Clashes erupt and armies are mobilizing in Nagorno-Karabakh: Will Azerbaijan and Armenia go to war?
Background of the conflict
Armenia and Azerbaijan’s conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has deep historical roots that go back to the 20th century. The region was populated for centuries by Christian Armenian and Turkic Azeris and became part of the Russian empire in the 19th century. Both groups lived in relative peace with occasional exchanges of force until the early 20th century.
After the end of the First World War, between 1918 and 1920 both Armenia and Azerbaijan gained their independence from the Russian Empire. However, the Soviet Union encompassed the two countries and possessed a significant part of their independence. The new Soviet rulers established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, with an ethnic Armenian majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in the early 1920s.
During the 1980s, the Gorbachev’s liberal policies weakened the control over the Caucasus, and as a consequence, many strikes and protests emerged in the region. The conflict exploded into violence when the region’s parliament voted to join Armenia. During the fighting, in which between 20,000 and 30,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives, the ethnic Armenians gained control of the region. They also pushed on to occupy Azerbaijani territory outside Karabakh, creating a buffer zone linking Karabakh and Armenia. As a result, thousands of Azerbaijanis left the region.
The conflict reached its peak in 1989 when thousands died in one of the cruellest battles in the Caucasus. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, in late 1991, Karabakh declared itself an independent republic, further escalating the conflict into a full-scale war. That de facto status has not been recognised internationally. The violence lasted until May 1994 when a cease-fire, the Bishkek Protocol, was signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the Russian-brokered ceasefire left Karabakh as well as swathes of Azeri territory around the enclave in Armenian hands. The ethnic Azeri population which made up about 25% of the total before the war, fled.
Since the ceasefire, there has been relative peace, however, tensions remained. Azeris resent the loss of land they regard as rightfully theirs, while the Armenians show no sign of willingness to give it back. Furthermore, the closure of borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan has caused landlocked Armenia severe economic problems.
There have been attempts at talks between the 2 parties, in 2009 for example, but progress stalled, and since then there have been a number of serious ceasefire violations. The most serious up until the latest fighting occurred in April 2016, when dozens of soldiers on both sides died in a fresh flare-up of hostilities.
Latest clashes and mobilization
In recent weeks, fighting in the disputed region has once again erupted, and it appears this time, both sides are taking the possibility of war seriously. The fighting is the heaviest seen in the long-running conflict since 2016, when at least 200 people were killed in clashes.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a televised address that Azerbaijan’s “authoritarian regime has once again declared war on the Armenian people.”
“We are on the brink of a full-scale war in the South Caucasus, which might have unpredictable consequences,” he added. “We are ready for this war.”
He later urged his compatriots to pledge “that we won’t retreat a single millimeter” from defending the disputed breakaway region in Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, the president of Azerbaijan declared a partial military mobilization in the country as part of a presidential decree on Monday morning. Armenia began a general mobilization on Sunday.
Turkey and Russia’s roles re-examined
Russia maintains a military base in Armenia, and is seen as an ally to Yerevan. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics.
Turkey, meanwhile, is considered an ally of Azerbaijan, and has been vociferously criticizing the Armenian government.
In a statement posted on Twitter following a phone call with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the Armenian people to stand against leaders who he said were “dragging them to catastrophe,” before adding that Ankara’s solidarity with Baku would “increasingly continue.”
Both Russia and Turkey are deeply embroiled in the conflict, and are observing developments attentively. As it stands, Turkey is likely to militarily support Azerbaijan based on their relationship and latest comments. Meanwhile, it seems like Russia intends to send in peace-keeping troops in the case of a war, however, given Russia’s military bases in Armenia and various instances of support, it is not out of the question that Russia provides support to Armenia.
However, it now appears that Russia and Turkey could work together to maintain peace in the region, due to their common interests.
Russia and Turkey are in constant contact about the situation in Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh, the Kremlin said Monday.
Urging Azerbaijan and Armenia to stop all military activity that could further heighten tensions in the territory, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the fighting was a cause for serious concern in Moscow.
He continued by saying that Russia is closely following the situation and that the conflict had to be resolved through diplomacy.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held phone calls with his Russian and Azerbaijani counterparts on Sunday over the escalating conflict. Turkey has sided with Baku and warned Yerevan to immediately cease hostility toward Azerbaijan.
The stakes have become so high that Turkey and Russia could now be the crucial players in maintaining peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, Turkey’s siding with Azerbaijan could reduce the possibility of success.