One day after President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan threatened war with neighboring Armenia via Twitter, Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that the country is prepared for war in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The recent bout of fighting cost Azerbaijan 12 troops and Nagorno Karabakh three, each side confirmed on Saturday. Exactly what set off the latest violence between the former Soviet republics is unclear but both point to the other as the aggressor.
The Nagorno-Karabakh border remains heavily militarized. Azerbaijan and Armenia each have 20,000 troops dug into World War I-style trenches on their respective sides. Exchanges of sniper shots are common but the recent fighting has raised the stakes. On Wednesday Aliyev visited the frontlines, spending time with an Azerbaijani military unit. The day after the president's return from the front, he launched a sabre-rattling Twitter tirade, announcing Azerbaijan's preparedness for war.
We have a powerful military potential. But our biggest strength is the courage and patriotism of our soldiers.— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) August 7, 2014
The two countries already fought a brutal, six-year war over Nagorno-Karabakh that wracked up at least 30,000 casualties and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. A cease-fire brokered by Russia in 1994 ended formal hostilities but international efforts to reach a last solution have failed and the conflict has been in limbo for the last 20 years.
The heart of the conflict lies in the ethnic and political divisions that existed when Armenia and Azerbaijan were Soviet republics. Despite being part of Soviet Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh was home to a large ethnic Armenian population. In 1988, the Armenians of Karabakh -- encouraged by politicians in Yerevan, the Armenian capital -- demanded unification with Soviet Armenia. Then, in December 1989, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh declared unification and war broke out with Azerbaijan. Armenia was able to hold Nagorno-Karabakh and, following the 1994 cease-fire, retained control over the territory. Azerbaijan keeps claiming the land as its own and considers it an occupied territory.
Just as we have beaten the Armenians on the political and economic fronts, we are able to defeat them on the battlefield.— Ilham Aliyev (@presidentaz) August 7, 2014
Following its defeat, Azerbaijan launched a silent arms race to break Armenia's economy. Funded by its hydrocarbon wealth, Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, has been on a military spending spree, allocating $3.44 billion for defense in 2013. Its defense budget has skyrocketed 493 percent since 2004, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Armenia has done its best to follow suit, spending $427 million on defense -- a 115 percent increase from 2004, according to SIPRI. But lacking Azerbaijani natural-resource wealth, Armenia has turned to Russia for military aid to bolster its security. In return, Moscow has taken its pound of flesh from Yerevan by establishing a major military base in Armenia.
With tensions high after the recent clashes, both Russia and the United States have made calls for calm along the border and for reviving the OSCE Minsk Group process -- which was established to bring a lasting solution to the conflict following the 1994 cease-fire. Russian President Vladimir Putin has set up meetings with the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents for Friday and Saturday, in a bid to broker a cease-fire. But a lasting solution will require more than just Russian pressure. Moreover, with U.S.-Russia relations at an all-time low, international cooperation on Nagorno-Karabakh looks confined to the trenches for the immediate future.