More deaths among the Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers were reported on Friday, as the skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces grew.
The situation in Armenia destabilized significantly on January 12, when Valery Permyakov, the Russian serviceman from the Russian military base located in Gyumri, Armenia, massacred an Armenian family of six.
Even as the public discontent grew over the handling of the case by authorities – Armenian law enforcement which managed to detain the suspect on Armenian-Turkish border transferred him to the custody of Russian military – the death of the last surviving family member, a two-month-old infant in an intensive care unit a few days later, exacerbated the outcry of local residents and the need to address the Russo-Armenian military relationship.
Thousands of Armenian residents joined the public rallies in front of the Russian consulate in Gyumri and the 102nd Russian military base, where the suspect is held, demanding just trial of Permyakov under Armenian laws.
Proportional to the Gyumri events increased the reports from the frontline. The reports of alleged deaths on the line of contact between the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno Karabakh region appeared on daily basis. At least two Armenian soldiers were reported dead today. The Armenian Defense Ministry confirmed the deaths, blaming the Azeri side for an infiltration attempt into the territory of Republic of Armenia in its Tavush district. The Armenian officials stated the Azeri soldiers were rebuffed with heavy casualties.
The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense refuted the statements coming from Yerevan, accusing the Armenian side of launching the attack on Azerbaijani positions. The ministry officials said that the Armenian attack was repelled and Armenian troops retreated suffering heavy losses: 12 dead and 20 wounded.
Although there have been clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops on Armenia-Azerbaijani border away from the main conflict zone in Nagorno Karabakh region, the are not as frequent as the skirmishes along the line of contact where tens of thousands of troops are amassed on both sides of the frontline. One of the reasons the Azerbaijani side avoids standoffs on its border with Armenia is the fact of Armenia’s membership in Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) led by Moscow. Members of the organization had vowed to support each other militarily in case of an attack – something similar to the obligations of NATO members under Article 5 of its charter.
The ongoing skirmishes on Armenia-Azerbaijan border might as well be a deliberate attempt to remind the Armenian public of Russia’s importance in defending Armenia should the Armenian-Azerbaijani war resume. The skirmish is also effective in diverting the attention of Gyumri residents from the demands against the government to the main foe – Azerbaijan which allegedly started the attack.
Although it is possible that Azerbaijan launched the attack across the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, it is highly unlikely that Baku would spend resources to intervene at a time when Armenia is on the brink of a domestic crisis in Gyumri and public discontent over Russian-Armenian relations grows. Baku would, logically, allow the events in Armenia develop, thus destabilizing the Sargsyan government and its ties with Russia.
Russia remains Armenia’s chief ally in the region. Armenia receives Russian weapons at discounted prices in an exchange of hosting Russia’s military base on its soil. Many experts believe Russia is also a guarantor of Armenia’s security against Azerbaijan which had vowed to restore control over its Nagorno Karabakh region. Baku’s expenditures on defense soared to a whopping $5 billion in 2015, an amount surpassing the state budget of Armenia.
Russia is also seen as a major obstacle to the peace talks as it continues to meddle in affairs of South Caucasian states. During the press conference with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel underlined the role of Russia as a destabilizing player in the region, stating that Russia “plays a role” in exacerbating the Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict and that “Armenia and Russia stick to a common position on this issue”.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a brutal war over Azerbaijan’s Nagorno Karabakh region in 1990’s. Armenian troops were able to drive the Azeris out of Nagorno Karabakh and occupy seven more adjacent districts. The ceasefire ended the hostilities in May 1994. Hundreds of Azerbaijani IDPs were displaced. The peace talks under auspices of OSCE Minsk Group have so far produced no substantial results.