Nagorno – Karabakh Conflict
Azerbaijan and Armenia reignited a decades-old ‘Frozen conflict’
Violence flared up in a long-running conflict on Europe’s eastern edge in late September as Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over the embattled region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia said that on the morning of September 27, 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, too, announced a state of war in some regions. Here is all you need to know about the conflict:
What and where is Nagorno-Karabakh?
Nagorno-Karabakh, which translates to “mountainous black garden,” is an amalgam of Russian and Turkic words. It is a landlocked region within Azerbaijan’s borders, occupied by Armenia and surrounded by a militarized buffer zone. The region’s geography is further complicated by the exclave of Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic within Armenia, located southwest of Nagorno-Karabakh near the Iranian border.
Nagorno-Karabakh is located inside internationally-recognised Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in conflict over the territory for the last four decades. A bloody war in the early 1990s saw an estimated 20,000 people killed, and a million displaced. It was ended by an uneasy ceasefire in 1994, which was never followed by a truce.
Although the contested mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it has been under de facto Armenian control since the early 1990s. The territory declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1991.
The status of the region has been disputed at least since 1918, when Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent from the Russian empire. In the early 1920s, Soviet rule was imposed in the south Caucasus and the predominantly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh became an autonomous region within the then-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, with most decisions being made in Moscow.
But decades later, as the Soviet Union started to crumble, it became apparent that Nagorno-Karabakh would come under the direct rule of the government in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The ethnic Armenians did not accept that.
In 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature voted to join the Armenian republic, a demand strongly opposed by both the Azerbaijani Soviet government and Moscow.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Yerevan-backed Armenian separatists seized the territory, home to a significant Azerbaijani minority, as well as seven adjacent Azerbaijani districts.
At least 30,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes in the fighting.
Despite an internationally-brokered ceasefire agreed in 1994, peace negotiations have stalled and clashes erupt frequently around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Azerbaijan-Armenia border.
In April 2016, dozens of people from both sides were killed in the most serious fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in years.
Why does the conflict matter?
The primary focus of the conflict is local. Hundreds of thousands of civilians live in Nagorno-Karabakh and the territories alongside it. The prospect of continued fighting will directly threaten their lives and livelihoods. But the dispute has a broader strategic significance too. Major oil and gas pipelines run just north of the conflict zone, and these play a large role in calculations of European energy security. The fighting also brings up the prospect of a confrontation between regional powers further down the line. Russia is notably unhappy about Turkey’s attempts to muscle in on what it sees as its territory, and has accused Ankara of “adding fuel to the fire”. We don’t yet know where Moscow will eventually draw their red lines.
Each side’s claims
Azerbaijan considers Nagorno-Karabakh an illegally occupied territory, noting that its self-declared government lacks international recognition.
Armenia, meanwhile, says that Nagorno-Karabakh has “no future as a part of Azerbaijan” and believes that the conflict must be resolved with the “recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh people’s right to self-determination.”
That recognition would lead to independence or reunification with Armenia. The breakaway republic estimates that of its population of around 145,000, some 95 percent are ethnic Armenians.
The re-emergence of hostilities has ratcheted up fears of a wider regional conflict at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. Without successful mediation efforts, cease-fire violations and renewed tensions threaten to reignite a military conflict between the countries and destabilize the South Caucasus region. This could also disrupt oil and gas exports from the region, since Azerbaijan, which produces about eight hundred thousand barrels of oil per day, is a significant oil and gas exporter to Central Asia and Europe. Russia has promised to defend Armenia, Turkey has pledged to support Azerbaijan, and Iran has a large Azeri minority, which could escalate a crisis and further complicate efforts to secure peace in the region.
Russia has good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, but it also has a defence alliance with Armenia, as both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Russia has a military base in Armenia.
Moscow has acted as the main mediator between the two countries for years, with its attempts so far largely unsuccessful. After the deadly conflict in 2016, then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited both Yerevan and Baku to broker peace, while his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the two capitals.
In the weeks leading to the current escalation, however, Russia did not pay the region the attention it received before.
Turkey has traditionally provided moral and diplomatic support to its fellow Turkic nation and key geo-strategic partner Azerbaijan. Contacts between defence officials of both states intensified after July’s clashes, and joint military exercises followed. In the recent conflict, Turkey has declared its unconditional support to Azerbaijan, and appears to be lending Azerbaijani various kinds of military capability. There is little doubt that highly regarded Turkish military drone technology is being deployed.
Iran shares its northern borders with Azerbaijan and Armenia. While Azerbaijan has the same religious majority as Iran, the latter is reportedly backing Armenia due to trade ties with Yerevan as well as Tehran’s political alliance with Russia.
Israel has been a longtime ally of Azerbaijan. As per a SIPRI report, Israel provided Azerbaijan with around $825m in weapons between 2006 and 2019. After reports that Azerbaijan was using “some” Israeli-made drones in fighting, Armenia recalled their ambassador over the country’s continuing arms sales to Azerbaijan.
Although France officially supports a negotiated ceasefire, the country has accused Turkey of making “reckless and dangerous” statements in favour of Azerbaijan and of deploying Syrian fighters to Nagorno-Karabakh. France’s population includes about 600,000 people of Armenian origin, many of whom have been vocally supportive of Armenia in the conflict.
Pakistan has shown deep concerns over the deteriorating security situation in Nagorno-Karabakh region as “[t]his could compromise peace and security of the entire region. Armenia must stop its military action to avoid further escalation … Pakistan stands with the brotherly nation of Azerbaijan and supports its right of self-defence,” the Foreign Office said. It is also interesting to note that Pakistan is the only country in the world that doesn’t recognise the independence of Armenia. The South Caucasus country objectively exists and is a member of the UN, but Islamabad’s stance is a principled one practiced as a form of protest in response to Yerevan’s egregious human rights violations against the Azeris of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region.
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.