The shaky ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been severely tested this week by some of the worst violence for years. The clashes are alarming in both scale and location, and further fighting is very possible.
On 4 June three Armenian soldiers were killed and six wounded by Azerbaijani forces in a clash allegedly sparked by an attempted infiltration of Armenian-held territory. Azerbaijan, however, has claimed that the incident was a "provocation attempt" by Armenian forces. This was followed by news on 5 June that five Azeri soldiers were killed by what the Defence Ministry in Baku called Armenian "saboteurs".
This is one of the worst clashes in some time. Usually losses are confined to one side, and tend to be as a result of brief artillery duels, bursts of machinegun fire, or snipers. Whatever the truth of the 'incursions', the information available suggests that both sides attempted to seize positions held by the other at different points.
What is noteworthy is that the fighting took place a significant distance (about 30 miles) from the Line of Contact around Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts, where most clashes take place. This week's violence occurred in the northern sector of the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan: the Armenian soldiers reportedly died in Tavush, near the village of Chinari, whilst the Azeri soldiers were killed near Ashagy-Askipara, part of a tiny and almost entirely desolate exclave within Armenia.
These are about 25 miles apart, which indicates that the clashes are not linked by local geography (i.e. an Armenian incursion followed by a local Azerbaijani counterattack) but part of a broader pattern of probing attempts along the border. This is borne out by reported exchanges of fire from 31 May - 2 June in multiple locations across the northern sector. More gunfire has been reported along the border and the LoC on 5 June.
The implication is that, on one side or both, there was a degree of regional-level coordination by military commanders and a willingness to test the defences of the other side across a wide swathe of territory. This expansion of the battlefield marks a serious escalation.
I have argued elsewhere that a full-scale conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains very unlikely whilst both Baku and Yerevan are committed (even nominally) to the peace process, and whilst they retain sufficient political control over their armed forces to prevent things spiralling out of control. I believe that logic still holds. But the current fighting suggests one of three scenarios.
First is that regional commanders are more autonomous than often assumed, and more willing to take aggressive action. I would imagine that this is more the case for the Armenian military than the Azerbaijani military, given the former's track record of aggressive and independent small-unit tactics in the Karabakh war, and the fact that Azerbaijani's armed forces have been built up from scratch under tight political control. In either case, this creates ample opportunities for violence.
The second scenario is that the political will to prevent escalation is less than absolute. Again, this is more likely on the Armenian side right now. The May 6 election did not produce any major changes in the government - Defence Minister Seyran Ohanian was reappointed - but the temporary hiatus caused by the resignation and reappointment of the Cabinet may have created opportunities for the situation to spiral out of control.
The third scenario is that the fighting was deliberately timed to coincide with Hillary Clinton's regional tour. Exactly who would benefit is unclear: Clinton is unwilling to assign blame and, in Yerevan, has condemned the violence and insisted that all parties refrain from the use of force. But those of a conspiratorial bent on both sides could surely find reasons why the other would choose to stage a provocation.
So far, commanders and politicians on either side have not ordered a major escalation. There are no reports of artillery, rockets, or further ground incursions. But the past few days have shown just how fragile the ceasefire is, and how easily clashes can spread along the border. The fighting may not be over yet.