An Azerbaijani soldier was killed, and another wounded, in an Armenian attack in late December 2020, furthering tensions between the two countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry claims it will respond accordingly if Armenian soldiers continue with these deadly attacks, says Al Jazeera. Despite the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry blaming Armenian forces, Armenia says its soldiers are adhering to the ceasefire negotiated by Russia a few weeks ago. Russian peacekeepers in the region claim that renewed fighting is taking place, but their report did not name who is responsible. This is not the first peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia that has been complicated by allegations of fighting.
In 1994, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) claims a Russian-led peace agreement between the countries ended a six-year conflict over independence for 150,000 Armenians living in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. This region is internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan yet has been inhabited and mostly controlled by ethnic Armenians for years. This conflict resulted in 30,000 deaths and over one million displaced people, including 800,000 Azerbaijanis, claims CFR and Los Angeles Times. The Russia-mediated peace deal was largely followed until 2016 when Azerbaijan reclaimed some of the land in the contested region by force, effectively breaking the ceasefire in a show of strength.
In July of 2020, tensions erupted again over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, leading to the current conflict that appeared in full force in September. On 10 November, Russia mediated a ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia that ended six weeks of intense fighting over the region. This agreement favoured Azerbaijan and allowed the country to gain control of some of the contested region as well as some land outside that region, claims Reuters. However, on 12 December, media reports of renewed fighting suggested a breach of the ceasefire deal, according to Al Jazeera.
Despite claims from both sides about the other breaking the ceasefire, including Azerbaijan accusing Armenian troops of killing an Azerbaijani soldier, Russian peacekeepers say that the agreement is largely holding. Given this attempt at long-term peace, refugees are returning to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Led by Russian peacekeepers as part of the ceasefire agreement, thousands of refugees have arrived by bus in the region, claims the Russian Ministry of Defense. Returning to a normal life amid an ongoing ethnic conflict is difficult. It is unclear whether these refugees returned too soon and will ultimately have to flee again if the ceasefire is not adhered to.
This current conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia began in September and is the worst fighting the South Caucasus region has experienced in almost three decades, claims the New York Times. Al Jazeera states that since the conflict erupted a few months ago, 5,600 people are estimated to have been killed, including civilians and soldiers from both sides.
A future of stability for Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and refugees in the South Caucasus region is uncertain. Further ethnic tensions will cause more economic and social issues for neighbouring countries who are housing refugees, continued destruction of infrastructure in the war zones, and more displaced people throughout the Caucasus region. Though a regional conflict, involved actors span international borders, and too many outside actors are trying to solve a problem with misguided intentions and actions. According to CFR, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, led by the U.S., France, and Russia, have clearly been unsuccessful in their 26-year attempt at long-term peace in the region. Additionally, Turkey backs Azerbaijan while Russia lends support to Armenia but supplies weapons to both sides, claims CFR. Turkey and Russia risk complicating their relationship even more since they are also on opposite sides of the Syrian and Libyan civil wars. If ethnic tensions in the South Caucasus region continue, the conflict could become another proxy war between Turkey and Russia.
According to Los Angeles Times, some Azerbaijanis believe negotiations are hopeless and that fighting is the only move to retake Azerbaijani homeland in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Though many Azerbaijanis were pushed from the contested region, military force is only resulting in more deaths, displacement, and indignation on both sides. There is too much animosity and unresolved tensions at the root of the conflict that need to be addressed by the parties directly involved. Peace talks should encompass how to deal with injustices on both sides, compromises between the countries, and joint plans for the peaceful future of people of all ethnic backgrounds in the region.