Azerbaijani soldiers patrol to respond to possible new attacks while tensions continue, after attacks carried out between July 12-16 by the Armenian army with heavy weapons in Tovuz, one of the regions where Armenians opened fire during the clashes, Azerbaijan on July 18, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Resul Rehimov

A long-simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan saw an unprecedented escalation in recent days, as Azeri troops attempted an incursion into Armenia proper rather than the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The move started with a failed attempt by Azerbaijani commandos on July 12 to seize a strategic hilltop in the northeastern Armenian province of Tavush, where Armenian troops were firmly stationed.

Cross-border skirmishes escalated for several days, but by July 16, after clashes involving artillery, drone attacks and tank fire, the situation on the ground deadlocked. Another attempt to retake the hill on Tuesday also failed, leaving the border area in a fragile state of tense calm.

For Azerbaijan, the latest round of fighting with rival Armenia is as much driven by domestic factors as it is determined by diplomatic frustration. But “riding the tiger” of conflict is inherently challenging in a region where Russia, Turkey, Iran and the West compete for influence, and may usher in a new period of unpredictability and instability.

The reaction to the outbreak of fighting from regional powers was both swift and surprising.

The Turkish response was an immediate endorsement of Azerbaijan’s version of events. Although this position can be seen as a natural stance, the sudden and swift backing of Azerbaijan stems more from Ankara’s bid to regain its past role as Azerbaijan’s primary military patron.

That latter role was lost long ago to Russia, which has been the largest arms provider to Azerbaijan for several years.

For its part, Moscow was most notable for its deafening silence, even risking the public perception of ignoring its own treaty obligation to come to Armenia’s defense, a basic NATO-style collective defense commitment under the terms of Armenian membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

While such a timid response is in part due to Moscow’s focus on improving relations with Baku, it is equally due to Russian disdain for the coming to power of a new democratic government in Armenia in the wake of the successful “Velvet Revolution” of 2018.

A third significant regional player of relevance, Iran, was quick to use an opportunity to exert its own diplomatic influence, offering to mediate.

Although never a viable alternative, the offer itself is a display of Iranian determination to “plant its flag” in what may become a more robust reassertion of presence and position in the South Caucasus.

People protest against Armenia’s cross-border attacks on Azerbaijan and its continued occupation of Upper Karabakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) region outside the Embassy of Armenia in the German capital Berlin on July 18, 2020. Photo: Abdulhamid Hosbas /Anadolu Agency

The European Union, although not seen as an especially powerful geopolitical actor, was also successful in filling the diplomatic vacuum by initiating a phone conversation between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides.

Brokered by the EU’s High Representative, Vice-President Josep Borrell, the conversation was significant as the first engagement ever with the freshly appointed Azerbaijani foreign minister with his Armenian counterpart.

It was also an achievement that an EU initiative beat Moscow to the punch in bringing together the two sides in dialogue.

In strictly military terms, the events of the past week were very unusual, if not illogical.

The opening assault targeted Armenian positions along Azerbaijan’s northwestern border with Armenia. This attack on Armenia proper was located about 300 kilometers from the usual battleground of Nagorno-Karabakh, a long-disputed territory seized by Armenian forces during the breakup of the Soviet Union and since governed by an unrecognized republic.

Unlike past fighting, the latest escalation marks an unusual attempt by Azerbaijani forces to dislodge and seize Armenian territory. Unlike the Karabakh conflict, such a direct attack against Armenia represents a new and expanded level of inter-state warfare.

Moreover, Armenian military positions in that border area are based on a static defensive posture reinforced by a combination of fortified terrain and topography, thereby only enhancing the inherent strategic advantage of such a well-entrenched defensive force to resist any assault.

It is precisely this illogical move, seemingly doomed from the start, that suggests a quite different context for this new cycle of violence.

This latest resumption of hostilities is driven by two important domestic factors, far removed from the battlefield. The first is rooted in a pronounced sense of frustration with diplomacy, as Azerbaijan sees no progress whatsoever from the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh.

As Baku refuses to negotiate directly with Karabakh, which is not recognized by any UN member-state, the peace talks with Yerevan as the sole interlocutor has made Armenia the target and the object of this diplomatic frustration.

As the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh is conducted through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), managed by the three co-chairing nations of the Minsk Group – France, Russia and the United States – the attack on Armenia can also be seen as a message to the mediators.

Even more telling, this frustration with diplomacy and mediation has triggered the dismissal of Azerbaijan’s long-serving foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, on July 16 for allegedly being too timid and weak in the negotiations.

Mammadyarov, however, has only carried out the orders and executed the policies of his government.

The firing of the foreign minister after more than 16 years of service suggests the demise of diplomacy. His replacement by Education Minister Jeihun Bayramov, who has no diplomatic experience whatsoever, further implies a shift to a new strategy relying more on the force of arms than on diplomatic dialogue.

But it is a second domestic driver of the fighting that is even more serious, and most problematic.

An internal power struggle that started earlier this year with a snap parliamentary election in Baku saw the elevation of a new, younger elite and the removal of an “old guard” of Soviet-era officials.

This transition featured the promotion of presidential assistant and former Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev as the new Head of Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the Presidential Administration and the elevation of several others to new positions on the staff of First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva at the beginning of the year.

Since then, there has been a profound power struggle within the senior ranks of the Azerbaijani government, which appears to have escalated in recent months. Well beyond the parameters of the recent border clashes, there is a much deeper jockeying for position among military and security factions in Baku.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in a file photo. Image: Facebook

For this reason, the several failed attempts to seize territory from Armenia were actually serving a very different objective: leveraging the projection of military power in order to gain political power and position.

In terms of the domestic situation in Azerbaijan, a gas-rich Black Sea littoral state ruled by an autocratic dynasty – relying on wartime politics – is always risky. The temptation to leverage popular calls for war to offset meager legitimacy is especially dangerous.

For the government of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, as seen in the country’s recent history, it can also be deadly, as every leader of modern Azerbaijan before the current president has either come to power or fallen from power because of military losses.

This time, the predictable surge of popular calls for war, a staple of the frozen conflict, escalated into a surprise storming of the Azerbaijani parliament by angered citizens urging a full deployment of the army.

The demonstration was unusual for Azerbaijan, which traditionally bans spontaneous rallies or protests. It was impressive in size and imposing, seeing several hundred demonstrators storm the parliament.

The incident heightened tension and appeared to raise fears within the ruling circle, leading President Aliyev to openly condemn the move against parliament as an “attempted coup d’etat” directed by the country’s political opposition.

Such a dubious yet determined reaction by the president affirmed the risk Baku had taken by stoking nationalist sentiment with a new stage of direct confrontation with Armenia.

Such an effort to ride the tiger of war marks the onset of a new and much more unpredictable period of conflict, and potentially dangerous instability within Azerbaijan itself.

The broader repercussions are worrisome, due to the undercurrent of a possible resurgence of Islamist activism or awakening in the event of such instability.

More troubling is the possibility for greater power intervention in energy-rich Azerbaijan, when and where such possible instability may invite a new arena for real competition between Russia and Turkey, eclipsing even those seen in Syria and Libya.