Fighting has erupted once more between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet Union republics in the Caucasus region. This isn’t the first the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict occurred.
At the heart of the decades-old conflict is the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It is recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but it is controlled by ethnic Armenians.
The countries fought a bloody war over the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although they declared a ceasefire, they have never managed to agree on a peace treaty.
What Is Armenia – Azerbaijan Conflict About?
The main reason of the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict is the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, but its population is majority Armenian. As the Soviet Union saw increasing tensions in its constituent republics in the 1980s, Nagorno-Karabakh voted to become part of Armenia – sparking a war that stopped with a ceasefire in 1994.
Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has remained part of Azerbaijan but is controlled by separatist ethnic Armenians backed by the Armenian government. Negotiations over decades, mediated by international powers, have never resulted in a peace treaty.
Armenia is majority Christian while oil-rich Azerbaijan is majority Muslim. Turkey has close ties to Azerbaijan, while Russia is allied with Armenia – although it also has good relations with Azerbaijan.
How Is This Time Different?
In scale and scope, the fighting that broke out on Sunday surpasses the periodic escalations of recent years, involving heavy artillery, tanks, missiles, and drones.
So far there are more than 100 confirmed deaths among civilians and Armenian combatants killed in action. Azerbaijan does not release data on its military losses, but these can be assumed to be at least as high.
The fighting appears to be driven by an attempt by Azerbaijani forces to recapture swathes of territories occupied by Armenian forces in the Karabakh war after the Soviet Union collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris were displaced from these areas in 1992-4.
The escalation follows a tense year – a diplomatic standoff, belligerent rhetoric, and clashes in July to the north in the area of the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Populated areas within the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh have been hit by missile strikes and bombardments for the first time since the 1990s. Civilian targets in Armenia and in Azerbaijan have also been hit.
Both sides appear to be digging in for a longer conflict. Azerbaijan has rejected renewed negotiations with Armenia, and unlike in previous escalations, it has a greater degree of Turkish support to count on. The danger is that a longer, protracted conflict will see increased involvement by outside powers, risking a wider regional war.
International Community’s Reaction
Since the fighting started on Sunday, 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.
Russia plays diverse, often contradictory, roles in the conflict. Through bilateral ties and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Moscow provides Armenia with security guarantees, but these do not extend to the combat zone in Nagorno-Karabakh, 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 mediating the conflict.
Russia has called for a ceasefire, but unlike previous large-scale escalations, it has yet to convene a meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani political or military leadership.
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 United Nations Security Council on 29 September affirmed the primary role of the Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia, and the United States, of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
But concentrating sufficient international attention and commitment to renewing diplomacy will be challenging. The fighting coincides with a period of international distraction due to the global pandemic, the US elections, and a traditional pattern where the focus falls away once a ceasefire is agreed.
What Are The Latest Events In The Armenia – Azerbaijan Conflict?
In a brief statement on Sunday, Azerbaijan’s defense ministry said Armenian forces were shelling Ganja, a western Azerbaijani city lying to the north of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Defence Minister Zakary Hasanov said this was a “clearly provocative” move that was expanding the conflict.
One civilian was killed, local media reported.
In a later statement, the defense ministry said: “The information spread by the Armenian side about the alleged shelling of military facilities in Ganja city is provocative and false.
“As a result of enemy fire, civilians, civilian infrastructure, and ancient historical buildings were harmed.”
Meanwhile, Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities said that they had destroyed Ganja’s military airport.
They said they had acted after Stepanakert was hit by missiles and alleged the Ganja facility had been used by Azerbaijani forces to launch attacks on civilian areas.
Heavy casualties were reported in Stepanakert, which was left without electricity, according to the Armenpress news agency. Buses of people were seen leaving the city on Saturday.
Armenpress quoted the separatist region’s leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, as a warning that “from now on the military facilities permanently deployed in Azerbaijan’s major cities are legitimate targets of the defense army”.
Harutyunyan added that he had now ordered the shelling stopped, “to prevent the deaths of innocent peaceful civilians”.
Turkey condemned the shelling of Ganja, accusing Armenia of “targeting civilians”.
But Armenian defense ministry spokeswoman Shushan Stepanyan said that “that no fire of any kind is being opened from the territory of Armenia in Azerbaijan’s direction”.
Armenia provides military and economic support to Nagorno-Karabakh without officially recognizing the self-proclaimed region.