occupied lands and the return of internally-displaced Azerbaijanis to their native land.