For decades, the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has evoked border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Recently, armed violence between the two countries threatens to escalate into full-blown conflict, which could involve both Turkey and Russia.
The September 2020 Armenian–Azerbaijani clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh mark the second time in less than three months that the countries have come to blows. Both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces continue to reject international calls for ceasefire, and Azerbaijan’s military offense seems more determined than in previous conflicts.
This recent eruption of violence differs from previous skirmishes that have occurred since the end of the war, and the looming threat that a larger regional proxy war involving Russia and Turkey seems more likely than ever before.
The Nagorno-Karabakh province, landlocked between Armenia and Azerbaijan, was annexed to Azerbaijan during the Soviet Era. As the USSR crumbled, clashes erupted between the Armenian majority of the region, which sought union with Armenia or independence, and the Azerbaijani minority. This degenerated into a brutal war in which 30.000 people lost their lives and about a million more were displaced amid reports of atrocities and ethnic cleansing committed by both sides.
In 1994, the war ended with a ceasefire and effective stalemate; since then Yerevan and Baku have been locked in disagreement over the disputed province and the seven districts surrounding it. Unsurprisingly, several violations of the ceasefire have occurred ever since. Most notably, border clashes erupted in 2016 and resumed this July when 16 people were killed, including an esteemed Azerbaijani general. As a result, thousands of people responded with street protests in Baku, demanding that the Azerbaijani government seize control of the province.
Since hostilities resumed on September 27th, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have declared martial law and total military mobilization, which includes artillery strikes and air power. Reports suggest that over 350 people have been killed, making it the deadliest clash between the two former Soviet republics since 2016. Overall, recent violence is on pace to be the worst since the end of the war.
Given the region’s history of stalemate and impasse, some may argue that Azerbaijan will eventually succumb to Russian pressure and that both factions will lay down arms. Alternatively, some may also hope that Azerbaijan will settle for partial gains (especially as regards the seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh) and declare victory, which would placate public opinion at home.
However, that seems to be wishful thinking. The recent outbreak of violence is escalating at unprecedented rates, and analysts are pointing to signs that suggest a more serious conflict than we have seen in previous years.
Firstly, both governments seem to have come to the conclusion that there is no political solution to the dispute and that a stalemate is no longer sustainable.
In fact, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called for “unification between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia” in a speech last year. Also, support for the Armenian cause seems stronger than in the past: the country is appealing to radicalized volunteers worldwide who are ideologically and religiously motivated. These are men of all ages and backgrounds who sometimes even lack previous military experience. They are sons of the Armenian Diaspora who are traveling to the South Caucasus from all over the world and independently volunteering to fight against Azerbaijan in order to win what they perceive to be a holy war: for them, Nagorno-Karabakh is “Armenia’s Jerusalem”.
For its part, compared to the poorly run campaigns of the past, Baku seems better prepared and more coordinated this time: it has deployed more troops and they are now fighting on all fronts of the border with Armenia. As such, Armenia enjoys a level of support and self-justification that hasn’t been present in earlier conflicts.
Secondly, in addition to heavy weaponry, infantry, helicopters and masses of drones have also been deployed by both sides, indicating stronger determination from both factions compared to previous conflicts, wherein troops were less prepared, less strategic and less coordinated across different parts of the front line. Thirdly, civilian areas have been targeted for the first time since the end of the war, and there is now the threat that fighting could also spill over into areas where pipelines deliver gas and oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia.
Lastly, some speculate that because of Covid-19 there have been virtually no international efforts to keep hostilities at bay since this spring, which is said to have led to this summer’s clashes. Analysts also believe that the failure to mediate in the aftermath of July may have precipitated the current eruption of armed violence. As such, the conflict is proving to be far more complex, bloody, and widespread than previous instances of violence.
The EU, the US, Russia and the UN Security Council have all called for a ceasefire in the region. However, Turkey has urged Azerbaijan to push forward. In fact, Ankara has always been politically aligned to Baku: the Azeris, a member of a Turkic people forming the majority population of Azerbaijan, feel they share the same language and ethnicity as the people of Turkey.
This support isn’t purely rhetorical: reports indicate that Mr Erdogan’s government has sent Syrian mercenaries to fight on the Azerbaijani front and it has provided drones to Azerbaijan’s army. Moreover, Armenia has accused Turkey of shooting down one of their planes, which Turkish officials vehemently deny.
To further complicate matters, escalation on the part of Azerbaijan – coupled with further Turkish involvement – could drag Russia into the conflict and put Putin in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, the Kremlin sells weapons to Azerbaijan, but on the other hand it has a mutual defense pact with Armenia. In theory, because Nagorno-Karabakh is legally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, President Putin is under no commitment to defend Armenia if the province is attacked. However, if Azerbaijani or Turkish forces extend hostilities into Armenian territories it seems he will have no choice but to defend his ally, thereby escalating a proxy war.
Violence has already reached unprecedented levels since the end of the war in 1994, and both factions seem more committed to Nagorno-Karabakh than ever before. So far, calls for ceasefire have fallen on deaf ears and tension may get further out of control. If that is the case, outside powers might get involved and escalate frictions into a larger regional war. Turkey and Russia are already tangled up in two proxy wars in Libya and in Syria, and they now run the danger of fighting a third one over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The prospect of a long conflict was further epitomized between Friday 9 October and Saturday 10 October. Only a few minutes after Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire – brokered by the Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov – they both accused each other of violating it.