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Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: Why igniting Caucasus risks wider war

By Lawrence Broers
Expert from the South Caucasus, Chatham House

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  • Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenian soldier spotted in military clashes with Azerbaijani army on contact line of self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh region

image copyrightEPA

caption of the imageBoth sides appear to be looking for a longer conflict, which risks increased involvement by external forces

Renewed hostilities are raging between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory in the South Caucasus.

The scale and scale of the fighting, which began on Sunday, surpassed the periodic escalations of recent years, including heavy artillery, tanks, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.

So far, there have been more than 100 confirmed deaths among civilian and Armenian fighters killed in action. Azerbaijan does not provide data on its military losses, but it can be assumed that they are at least as high.

The fighting appears to have been driven by an attempt by Azerbaijani forces to reclaim parts of territories occupied by Armenian forces in the Karabakh war after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis were displaced from these areas in 1992-4.

The escalation follows a tense year – diplomatic conflict, militant rhetoric and clashes in the north in July near the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

  • What are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting for?

  • Nagorno-Karabakh: The BBC has visited Azerbaijan from the front line

What are the dangers?

Several escalations between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces were detained a few days ago. The intensity of the current fighting shows that this time this may not be possible.

Settlements in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory have been hit by missiles and bombings for the first time since the 1990s. Civilian targets in Armenia and Azerbaijan have also been hit.

image copyrightReuters
caption of the imageSunday’s fighting has killed not only servicemen but also civilians

Both sides appear to be looking for a longer conflict. Azerbaijan has rejected renewed talks with Armenia and, unlike previous escalations, has a greater degree of Turkish support to rely on. The danger is that a longer, protracted conflict will lead to increased involvement of external forces, which will risk a wider regional war.

What is the role of Turkey?

Turkey has traditionally provided moral and diplomatic support to its other Turkic nation and key geostrategic partner, Azerbaijan. Following the clashes in July, contacts between the two countries’ defense officials intensified and joint military exercises followed.

Since the fighting began on Sunday, Turkey has stated its unconditional support for Azerbaijan and appears to be providing Azerbaijanis with various types of military capabilities. There is no doubt that highly valued Turkish technology is being used for military drones.

Yerevan also accused Ankara of shooting down an Armenian SU-25 plane on September 29th, which Ankara denies. Although similar allegations have been made before and are considered untrue, there are also unsubstantiated – but growing – allegations that Turkey has mobilized mercenaries from Syria to fight for Azerbaijan.

What is Russia’s role?

Russia is playing different, often contradictory roles in the conflict. Through bilateral ties and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow provides security guarantees to Armenia, but they do not extend to the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting zone, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Moscow also supplies weapons to both sides and is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group, which mediates the conflict.

Russia has called for a ceasefire, but unlike previous large-scale escalations, it has not yet convened a meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani political or military leaders.

Moscow has troubled relations with Armenia’s new leader after 2018. Nikol Pashinyan and Yerevan would undoubtedly prefer to deal with the escalation as much as possible on their own. In the 1990s, Russia was unable to deploy peacekeeping forces on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians’ fears that Moscow’s help will come with tied strings have led to cautiously seeking Russian support.

media captionThe funeral in Azerbaijan of one of the dead soldiers

While the struggle is taking place in disputed territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, the optics of maintaining Russian neutrality make Moscow’s apparent involvement unlikely. However, a protracted conflict with growing Turkish involvement would threaten Russia’s dominance in an area it considers part of its sphere of privileged interests and call for a response.

How does the international community react?

With the exception of Turkey, other regional and global powers have called for restraint. Iran, Georgia and Qatar have offered to mediate. A meeting of the UN Security Council on September 29 confirmed the key role of the Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia and the United States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

But concentrating enough international attention and commitment to resuming diplomacy will be a challenge. The fighting coincides with a period of international dispersal due to the global pandemic, the US election and the traditional model of losing focus once a ceasefire is agreed.

How can the events unfold?

Rapid and consolidated military success, either by seizing significant territory from Azerbaijan or repelling Azerbaijani operations by Armenian forces, could open up ceasefire opportunities but cause internal instability depending on which country is worse.

The longer the fighting continues and / or if one side is seen to lose in a longer struggle, the more likely it is that Russia and Turkey will face a difficult choice whether to engage more.

Lawrence Broers is Caucasus Program Director at Peacebuilding Peacebuilding and author of Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of Rivalry

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