Why Armenia and Azerbaijan are clashing over Nagorno-Karabakh

The latest bout of fighting over the disputed territory has the potential to draw in outside actors, such as Turkey.

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Fighting has broken out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a contentious flashpoint between the two South Caucasian countries, in what is now likely the most serious escalation in recent years. By Tuesday 29 September, 95 people had reportedly been killed, with clashes continuing into a third day. 

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is populated by ethnic Armenians and has functioned as an Armenian-sponsored unrecognised state since the fall of the Soviet Union. Armenian forces and Azerbaijan fought a devastating war over the territory in the 1990s, which saw reports of massacres and ethnic cleansing committed by both sides. Sporadic clashes between the countries have broken out since then, most recently in July. 

Azerbaijan claims the territory as an inalienable part of its sovereign territory, while Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto government, known as the Republic of Artsakh, argues it is an independent state and aims for eventual political unification with Armenia. Occasional peace talks between the two sides have never resulted in much progress. Both countries are deeply sensitive towards public opinion on Nagorno-Karabakh, as a pro-war – and implicitly anti-government – 2016 demonstration in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, showed. Eurasianet reported that in the past two weeks, Baku appeared “to be laying the ground for a heavy offensive,” taking measures such as calling up reservists. 

Azerbaijan’s leader, President Ilham Aliyev, addressed his nation at the start of the conflict. “Our cause is just and we will win,” he told Azerbaijanis, echoing speeches made by Joseph Stalin and Soviet General Vyacheslav Molotov at the onset of war with Germany in 1941. Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, responded by affirming that Armenia “is the guarantor of the security and independence of Artsakh”. Both countries have announced military mobilisation and martial law has been declared in some parts of Azerbaijan as well as in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The latest bout of fighting has the potential to draw in outside actors if it escalates further. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, the Russian-led defence pact which mirrors Nato’s security architecture among several ex-Soviet states. Meanwhile, Nato member Turkey has offered strong support to Azerbaijan, with defence minister Hulusi Akar telling his Azerbaijani counterpart that: “Turkey will always stand by Azerbaijani Turks by all means.”

“Ankara's staunch support for Azerbaijan suggests a more assertive role for Turkey in the conflict going forward – perhaps a consequence of its successful interventions in Syria and Libya,” said Peter Liakhov, a journalist with the Tbilisi-based outlet OC Media. The Guardian reported that Turkey has been recruiting Syrian rebels to fight for Azerbaijan, suggesting an internationalisation of a conflict which has until now mostly been confined to local actors. 

Azerbaijani troops are much better equipped and trained, with the country spending around six times as much on defence as Armenia. However, the stark highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh mean that Armenian troops enjoy a topographical “defenders’ advantage” over Azerbaijani forces, in land that they know well, said Richard Giragosian, the head of the Regional Studies Center, a Yerevan think tank.

Russia’s role is expected to be crucial in mediating the conflict. The country maintains good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has called for an immediate ceasefire and talks.

The unresolved status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh allows Russia considerable political leverage over both parties to the conflict, to which Russia continues to sell arms. “Moscow is not keen on a major escalation by Azerbaijan, not least because of its sizeable 102nd military base in Armenia,” said Maximilian Hess, the head of political risk at AKE International, a consultancy agency. 

Oil and gas from the energy-rich Caspian Sea also transit through the Caucasus region, making it of economic significance to western Europe and world markets. 

The latest bout of fighting between the two longstanding rivals has the potential to escalate further without effective outside mediation. Yet with the first US presidential debate this week and the election in just a month, the US is distracted – the rest of the world with it – and the elusive peace process seems more remote than ever.

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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