Armenia-Azerbaijan war: line of contact
The front line looks like World War I (Photo: nkrmil.am)
By ANDREW RETTMAN
ASKERAN, ARTSAKH, 24. FEB, 09:24
You can see the Azerbaijani military position, 200 metres away across a field of mud and snow, past two rusting Soviet tanks, through a slit in the Armenian bunker.
The Armenians say the Azerbaijanis are lousy shots, but they warn you to duck quickly in case they open fire.
The front line of Europe's oldest ongoing conflict, a few hours by plane from France or Germany, looks like a scene from World War I.
The Armenians have dug man-deep trenches along the 200-km line of contact.
Tin cans hang on barbed wire along the dugouts as an alarm system against infiltrators.
The soldiers sleep on bunks in dark pits that stink of sweat, feet, and tobacco. Their toilet is a hole in the ground. They play backgammon and drink coffee to pass the time.
Azerbaijani snipers, mortars, and artillery shoot at them almost every day.
In the last incident, on Thursday (23 February), Azerbaijan fired 52 mortar shells and 10 artillery rounds, the Defence Army of the Republic of Artsakh, formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, said.
The Armenians returned fire, killing one Azerbaijani soldier, it said, but despite the danger, morale is high.
“Front-line coffee is the best coffee in the world”, Marat Babayan, an Armenian lieutenant, told EUobserver on a visit to his post, a short drive from the town of Askeran, on Tuesday.
When asked if he had all the equipment that he needed, he said: “Yes. Everything”.
Asked if he would like to see international peacekeepers sent to the area, he said: “What for? We’ve got all we need to defend ourselves.”
Asked how often his men shot at the Azerbaijanis, he said they only fired if Azerbaijan fired first and only if they got an order from central command.
The conflict dates back to 1988 when people in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the then Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, voted to join Armenia.
Three decades later it risks sudden escalation, destabilising the South Caucasus and aggravating the EU refugee crisis.
In the worst case scenario, it could also drag in Russia, Nato member Turkey, and Iran into a regional war.
But despite the high stakes, few people know what goes on here.
The only international monitors are six people from the OSCE, a European multilateral club, who are based in Georgia and who seldom come.
Journalists and European politicians also visit rarely.
Those who do are unlikely to see the situation from the other side because if Azerbaijan knows they went to Artsakh it tends to put them on a visa blacklist.
Azerbaijan gives little information on casualties, who are classified as a state secret.
The Armenian side gives more, but some of it is open to question.
Hrayr Tevosyan, an Artsakh colonel, told EUobserver that when Azerbaijan launched a four-day assault last April the Azerbaijani side suffered “between 500 and 600” casualties.
He later said that Azerbaijan lost 1,000 lives. Later again, he said that it was “more than 1,000.” He said 87 Armenians died.
An Artsakh government source contradicted him, saying that 350 people died in total on both sides, however.
The source said his information came from signal intercepts of Azerbaijani military communications and from social media chatter about funerals.
The figure of 87 Armenian casualties is also open to question.
A contact from one EU country, who asked not to be named and who recently visited the front line, said he saw memorials for 21 Armenian civilians in a single location.
“If 21 people were killed in one village, then the total figure of Armenian casualties was probably higher,” the contact said.
Tevosyan, the Armenian colonel, painted a positive picture of the situation.
Information on which weapons his side had was confidential, but he said Artsakh had all it needed to repel Azerbaijan.
“We have everything we need to fulfil our tasks,” he told EUobserver.
“We don’t need them [international peacekeepers] because we can maintain security by ourselves,” he added.
He said that he had “never” had to discipline one of his soldiers for firing a stray bullet first.
“We only respond when the other side fires because we observe the terms of the 1994 ceasefire agreement,” he said.
He added that his men were superior fighters because they had the moral high ground.
“The most important thing is that our soldiers know why they are fighting - to defend their homeland. The Azerbaijani soldiers don’t know the meaning of their service,” he said.
Moment of truth
The real picture might be more challenging, however.
In 2015, Azerbaijan, an oil-rich dictatorship, spent $3 billion (€2.8bn) on its military, while Armenia, Artsakh’s unofficial sponsor, spent $440 million.
The trenches might look like World War I, but Azerbaijan’s arsenal includes high-tech Israeli drones, one of which killed seven Armenian soldiers in April.
The Artsakh foreign ministry says, in brochures with Romantic images of cliff-top churches, that its army has a “sacred mission”.
But some European monitors who recently came to observe a referendum in the unrecognised republic heard anecdotes that military officers were selling food rations for profit.
One monitor, who asked not to be named, said young people were increasingly leaving Artsakh for jobs in Armenia despite their patriotism in a "brain-drain."
Tevosyan, the colonel, said Azerbaijan’s objective in April was “to occupy all of Nagorno-Karabakh by force, the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, but they didn’t succeed.”
The real objective was, according to experts such as the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO, to conquer strategic territory on the front line and to test Artsakh’s defences.
One day soon, the moment of truth might come.