Over the last one week, military action in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has resulted in the death of at least 100 civilians and Armenian combatants. While the two countries have fought over the region for decades, the current conflict is being seen as one of the most serious in recent years. Azerbaijan has not released information on its casualties.
What is Nagorno-Karabakh?
Straddling western Asia and Eastern Europe, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but most of the region is controlled by Armenian separatists. Nagorno-Karabakh has been part of Azerbaijan territory since the Soviet era. When the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, Armenia’s regional parliament voted for the region’s transfer to Armenia; the Soviet authorities turned down the demand.
Years of clashes followed between Azerbaijan forces and Armenian separatists. The violence lasted into the 1990s, leaving tens and thousands dead and displacing hundreds of thousands. In 1994, Russia brokered a ceasefire, by which time ethnic Armenians had taken control of the region.
While the area remains in Azerbaijan, it is today governed by separatist Armenians who have declared it a republic called the “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast”. While the Armenian government does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as independent, it supports the region politically and militarily.
Even after the 1994 peace deal, the region has been marked by regular exchanges of fire. In 2016, it saw a Four-Day War before Russia mediated peace. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia and the US, has tried to get the two countries to reach a peace agreement for several years.
What is the fresh conflict about?
It began on the morning of September 27, since when each country has claimed to have inflicted serious loss on its opponent. What’s different about the current flare-up is that this is the first time that both countries have proclaimed martial law.
According to the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), the current escalation was “most likely” initiated by Azerbaijan. Media reports have noted that the clashes were possibly a fallout of Azerbaijan’s bid to reclaim some territories occupied by separatist Armenians.
The chairman of Azerbaijan’s National Council has said in a statement that the “military operation of the Azerbaijani army continues to clear the territories occupied by the enemy for almost 30 years”. He said September 27 was a “day of exhaustion” and alleged Armenia has occupied regions around Nagorono-Karabakh with the “direct support” of Russia to create a “security zone”.
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What are the stakes for Russia, and other countries?
Russia and Turkey also back opposite sides in the civil wars playing out in Syria and Libya and Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan may be seen as an attempt to counter Russia’s influence in the region of South Caucasus.
The conflict is getting worldwide attention because of the involvement of regional rivals Turkey and Russia. Muslim-majority Turkey backs Azerbaijan, and recently condemned Christian-majority Armenia for not resolving the issue through peaceful negotiations. Turkey recently declared unconditional support to Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.
Russia’s role is somewhat opaque since it supplies arms to both countries and is in a military alliance with Armenia called the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. In a statement released on Monday, Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, said Russia “has always taken a balanced position” on the matter and has “traditionally good relations” with both countries. He added that Russia is in contact with Turkey regarding the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Other countries, including the US, have limited their participation to appeals for maintaining peace so far. For all countries, the region is an important transit route for the supply of oil and natural gas to the European Union.
As of now, both sides are standing their ground. The Russian state news agency TASS quoted Azerbaijan President Ikhlam Aliyev as saying that for the fighting to stop, Armenia must unconditionally leave Nagorno-Karabakh.
On Monday, the Armenian government lodged a request with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for an interim measure (applicable only when there is imminent risk of irreparable harm) against Azerbaijan. It requested the court to indicate to the Azerbaijani government to “cease the military attacks towards the civilian settlements along the entire line of contact of the armed forces of Armenia and Artsakh”.