the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict explained

What you need to know about the deadly clashes over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.


9/28/20, politico

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Violence flared up in a longrunning conflict on Europe's eastern edge this weekend as Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over the embattled region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The fighting, which continued on Monday, left at least 39 people dead — the most serious escalation in years.

The two former Soviet states have clashed over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-controlled enclave internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, for three decades. But the conflict is more than a Cold War-era relic. Both sides enjoy the support of powerful backers and with the South Caucasus occupying a strategic position in the global energy market, the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan could end up reverberating beyond the region.

Here's what you need to know about the latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

What happened this weekend? 

Armenia says that on Sunday morning, Azerbaijan launched air and artillery attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh, while Baku says it was conducting a "counter-offensive in response to military provocation." As the fighting turned deadly, Armenia declared martial law and general mobilization. Azerbaijan announced a state of war in some regions.

The death toll is disputed. Armenia on Sunday confirmed 16 fatalities, with more than a hundred people injured. On Monday morning, media reports put the overall death toll at 39. Azerbaijan claimed it had killed 550 Armenians, which Yerevan denied. Armenia, meanwhile, claimed it had killed 200 Azerbaijanis. Both sides accused each other of killing civilians, including an Azerbaijani family of five and a woman and one child on the Armenian side, Agence France-Presse reported.

During the so-called Four-Day War in 2016 — to date the worst breach of a 1994 cease-fire agreement — more than 200 people died.

What's the bigger picture? 

The Nagorno-Karabakh clashes have the potential to draw in larger powers — in particular Russia and NATO member Turkey, two countries that already support opposing sides in Syria and Libya.

Turkey has long been a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan: Ankara and Baku share close cultural ties, given their shared Turkic heritage. Meanwhile, Turkey and Armenia have a long history of tensions, exacerbated by Ankara's refusal to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide as well as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The latter prompted Turkey to seal its border with Armenia in 1993, which has remained shut ever since. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

Russia plays a more ambiguous role in the region, maintaining close economic ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan and supplying weapons to both. Its relationship with Yerevan is deeper, however — Armenia hosts a Russian military base and is part of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Then there's the region's role in the global energy trade: The pipelines connecting Azerbaijan with Turkey are crucial for the European Union's oil and natural gas supply — and pass close to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting over that region? 

Christian-majority Armenia and Muslim-majority Azerbaijan have had frictions for centuries, but religion does not play a major role in the modern-day conflict. A lot of the blame rests with Joseph Stalin. The former Soviet leader placed the majority-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh (known as Artsakh to Armenians) into Azerbaijan after the Caucasus was conquered by the Red Army in the early 1920s. Neither side was pleased, though for decades it didn’t matter much.

But when the USSR began to collapse in the late 1980s, powerful nationalist forces on both sides turned Nagorno-Karabakh into a powder keg. The enclave’s ethnic Armenians declared independence in 1991. War erupted between Azerbaijan, which insisted on the inviolability of its borders, and the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, who received support from Armenia itself. By 1994, the Armenians had succeeded in driving the Azerbaijani army from the enclave and large surrounding swathes of land. Hundreds of thousands of people had to flee.

These days, the United Nations still recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan’s territory; no country considers the enclave an independent country — not even Armenia, which also hasn’t formally annexed it but supports the region financially and militarily. Since then, the two countries have hunkered down on either side of a line of control marked by landmines and snipers.

Why did things escalate now? 

Armenia's 2018 "velvet revolution," which toppled its longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan, briefly raised hopes that long-stalled peace negotiations could resume. But Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the opposition politician who rose to power after the mass protests, largely ended up sticking by his predecessor's rhetoric.

An election organized this spring by the self-declared Armenian government in Karabakh was viewed as a provocation in Azerbaijan and drew international criticism. And in July this year, tensions started surging after a series of clashes killed more than a dozen people, with the catalyst still remaining unclear. The fighting prompted thousands of Azerbaijanis to demonstrate for war with Armenia; at the same time, Turkey ratcheted up its rhetoric in support of Baku.

An elderly woman sits on a bed in a building's basement used as a bomb shelter in Nagorno-Karabakh's main city of Stepanakert on September 28, 2020 | Narek Aleksanyan/AFP via Getty Images

What's been the international reaction so far? 

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has urged "an immediate cessation of hostilities," a call echoed by the U.S. State Department and the United Nations.

Turkey sided firmly with Azerbaijan, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan describing Armenia as "the biggest threat to peace" in the region. Russia took a more cautious approach: In a phone call with Armenia's Pashinyan, President Vladimir Putin said it was important to "halt military actions," according to the Kremlin's account of the conversation.

Iran — an ally of Armenia — offered to mediate, saying Tehran was "ready to use all its capacities to help talks to start between the two sides.”

Have there been prior efforts to mediate?

For more than a quarter-century, an international peace initiative, known as the Minsk Process, has tried and failed to bring a resolution to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh after the cease-fire in the region in 1994.

Chaired by France, Russia and the United States, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Minsk Group has sought to prevent military clashes and to implement a peace settlement.

But years of diplomatic meetings and various missions to the region, as well as to the capitals of Armenia and Azerbaijan, have come to naught.

There were brief flickers of hope after Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met formally for the first time in March 2019, and later in February 2020 for a public debate at the Munich Security Conference. For years, Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders had refused to even appear in the same room. But the coronavirus pandemic interrupted diplomatic efforts earlier this year.

On Sunday, the Minsk Group co-chairs issued a statement decrying the latest violence.

What's next?

It's too early to say how long the fighting will continue or whether it could escalate into a full-blown war. Both the 2016 clashes and the skirmishes in July lasted only a few days.

The picture would change significantly if a major power were to enter the conflict — yet even Turkey has so far limited its involvement to rhetoric. Armenia has claimed Ankara has redeployed fighters from northern Syria to Azerbaijan, but Baku issued a swift denial.

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The clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh could end up reverberating beyond the region | Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images