A ceasefire broken, hundreds dead and two of the world’s largest military powers backing opposite sides, the conflict in the Nagorno – Karabakh region of Azerbaijan is quickly spiralling into one of the worst ongoing conflicts in the world. Nationalist sentiments and proxy scheming abound. A ballistic missile attack this week on civilian infrastructure shows the frightening potential of what is to come.
But how has it come to this point?
The Nagorno – Karabakh region is an oblast of primarily ethnic Armenians within Azerbaijan created by the Soviet Union in 1923. It has no land border with Armenia. After both countries broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991 a period of war followed. In 2006 the region declared its independence with its own constitution and elected officials. It continues to be internationally recognised as Azeri territory. Recent tensions can be traced back to the 2019 election of nationalist Armenian President Nikola Pashinyan. Empowered by a perceived backing from Russia, rhetoric under his government increased until conflict broke out on the 27th of September this year. Azerbaijan for their part have repeatedly claimed they wish to seek a peaceful solution, perhaps tied to an increasing effort in recent years to make the country more appealing to western nations. However there is a growing anti-Russian sentiment among those who fear that they may be part of a developing proxy conflict between Turkey and Russia.
Turkey and Russia are in a somewhat deteriorating relationship. Both governments backed different sides of the Syrian civil war, and Turkey’s unequivocal demands that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity be maintained appear to leave them on a collision course with Russia. While historically neutral though slightly favouring the Armenians, Vladimir Putin’s resolve is being tested by what appears to be increasing ambitions from Armenia. In many ways the solution to this conflict may lie in how far Russia are willing to back their historic ally in what may lead to a devastating showdown.
What is clear is that Russia will need to act soon. Backed by modern weaponry from Turkey with state-of the art drone attacks and long range missiles, Azerbaijan easily outgun Armenia, who use older Soviet-era machinery. There is a real fear that if Russia pulls out entirely that Azerbaijan would push to reclaim its territory. Armenia has historically faced oppression from the Turks, and it could look to target Azerbaijan’s infrastructure. This includes oil pipelines carrying crude oil from the Caspian Sea, vital for Western markets. Worse still, a direct attack on Armenia itself would, by virtue of a military pact with Moscow, force Russia to intervene militarily.
This reality appears thus far to be manifesting itself. Mediation efforts from Russia and Iran have failed. A truce backed by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had been signed last week. This ceasefire did not last.
Within minutes of its signature, both sides were accusing the other of attack. The most serious confirmed attack came when Armenia bombed Azerbaijan’s second largest city of Ganja, almost 100 miles north of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Such an attack plays into Turkey’s hands as they have long claimed that Armenia has harboured broader territorial desires. Speaking with EU Council President Charles Michel on Monday, President Erdogan warned him of the threat to Azerbaijan’s territory being one of utmost importance to the EU, given the energy pipelines running through the area to Europe. Responding to the attack via Twitter, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev called the Armenian attacks “a war crime” and threatened to respond with “a befitting retaliation” The current death toll sits at over 555, of which over 60 are civilians.
Russia has called on all sides to respect the treaty, while a UN spokesperson has said the UN is “very disappointed to receive reports of ceasefire violations” and considers them “unacceptable”. Speaking to AP, local resident Larisa Azeryan said “We do not feel the ceasefire at all. We do not get out from here to our flats. We all stay here, we eat here, sleep here. The whole day is spent here in the basement.”
With Armenia now also controlling large territories surrounding the Karabakh region, there is real appetite in Azerbaijan for their president to stick to his guns and flex the muscle afforded to him by Erdogan. There are even reports to indicate that Turkey is to send Syrian mercenaries to aid the Azeri, though President Erdogan denies such claims.
Whatever the outcome may be, some things are clear. The same horrid forces and political powers that generated the conditions for war continue to contribute to it. Be it the divvying up of land as Russia saw fit or the atrocities of the Armenian genocide committed by Turkey, then names of the leaders may have changed but innocent people continue to die. It can only be hoped that this time peace finds a way.