Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan-Armenia: Counting Casualties

“We live in a constant state of alarm. We’re afraid a new war is going to start.”
By Arevik Sahakyan, Nurgul Novruz

As Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers continue to die along the front lines that separate them, observers are trying to make sense of what is happening. Should this level of violence be seen as “normal”, or is it a sign of worse to come?

The war over Nagorny Karabakh ended in 1994 in a truce but no peace agreement, and negotiations to end the dispute over the region’s future have come to nothing over the course of two decades. Karabakh and adjoining territories have been governed since then by an Armenian administration that claims independence, but has not been recognised.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are technically still in a state of war, and their fundamentally different views on Karabakh’s future have left little common ground for discussion.

Since 1994, the ceasefire has held overall, although it has been broken by frequent gunfire and occasional incursions both on the “Line of Contact” around Karabakh and along the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

In recent months, such clashes have become more frequent and fatalities more common, although things have calmed down since an alarming spike in violence in January.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry reported that five Armenian soldiers were killed in a border clash on April 21 in the Terter district, close to the “Line of Contact”. The defence ministry in Karabakh gave a different account of the incident, saying it was Azerbaijani troops who suffered casualties.

Sources in Armenia report that around 20 soldiers from the country’s armed forces have died since the start of 2015.

Casualty figures given by the opposing sides are often hard to reconcile. For example, the Karabakh defence ministry reported that an entire unit of 15 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed while on a raid in the Gulistan area on March 19. It said three Armenian soldiers were also killed in the clash and a fourth died from his injuries later.

Azerbaijan gives a lower figure for its military casualties.

“I can state officially that eight of our servicemen have died at the front this year,” Azerbaijan’s defence minister Zakir Hasanov told the APA news agency on April 2.

The Khazar defence studies institute in Baku gives a slightly higher figure of 11 army fatalities. Jasur Sumerinli, a researcher at the institute, told IWPR that since the official figures were often wrong, “we try to establish fatality numbers from individual press reports and from our personal contacts on the ground”.

ESCALATING VIOLENCE?

The question is whether the ongoing skirmishes are more of the same or something more serious.

On the ground, Azerbaijanis to whom IWPR spoke seemed worried.

“We live in a constant state of alarm. We’re afraid a new war is going to start,” said Himayat Guliyeva, 65, from the village of Bash Garvand in Aghdam district, east of Karabakh.

Gulieva said exchanges of gunfire had taken place on an almost daily basis for the last three months.

Mahammad Mammadov, who lives in Alibeyli, a village in Tovuz district close to the border with Armenia, said the armed forces on both side had been firing all night, every night since the beginning of March, although at least civilians were out of the immediate firing line.

“Most of the firing at villages took place at the end of last year,” he said. “Now they are only shooting at military posts. Judging from the noise and flames visible at night, they are using large-calibre weapons.”

Between April 5 and 10, Azerbaijan’s military carried out large-scale night-time manoeuvres close to the front lines. Defence ministry sources indicated it was a real show of force, with some 15,000 soldiers, 200-plus armoured vehicles, 20 aircraft and more deployed for the exercises.

The view from Yerevan is that the violence is continuing at a higher level than before.

On March 27, Defence Minister Seyran Ohanyan accused Azerbaijan of using heavy weapons – 120 millimetre mortars – in attacks for the first time since the 1994 ceasefire. 

Ohanyan  made the allegation at a meeting with Andrzej Kasprzyk, the OSCE chairperson’s envoy on the Karabakh conflict. The OSCE’s “Minsk Group”, co-chaired by the United States, Russia and France, has been the lead mediating group for the last 20 years.

Armenian defence ministry spokesman Artsrun Hovhanisyan believes that Azerbaijan is sustaining high casualties but that it refrains from making them public.

“Azerbaijan is waging a hybrid war whose main aim is to break its opponent.But thus far, the result of the diversionary tacticspursued to this end has been precisely zero, in that the Azerbaijanis have failed to capture a single position or to shift the line of the border,” he told IWPR.

Stepan Grigoryan, head of the Centre for Globalisation and Regional Cooperation in Yerevan, believes the OSCE Minsk Group needs to issue explicit statements that apportion blame where it is due.

“Until the mediators address more specific remarks to Azerbaijan, that country will continue to conduct offensive operations,” he told IWPR. 

There is certainly no meeting of minds on who is most responsible for firing the first shots in any given incident, or at a political level, for derailing the talks process.

Speaking on March 19, two weeks before his army went on manoeuvres, Azerbaijani president IlhamAliyev suggested that the Armenians were to blame for launching their own military exercises in Karabakh in December. (See Karabakh Peace Prospects Shot Down Together With Helicopter?)

Up until that point, he said, his meetings with Armenian president SerzhSargsyan had been going rather well.

“Both sides felt that the last meeting in Paris was a success. But not even a week had gone by when Armenia resorted to another act of provocation, starting large-scale military exercises… on occupied land,” President Aliyev said. (See Reset in Azerbaijan-Armenia Talks Process?)

Amid the talk of the dangers of full-scale war, Azerbaijani commentator Arastun Orujlu sounded a less alarmist note.

“These acts of sabotage, the night-time exercises, the helicopter that was shot down have all exacerbated the already difficult relationship between the sides, but it hasn’t led to major military action,” said Orujlu, who heads the East-West Centre in Baku. “All that is going on now points to a localised conflict [although] a war could take place if the Minsk Group wholly ignores the issue, or if Russia has an interest in such a war happening.”

Arevik Sahakyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia. Nurgul Novruz is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist.