Armenia ‘Vigilant’ as joint Turkish-Azeri military exercises begin

The Armenian Weekly. Azerbaijan and Turkey have launched a series of joint military exercises just weeks after a failed Azeri assault on Armenian positions in Tavush. The exercises are expected to last two weeks and take place in the Azeri-controlled exclave of Nakhichevan, central Azerbaijan and on the Absheron Peninsula.

Armenian officials have condemned what they described as an unnecessary provocation on the part of Baku and Ankara as tensions remain high following the recent border clashes. Six Armenian soldiers have died; the most recent casualty occurred on July 27 when Armenian  serviceman Ashot Mikaelyan was shot dead by Azeri sniper fire. Since then, the military situation between the two countries has remained relatively calm, but the dispute has since been exported internationally as reports have been surfacing of members of the Armenian Diaspora being attacked at various protests in capitals across the world.

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Contract soldier Ashot G. Mikaelyan was fatally wounded by Azeri sniper fire on July 27, 2020
Contract soldier Ashot G. Mikaelyan was fatally wounded by Azeri sniper fire on July 27, 2020

In light of Turkey’s unilateral support for Azerbaijan amid these large-scale military exercises, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry informed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Wednesday that the Republic of Armenia will be disallowing Turkish officers from inspecting Armenia’s Armed Forces. The Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, to which Armenia and Turkey are both parties, as well as the Vienna Document permit signatories to inspect each other’s compliance through random visits to military bases. “Any military inspection conducted on the territory of Armenia by Turkey, which has been openly supporting Azerbaijan’s military operations against Armenia and resorting to unprecedented threats…will adversely impact the security interests of Armenia and may undermine security [sic] of its population,” read the Foreign Ministry’s statement.

At a meeting with French Ambassador Jonathan Lacotte, Armenian Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan dismissed the joint exercises as “militarily insignificant” while still constituting dangerous grandstanding. Still, the Minister said, “We’ll be keeping a close eye on those exercises.” Turkey has been a vocal supporter of Azerbaijan’s actions, even publicly blaming Armenia for the renewed hostilities. Ankara’s recent posturing has been interpreted in Yerevan as an attempt to either gain further influence or directly intervene in the Caucasus region. Parliamentarian Mikael Zolyan, who is also a political analyst by training, has suggested that Turkey’s participation in the exercises may be intended to bolster Aliyev’s regime domestically following the embarrassing failure of Azeri adventurism earlier this month.

Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan with French Ambassador Jonathan Lacotte, July 29, 2020
Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan with French Ambassador Jonathan Lacotte, July 29, 2020

However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly assured Russian President Vladimir Putin that the exercises did not constitute a prelude to the permanent placement of Turkish troops in the region. Russia continues to view the South Caucasus as part of its “Near Abroad” and has repeatedly warned against any encroachment into this “backyard” by any competing regional powers—particularly NATO-member Turkey.

In the wake of recent tensions, the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs (Russia, France and the United States)—which have been tasked with maintaining the cease-fire established in 1994—have urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to make tangible steps to maintain peaceful negotiations. “The Co-Chairs stress once more that refraining from provocative statements and actions, including threats or perceived threats to civilians or to critical infrastructure, is essential during this delicate period,” read a July 24 statement.

While Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan repeatedly signaled his government’s intention to maintain the negotiation process in good faith, even offering to implement certain reconciliatory measures, official statements from Baku have criticized both the current process and the joint efforts of the co-chairing countries themselves—comments which have provoked the ire of international mediators. Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev even threatened to pull out of negotiations entirely. “Unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia agreed to all proposals of the international mediators to strengthen the ceasefire by putting on the ground more monitors and introducing investigative mechanisms into ceasefire violations,” Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan told The Jerusalem Post, urging Israel, which supplies Azerbaijan with UAVs that have been shot down by Armenian forces, to end its “deadly business dealings.”

In fact, hateful rhetoric towards Armenians has continued to seep into official statements from Azerbaijani officials. A tweet by Aliyev addressed to the Azerbaijani diaspora claiming that the Azeri State stands behind them has been interpreted as a dog whistle and support for the wave of racist attacks against Armenians in several cities—including the vandalism of an Armenian school in San Francisco, California. A page from the official website of the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry claiming that “Azerbaijanis were the aboriginal population of [Armenia]” and that Armenians were “invasive aliens” to the Caucasus has also made the rounds on social media.

Despite this, Armenian and Azerbaijani ambassadors in Moscow have apparently called on their respective diasporas to refrain from further escalating violent confrontations with each other. These statements followed the arrest of over 30 people who were charged with hooliganism following a series of brawls and vandalism against Armenian-owned property in various cities across Russia.

Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Main photo:  Armenia’s Ministry of Defense, July 28, 2020)

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