Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Articles on Armenia/Azerbaijan escalation in 2014: Helicopter downing, Three Summits and the Micro-War

Armenian helicopter shot down in Karabakh, 3 crew presumed dead
by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Wednesday November 12, 2014
The Armenian Reporter

WASHINGTON - A Mi-24 combat helicopter of the NKR Defense Army was brought down by Azerbaijani forces near the Line of Contact in Agdam district, Armenian and Azerbaijani officials reported November 12. The incident occurred at 13:45 local time, as a pair of combat helicopter flew near the LoC as part of the annual large-scale military exercises in the area that began on November 6.

The Armenian defense ministry identified the crew as Maj. Sergey Sahakyan, Sr. Lt. Sarkis Nazaryan and Lt. Azat Sahakyan. The helicopter reportedly crashed in the vicinity of Azerbaijani military positions and as Armenian forces attempted to approach the crash site, they came under fire. The helicopter is reported to have fully burned out.

The Azerbaijani defense ministry confirmed the shoot down and an Azerbaijani serviceman responsible - presumably firing a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile - was awarded a medal within hours of the incident. Azerbaijani media reported that a second Armenian Mi-24 evaded fire.

Armenian defense spokesman Artrsun Hovannisyan promised "painful consequences" for Azerbaijan, but no immediate retaliation was reported. Hovannisyan claimed the helicopter was unarmed and posed no danger to Azerbaijani forces.

In recent years, aircraft from both sides have regularly flown near the LoC during military exercises. Azerbaijan was last reported to have sent its helicopters and aircraft to near the LoC last August after its forces sustained significant casualties in a series of raids and skirmishes along the LoC.

While there have been no reports of Armenian ground forces shooting at Azerbaijani aircraft, on May 15, 2013, a military transport helicopter with Armenia's defense minister Seyran Ohanyan on board came under Azerbaijani small arms fire as it flew to a border position near Noyemberian in Armenia's northeast; the helicopter was not damaged at the time.

2014 has been deadliest for Armenian forces since the 1994 cease-fire, with 27 personnel killed in combat incidents. In the same period, Azerbaijan has confirmed at least 34 of its personnel killed.

UPDATE: Pilots' bodies stayed at the crash site in a neutral zone between Armenian and Azerbaijani positions for ten days because Azerbaijan kept the crash site under fire, refusing OSCE monitors to approach it. The remains were recovered by Armenian forces on the night of November 21-22 in a special operation. See report in Armenian https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3MydTMDxKs

This article was originally published in the Armenian Reporter on September 4, 2014

U.S. brings Armenia, Azerbaijan leaders together at NATO summit
by Emil Sanamyan
The Minsk Group troika circa 2014

WASHINGTON – Amid a deteriorating security situation in Ukraine and the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry organized a trilateral meeting with Ilham Aliyev and Serge Sargsyan, as the two attended the NATO Summit in Cardiff, Wales on September 4, the Armenian president’s office reported.

In what was the first such meeting since former Secretary of State Colin Powell mediated between then presidents Heydar Aliyev and Robert Kocharian, Kerry emphasized that the Karabakh conflict could only have a peaceful resolution and urged the sides to find ways to reduce tensions.

In late July – early August, at least seven Armenian and seventeen Azerbaijani servicemen were killed in direct combat, raids or sniper attacks in Karabakh. Tensions reduced ahead of the trilateral meeting with the Russian president Vladimir Putin on August 9 in Sochi. No new fatal incidents have been reported on the Armenian-Azerbaijani line of contact in the four weeks since.

Current tensions between Russia and the West, primarily over Russian military operations in Ukraine escalating since February, are at their worst since the 1980s. In such an environment, the on-again, off-again negotiations over Karabakh might effectively return to the two-track approach that existed before 1997, when Russia, on the one hand, and U.S. and European states pursued separate, although occasionally overlapping, mediation missions.

Unconfirmed media reports suggested that an Armenian-Azerbaijani summit may soon be organized by the French president Francois Hollande. (Update: the meeting took place on October 27 in Paris.)

NATO and Karabakh

In his remarks earlier in the day, the Armenian president called on NATO to endorse the neutral language with regard to the Karabakh peace process, developed by the Minsk Group co-chairs – France,  Russia and the United States , and resist lobbying from one of its members – presumably Turkey – for language that leans more in favor of Azerbaijan.

The latter approach, Sargsyan said, is tantamount to a “silent approval of xenophobia, militaristic rhetoric and all future provocations [on the Line of Contact], resulting in the loss of life, which Azerbaijan is provoking with such ease and no regard for the lives of its own soldiers.”

Sargsyan declined to go to the previous NATO summits held in Chicago in 2012 and Lisbon in 2010, citing its statements that emphasized “territorial integrity” in post-Soviet conflict resolution.  But the non-attendance was also seen as Armenia’s deference to Russia.

Tevan Poghosyan, a parliament member for the opposition Heritage party who has long worked to promote Armenia-NATO ties, approved of the president’s presence at the latest summit.

“Armenia must first of all be guided by its own interests, rather than be looking out for the reactions of others,” Poghosyan told the RFE/RL Armenian Service and pointed to the growing Armenian-NATO cooperation over the last decade.

Last month, Armenia’s first deputy defense minister David Tonoyan similarly emphasized continued military cooperation with the United States, while on a visit to Washington.

This article was originally published in the Armenian Reporter on August 1, 2014 and updated on August 2

Karabakh death toll mounts in tit-for-tat attacks

Published: Friday August 01, 2014

20-year-old Azat Asoyan was close to concluding his 2-year service when he was killed by hostile fire on July 31; Asoyan is one of 18 Armenian servicemen killed in combat incidents so far this year. Photo via Azat Asoyan facebook page
WASHINGTON - Armenian and Azerbaijani forces are sustaining their worst combat fatalities in over a decade, according to officially confirmed death tolls by both sides. From the start of the year to August 1, Armenian forces have confirmed 18 fatalities, with Azerbaijan confirming 25, in various combat incidents on the Line of Contact, including sniper shootings, mine explosions and raids. 
By comparison, in all of 2013 the Armenian side suffered seven fatalities in combat incidents and Azerbaijan reported twelve. In 2012 these stood at 14 and 19, respectively.
Most recently on August 1, Azerbaijan reported the death of nine of its military personnel, after denying any casualties just hours before. The last time, the Azerbaijani is known to have suffered similar losses in such short span of time was in March 2008, when the two sides clashed in northeastern Nagorno Karabakh in the days following post-election violence in Yerevan.
The Armenian side published pictures of grenade launchers, radio equipment (made by IsraeliElbit Systems) and medical kits captured from Azerbaijani forces. Judging by the bulky radio equipment it more likely came from Azerbaijani positions rather than from an attacking force. This means many of the Azerbaijani casualties likely occurred as a result of an Armenian raid of Azerbaijani positions.
In comments on the same day, David Babayan, a senior aide to NKR president, said that the Armenian side was against the use of force in general, but was left with little choice. "This is not a solution," Babayan told Armenpress news agency referring to the casualties on both sides. "But that doesn't mean we will not respond in order to prevent future aggression."
The Armenian and NKR governments have also called for a return to cease-fire and implementation of the 1995 agreement on prevention of cease-fire violations that Azerbaijan has long refused to honor.
[UPDATED August 2: On the morning of August 2, reports came of another failed Azerbaijani raid that left 5 of its servicemen - all professional soldiers - dead and eight other wounded; Sr. Lt. Zorik Gevorgyan was also killed and three other Armenians wounded in the overnight fighting.

A tactical escalation

The pattern of tit-for-tat attacks has continued since the 1994 cease-fire, mostly through Azerbaijan's effort to keep pressure on Armenia and reverse the existing status quo without going to a more dramatic escalation and possible full-scale war. In every year since the cease-fire, the Azerbaijani side has suffered more frontline casualties, primarily due to geographic advantages enjoyed by the Armenian side and Azerbaijanis' more aggressive posture. The Azerbaijani side has been trying to change this in its favor and prior to the fatalities reported on August 1, the ratio stood at 18 to 17, with more Armenian servicemen having been killed up to that point in the year.
The most recent tempo of tit-for-tat violence can be traced over the past seven months from official reports of soldiers' deaths in combat. 
On January 20, the Armenian side reported an Azerbaijani raid on its positions in the northeast of Nagorno Karabakh, with Sgt. Armen Hovannisyan killed in fighting. Armenian officials believed the attack was timed to the anniversary of 1990 Soviet crackdown in Baku that followed anti-Armenian pogroms. On January 28, the Armenian Army Day, Pvt. Karen Galstyan was shot by a sniper, also in Mardakert direction. The Armenian side retaliated in both cases and Azerbaijan sustained casualtie. The Azerbaijan aircraft were reportedly scrambled to fly along the Line of Contact (LoC) and armor movements were reported in vicinity.
Following a February hiatus (most likely related to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, with Russia pressuring both sides to exercise restraint), tempo of cease-fire violations again picked up in March. Army privates Arman GukasyanGarnik Torosyan and Arayik Babayan were killed in incidents on the Karabakh LoC on March 19, 24 and 27, respectively. And on March 31,Lt. Harutyun Safaryan died in a mine incident. The Armenian side once again retaliated. 
In April, fatalities were reported primarily from mine incidents, including one on April 7, when three Azerbaijani servicemen were killed and six wounded. No casualties from sniping or raids were reported from April 2 thru mid-May. At the same time, both Karabakh Defense Army commander Gen. Movses Hakobyan and, weeks later, Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Gen. Zakir Hassanov pledged disproportional response to fatal attacks from the other side. 
The hiatus was broken once again on May 19, when Sgt. Artur Ohanjanyan was killed by a sniper, southeast of Nagorno Karabakh. On May 26, the Armenian side suffered its most senior casualty in a number of years, with Lt. Col. Garik Balayan killed. And on May 28, marked as Independence Day by both countries, a raid on Armenian positions killed Corp. Erik Gasparyan and wounded four others. Azerbaijan publicly buried two Special Forces officers in subsequent days. 
In June, focus briefly shifted to the border between Armenia and Nakhichevan. On June 2, an Azerbaijani soldier was shot on Nakhichevan border, followed by the deaths of Warrant OfficerAndranik Yengoyan and Pvt. Boris Gasparyan on June 5, both from sniper fire. In apparent response, the Armenian side tried a new tactic - Armenian forces moved up the previously neutral high ground on Armenia-Nakhichevan border that opened much of the Azerbaijani exclave, including its administrative center, to direct observation by Armenian forces, and forced a number of Azerbaijani border posts to retreat.
On June 19, Sgt. Narek Poghosyan was killed in a raid and on June 24, Pvt. Armen Avetisyan was shot in a sniper incident. On July 11, Pvt. Movses Gasparyan was killed in another sniper incident. In another change of tactic, the Armenian side appeared to exercise restraint, with no Azerbaijani casualties reported following these incidents. But when on July 15 Azerbaijani forces shot a civilian tractor operator Arvid Danielyan in the east of Karabakh, an apparent response was delivered - an Azerbaijani civilian fishing in Terter river was reportedly shot and killed on July 19.
[In a separate series of dramatic events in early July, three men from Azerbaijan, at least one of them a former military officer, walked into the mountainous Kelbajar district and subsequently kidnapped and killed 17 year-old Smbat Tsakanyan and, in another incident, attacked a civilian Niva vehicle, killing Maj. Sargis Abrahamyan and also seriously wounding a female civilian inside. One of the three was shot dead as part of the Niva incident and two others were apprehended and are now facing murder charges in Nagorno Karabakh.]
The most recent uptick of violence came in the last week. On July 26 soldier Khachatur Badasyan was killed and two soldiers were wounded and on July 31, two more soldiers -Ararat Khanoyan and Azat Asoyan - were killed in apparent raids on Armenian positions in Karabakh, in which Azerbaijani forces also suffered casualties. It appears the latest casualties meant that the Armenian side could not restrain from retaliation any longer.
The oil money-fueled Azerbaijani military command will be under pressure to retaliate. With the Karabakh conflict firmly eclipsed by the de-facto Russian-Ukrainian war, it is unclear if anyone will care to help put a stop to the escalating violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is also unclear if Ilham Aliyev, whose policies promote the increased violence on LoC, might feel that enough blood has been spilled fornow.
[UPDATED August 2: Both the U.S. State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry have issued calls for restraint and return to the cease-fire. Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have reportedly been invited to meet in Sochi, Russia on August 8.] 

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