More Skirmishes at Yeraskh/Heydarabad - Loose Triggers in A Sensitive Zone?
An Azerbaijani soldier inspects the city of Jebrayil, Azerbaijan, where Azerbaijani forces regained control during the Second Karabakh War. October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
On July 19, 2021, further cross-border shooting was reported around Yeraskh/Heydarabad, twin villages on either side of the Armenia/Azerbaijan frontier near the point where Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave all meet. Armenian sources claimed that “heavy skirmishes” had followed an evening of Azerbaijani mortar attacks. These, it was claimed, caused a fire during the extinguishing of which Yeraskh’s community leader Radik Oghikyan received a gunshot wound. Azerbaijani press reports told a similar but opposite tale, claiming that their forces had responded to an Armenian mortar shelling that had hit Heydarabad and that an Azerbaijani lieutenant, Ramal Badalli, had been shot in the leg. Both sides imply that the other shot first.
This was a further continuation of gun battles nearly a week earlier that, on Wednesday, July 14, saw the death of an Armenian soldier and the wounding of an Azerbaijani serviceman. As we reported back then, according to Azerbaijani sources that violence broke out when Armenian forces tried to prevent the construction of a border fortification. In typical contrast, the Armenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed, however, that the fire-fight started with a “provocative advance,” claiming that “Baku is trying to create new sources of tension [to disrupt] regional peace and security.”
Though not always clear from international news feeds, the site is far from the area which saw action in the 2020 Karabakh War and is also the border point through which a newly reconnected railway line might eventually link Nakhchivan to Turkey via Armenia. It’s hard to see how Azerbaijan would benefit from such clashes.
At this stage, it is impossible to confirm either version with unbiased eye-witness accounts. However, an obvious question is why either side would want to stir up trouble, especially in this particular location. Though not always clear from international news feeds, the site is far from the area which saw action in the 2020 Karabakh War and is also the border point through which a newly reconnected railway line might eventually link Nakhchivan to Turkey via Armenia. It’s hard to see how Azerbaijan would benefit from such clashes. Throughout the 2020 conflict, Azerbaijan was scrupulously careful to avoid having battles spill across the border into Armenia and risk invoking a response from Russia through the CSTO mechanism. It has been suggested that the skirmish might have been over another disputed border delimitation case. However, unlike Armenia’s south-eastern border, where disputes like the current Black Lake standoff are often due to different versions/interpretations of old Soviet maps, most of the borders in the Yeraskh area are well established.
Alternative speculation hinges on the timing of the violence, which coincides with the visit to the Caucasus of EU Council President Charles Michel bearing promises of gigantic financial grants. On both July 17 in Yerevan and July 18 in Baku, Michel underlined that the EU was happy to play the role of honest broker in helping create lasting peace in the region. However, shortly after meeting Michel, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reportedly said that “Azerbaijan is intent on provoking new military clashes.” Could it be that the Armenian forces intended to provoke a clash to prove this point? Or vice versa? Or was it all just a case of loose triggers in a sensitive zone?
We may never know for sure. But the EU’s special representative in the South Caucasus, Tovio Klaar, reacted without casting blame, regretting the “deeply worrying” developments and calling for restraint. From there, the battle moved online to a typical Twitter storm between partisan observers.