Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan / Handout / Anatolian Agency through Getty Images
The simmering conflict on Russia’s volatile southern border threatens to escalate into a full-scale war with the potential to attract NATO ally Turkey.
The wars continued for a second day in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, claimed by Armenians as well as Azerbaijanis. Dozens of servicemen from both sides were reportedly killed in the outbreak of violence that began on Sunday morning. The ethnic Armenian majority in the region has been waging a bloody war for secession from Azerbaijan since the Soviet Union disintegrated three decades ago. Since then, the tense ceasefire, but without lasting peace, has kept tensions high in the Caucasus, an area where Russia, Turkey and Iran have historically competed.
“The attack was coming. There were numerous signals, everyone saw them and did nothing for weeks,” tweeted Olesya Vartanian, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There was a need for proactive international mediation. Many found reasons to allow this attack. If they are silent now, expect a real war.”
International mediation is formally in the hands of a group co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States. Russia, the region’s dominant power for 200 years, has the greatest influence. It has a defense pact with Armenia and a landlocked military base in the country, but the Kremlin also has good relations with Azerbaijan. Turkey’s relations with Armenia have been marred by the mass murder of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which many historians describe as genocide. Turks and Azerbaijanis share ethnic kinship, and ties between Turkey and Armenia have been frozen over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“Turkey continues to stand with friendly and fraternal Azerbaijan with all its facilities and heart,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday, blaming Armenia for the renewed fighting.
Armenia’s foreign ministry claims that Azerbaijan receives “large-scale military-political support from Turkey” in the form of advisers and weapons, including unmanned aerial vehicles. The ministry says the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh in Armenian, are fighting a “Turkish-Azerbaijani union”. Azerbaijan, rich in oil and gas, has spent the last two decades building its army.
“Settling the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is our historic mission,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told his security council on Sunday. “We must resolve this so that historical justice can be restored. We must do so in order to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.”
The declaration of independence from the ethnic Armenian majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan, started a war with tens of thousands of victims, ending in an unpleasant ceasefire in 1994. No country, not even Armenia, has recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state.
Now the danger is if the regular Armenian army is involved in the fighting with Azerbaijan, Vadim Mukhanov, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told the Meduza news site.
“What we see after the first day of escalation is that armor, aircraft, heavy artillery and unmanned aerial vehicles are being used, which suggests that this is not a spontaneous but a well-planned operation,” Mukhanov said. “If this conflict is not stopped by serious external pressure, then there will be a war, which would be a catastrophe. This would disperse unrest throughout the North Caucasus region and affect all major players, including Russia and Turkey.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on Sunday. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan have a troubled partnership, and their interests often clash in Syria and Libya.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia is calling for an end to hostilities and “maximum restraint” on all sides. Putin has talked with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and the Kremlin says the Russian president will also talk to Aliyev, “if necessary.”
“At the moment, the most important thing is to end hostilities and not try to find out who is right and who is wrong,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. He said Russia would use its traditionally good relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve the conflict.
The United States also enjoys friendly relations with both countries. “We have very good relations in this area,” President Trump said on Sunday over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “We’ll see if we can stop it.”