BACKGROUND: The current military standoff between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the brief but bloody armed conflict between the two countries ending with the ceasefire agreement in 1994. The 1988-1994 war resulted in Armenia’s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave (previously an autonomous republic within Azerbaijan) and seven adjacent districts of Azerbaijan. The conflict led to over 30,000 casualties on both sides and over a million of internally displaced persons.
The status quo over Nagorno-Karabakh continued over the following two decades and the region still legally remains part of Azerbaijan. Despite international efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully, both sides have so far failed to achieve a mutually satisfactory settlement. Sporadic outbursts of violence with both sides accusing each other of violating the ceasefire have occurred frequently along the entire border of the occupied territories.
This summer, however, exchanges of fire between Azerbaijani troops and Nagorno-Karabakh defense forces increased significantly, leading to the death of over 20 people on both sides of the border. In fact, thus July and August saw the most significant violation of the cease-fire since its signing in 1994. During the last week of October, the Nagorno-Karabakh de facto authorities accused Azerbaijan of violating the ceasefire and opening fire on its forces 400 times. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense reported that over the last two months, Armenian separatists were violating the ceasefire on average 30 times per day. Yet the downing of a combat helicopter is the most high profile incident to occur so far on the line of confrontation.
According to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense, the Armenian Mi-24 combat helicopter belonging to the Armenian air force was brought down on noon November 12 while preparing to attack Azerbaijani army positions in the vicinity of Kangarli settlement in Agdam region. Azerbaijani authorities stated that the helicopter was part of a two-helicopter team that violated Azerbaijan’s airspace and after coming into combat course opened fire on Azerbaijani military positions near the border with Nagorno-Karabakh. The helicopter was shot down by the return fire, killing all three Armenian servicemen on board.
Nagorno-Karabakh officials confirmed the loss of a helicopter it claimed belonged to the Karabakh self-defense forces and not to Armeina, but claimed that the downed Mi-24 was taking part in training exercises and had no intentions to engage in combat. A later statement declined to confirm the death of crew members and claimed that the remains of the destroyed helicopter were located in the immediate proximity of Azerbaijani positions, preventing rescue teams from reaching the crash site. The downing of the helicopter has been described by representatives of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh as an “unprecedented provocation” for which the Azerbaijani leadership will face consequences. According to the spokesman for Nagorno-Karabakh’s defense forces, the destroyed helicopter was on a training mission and could not possibly have been attempting to attack Azerbaijani positions.
IMPLICATIONS: The incident was the first case of a helicopter being shot down in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since the 1994 ceasefire agreement. On October 27, just two weeks prior to this confrontation, a meeting organized by French President Francois Hollande took place between the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents in Paris. The meeting, similarly to a series of similar bilateral and multilateral talks, aimed to discuss the peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in accordance with international norms. The Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders agreed during the meeting to start working on the “major peace agreement” suggested by President Hollande. It was also agreed that the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents will cooperate with the International Committee of the Red Cross on exchanging lists of persons missing in the conflict area, and that the two president would continue high level talks. Although the Paris discussions did not lead to any significant breakthrough in peace process, as expected both in Baku and Yerevan, the meeting was described by both sides as essential to the continuation of peaceful dialogue.
The recent downing of an Armenian helicopter caused a wave of reactions from both sides. According to official Baku and independent Azerbaijani experts, the current attempt by the Armenian side to fly its helicopters over Azerbaijani positions is not the first of its kind; similar violations of Azerbaijan’s airspace occurred before and hence, the Armenian side had all reasons to expect that its helicopter could come under fire. Analysts in Baku believe that Armenian side may seek retaliation for the destruction of its helicopter, but term it unlikely that they will attempt to significantly escalate violence in the area. Although Baku began large scale military exercises a day after the incident, these were held on the Caspian coast rather than in the proximity to occupied territories.
By contrast, Armenian political analysts predicted that the incident will deal a major blow to the shaky ceasefire agreement currently in place. Officials in Yerevan described the incident as evidence of Azerbaijan’s incapability of presenting itself as a reliable partner in peace talks just weeks after the Paris meeting. Official Yerevan stated that it will be unwilling to participate in peaceful talks in the near future unless all responsible for the accident are held accountable. Armenian experts further posited that the downing of the helicopter could easily lead to a resumption of large scale hostilities. Nevertheless, neither Armenian, nor Azerbaijani analysts believe that either of the conflicting sides is interested in escalating the crisis further.
CONCLUSIONS The November 12 downing of an Armenian military helicopter in skies over Nagorno-Karabakh is unlikely to have been a purposeful provocation prepared by either side to escalate the conflict. Following the calls for calm and restraint, released by the U.S. and EU, both sides have so far avoided further confrontation. While the prospect of large-scale military activities along Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders are limited, the helicopter incident certainly put on hold the fragile and slow-paced rapprochement process previously taking place between Baku and Yerevan. Although in early December, Armenia’s Foreign Minister met with the Russian and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, no official contacts have taken place between Azerbaijan and Armenia since the helicopter incident. As both sides continued to exchange threats and Azerbaijan’s shelling continued to prevent Armenia from collecting the bodies of deceased helicopter crew members until late November, there was no further confrontation on the front line. The tensions, however, remain high and the escalation of violence remains a possibility.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Huseyn Aliyev is an independent researcher whose work focuses on democratic institution-building and armed conflicts in the former Soviet Union. He is the author of ‘Post-Communist Civil Society and the Soviet Legacy’ (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2015) and ‘The Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists’, co-authored with Emil Souleimanov (Palgrave Pivot, 2014).
(Image Attribution: President of the Republic of Armenia)