Russian and Armenian flags near Yeraskh with Azerbaijani-controlled Nakhichevan in the background (Photo: Raffi Elliott)

YERASKH, Armenia – Sporadic armed clashes have reportedly taken place throughout the week between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces both on Armenia’s eastern border with occupied Karvajar and along the Azerbaijani-controlled exclave of Nakhichevan. According to the Armenian Ministry of Defense, one Armenian serviceman died of his wounds following a firefight near the strategic border village of Yeraskh in southwestern Armenia on July 14, while the local mayor and several Azerbaijani soldiers were also wounded.

According to the Ministry of Defense of Armenia, the situation on the Armenia-Nakhichevan border remained strained throughout the week. The exchange of fire has mostly been limited to small arms though grenade launchers were also deployed. Armenian air defense units reportedly downing an Azerbaijani unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on July 24 in the vicinity of Yeraskh. That same day, Azerbaijani state media announced that an Azerbaijani soldier was fatally shot by an Armenian sniper across the country in Gegharkunik, where Armenian and Azeri forces have been engaged in a tense standoff since May. The Azerbaijani military vowed retaliation. Three Armenian soldiers were slightly injured in the ensuing firefight.

The town of Yeraskh remained quiet when this reporter visited on June 22, however. Villagers there confirmed that gunfire could be heard throughout the week, but none of it had been aimed at the village itself. One worker from the Yeraskh Wine Factory, a small wine manufacturer whose facilities literally lean onto one of the Armenian defense perimeter’s dirt barriers, insisted that the company continued its work undisturbed throughout the shootout.

“None of us missed our shipping quotas throughout the firing,” he proudly announced.

Segment of Armenian protective barrier in Yeraskh (photo: Raffi Elliott)

Other villagers expressed confusion at local news reports from Yerevan depicting their village as having either been overrun by Azerbaijani forces, or that residents had been kidnapped. “None of this is true,” declared Hayk, a local, “these reporters are looking for sensational stories, and this is hurting our town much more than the Azeris could ever dream of.”

Despite the town’s and adjoining highway’s proximity to the Nakhichevan frontier, no extraordinary security measures seem to have been implemented. Long-haul traffic flowed unimpeded while Armenian soldiers and Russians border guards sipped tea in the village’s café. According to the military, the front line has remained unchanged throughout the incident.

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Located at the crossroads of Armenia, Nakhichevan, Iran and Turkey, the hamlet of Yeraskh has gained a new level of strategic importance in the region. The town remains an important stopping point on Armenia’s North-South highway, part of which lies exposed to Azerbaijani fire. Once a hub for regional rail and freight transport, the glory days of the Soviet rails service may seem long gone for the villagers, with its now-abandoned rail yard repurposed as a checkpoint for Russian border guards facing the Turkish border. But if one clause in last November’s Russian-brokered ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Russia gets realized, the town’s role as a rail hub may very well be revived.

That specific clause in the agreement – Article 9, which calls for the reopening of all border and transport links between the two countries – has been interpreted quite differently in Yerevan and Baku. Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly insisted that it gives them a right to a sovereign “Zangezur corridor” connecting the Nakhichevan exclave to the rest of the country along the Iranian border, while Armenia insists that all it does is allow for freight traffic to travel between the two countries, much like US trucking between Alaska and the Lower 48 going through Canada.

Armenia, along with Russia has been keen to see the reconnecting of Soviet-era rail lines which would give Armenian freight more options in the form of routes to Russia as well as Iran. Armenia has repeatedly explored the possibility of building a new rail line to Tehran – and from there, linking to ports on the Persian Gulf – directly through Syunik, but the mountainous terrain has rendered the prospects of such a project prohibitively expensive. Still these new possibilities hinge on an anticipated peace deal between the two countries.

However, analysts suggest that this recent series of incidents form part of an attempt by Baku to keep the pressure on Yerevan in an effort to solve the conflict in Azerbaijan’s favor while Armenia is still recovering from the war. “The logic seems to be ‘two can play at that game’ and aims at establishing parity between Karabakh and Zangezur as contested spaces and a quid pro quo dynamic: if Armenia ‘renounces’ Karabakh, Azerbaijan will ‘renounce’ Zangezur [Syunik],” writes academic and Caucasus specialist Laurence Broers.

According to Broers, Baku’s attempted “coercive bargaining” serves to maximize pressure on Armenia, remind Russia of its obligations, keep Azerbaijan mobilized around the axis of the conflict and keep the focus off discourses of self-determination. Still, so far, Armenia has refused to be intimidated by Azerbaijan’s repeated provocations. On Tuesday, July 27, the Armenian Foreign Ministry released a statement accusing Baku of stalling the peace process through its aggressive actions. “The complete implementation of the process of repatriation of prisoners of war, hostages and other detainees held in Azerbaijan may create a constructive environment for the implementation of the November 9 Statement.”

This latest series of military engagements – the most serious violation of the strenuous ceasefire since the end of the Second Karabakh War last November – coincided with the resignation of Armenia’s interim Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunyan. However, this anticipated move appears to have been planned as part of an upcoming cabinet reshuffle as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s new government is expected to officially take office in early August. The appointment of another general, Pashinyan’s former security adviser, Arshak Karapetyan, to the position of Deputy Defense Minister a week earlier fueled speculation that he may be pegged as Harutiunyan’s replacement.

Karapetyan, a career Army Intelligence officer had been fired by former President Serzh Sargsyan in the wake of the short 2016 April War, for allegedly failing to predict the Azerbaijani attack in a move that was seen by many at the time as an attempt to scapegoat him. Karapetyan is also one of the few army officers not to have joined prominent generals in calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation back in February. However, analysts point out that while Karapetyan remains nebulous – notorious for always refusing media interviews – he does have close relations with the Russian intelligence community and security apparatus at a critical time when Armenia rebuilds its armed forces.

Another major shakeup came in the form of the appointment of Armen Grigoryan, previously serving as Chief of the Security Council, to the post of Deputy Foreign Minister – a move which many see as a formality before an eventual promotion to top office at the ministry. The post of foreign minister has remained vacant since its incumbent, Ara Ayvazyan, controversially resigned a mere two weeks before the election, along with most of his deputy ministers and spokeswoman.

UPDATE: Editor’s note (07/28/2021)

Since this article went to press, the Azerbaijani army launched a limited offensive in eastern Armenia near the Gegharkunik border town of Sotk. The Armenian Ministry of Defence reports that 3 Armenian servicemen were killed in action while a further two suffered non-fatal injuries. According to the military, Azerbaijani intruders have since been pushed back to their starting positions and the front now remains “stable and under control.” An agreement on a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia was then brokered by Russian peacekeeping forces, according to the Armenian Ministry of Defense.

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