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Armenian-built drones atop their launchers roll during a military parade in 2011. Armenia and Azerbaijan are both flexing their military muscles, flying drones over the border between them and fueling worries that the exercises could lead to all-out war. (KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Drone violence along Armenian-Azerbaijani border could lead to war

Armenia and Azerbaijan could soon be at war if drone proliferation on both sides of the border continues.

YEREVAN, Armenia — In a region where a fragile peace holds over three frozen conflicts, the nations of the South Caucasus are buzzing with drones they use to probe one another’s defenses and spy on disputed territories.

The region is also host to strategic oil and gas pipelines and a tangled web of alliances and precious resources that observers say threaten to quickly escalate the border skirmishes and airspace violations to a wider regional conflict triggered by Armenia and Azerbaijan that could potentially pull in Israel, Russia and Iran.

To some extent, these countries are already being pulled towards conflict. Last September, Armenia shot down an Israeli-made Azerbaijani drone over Nagorno-Karabakh and the government claims that drones have been spotted ahead of recent incursions by Azerbaijani troops into Armenian-held territory.

Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, said in a briefing that attacks this summer showed that Azerbaijan is eager to “play with its new toys” and its forces showed “impressive tactical and operational improvement.” 

The International Crisis Group warned that as the tit-for-tat incidents become more deadly, “there is a growing risk that the increasing frontline tensions could lead to an accidental war.”

“Everyone is now saying that the war is coming. We know that it could start at any moment.”
~Grush Agbaryan, mayor of Voskepar

More from GlobalPost: How Russia and Georgia's 'little war' started a drone arms race

With this in mind, the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have long imposed a non-binding arms embargo on both countries, and both are under a de facto arms ban from the United States. But, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), this has not stopped Israel and Russia from selling to them. 

After fighting a bloody war in the early 1990s over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a stalemate with an oft-violated ceasefire holding a tenuous peace between them. 

And drones are the latest addition to the battlefield. In March, Azerbaijan signed a $1.6 billion arms deal with Israel, which consisted largely of advanced drones and an air defense system. Through this and other deals, Azerbaijan is currently amassing a squadron of over 100 drones from all three of Israel’s top defense manufacturers. 

Armenia, meanwhile, employs only a small number of domestically produced models.

Intelligence gathering is just one use for drones, which are also used to spot targets for artillery, and, if armed, strike targets themselves.

Armenian and Azerbaijani forces routinely snipe and engage one another along the front, each typically blaming the other for violating the ceasefire. At least 60 people have been killed in ceasefire violations in the last two years, and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group claimed in a report published in February 2011 that the sporadic violence has claimed hundreds of lives.

“Each (Armenia and Azerbaijan) is apparently using the clashes and the threat of a new war to pressure its opponent at the negotiations table, while also preparing for the possibility of a full-scale conflict in the event of a complete breakdown in the peace talks,” the report said.

Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Caucasus Institute in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, said that the arms buildup on both sides makes the situation more dangerous but also said that the clashes are calculated actions, with higher death tolls becoming a negotiating tactic.

“This isn’t Somalia or Afghanistan. These aren’t independent units. The Armenian, Azerbaijani and Karabakh armed forces have a rigid chain of command so it’s not a question of a sergeant or a lieutenant randomly giving the order to open fire. These are absolutely synchronized political attacks,” Iskandaryan said.

More from GlobalPost: Israel grapples with blowback from booming drone industry

The deadliest recent uptick in violence along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and the line of contact around Karabakh came in early June as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on a visit to the region. While death tolls varied, at least two dozen soldiers were killed or wounded in a series of shootouts along the front. 

The year before, at least four Armenian soldiers were killed in an alleged border incursion by Azerbaijani troops one day after a peace summit between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian presidents in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“No one slept for two or three days [during the June skirmishes],” said Grush Agbaryan, the mayor of the border village of Voskepar for a total of