Armenia-Azerbaijan: A local conflict with a frightening global reach

The last 48 hours have seen Nagorno-Karabakh, a tiny Armenian-backed enclave inside Azerbaijan, become the focus of some of the fiercest military exchanges on the planet.

Those inside and around the territory have witnessed an almost complete theatre of war. The fighting, which broke out after an apparent Azerbaijani attack on Armenian positions on Sunday morning, has employed air power, heavy artillery, mortars and tanks. Both sides have reported dead and wounded among military and civilian populations – from dozens through to the mid-hundreds, depending on the reports.

Videos showed shells sticking into the ground from guided rockets, tanks bursting into flames, and dozens of charred bodies. There were also reports of Grad missiles, a notoriously indiscriminate rocket system, being used near to civilian populations.

For those further afield, the skirmishes might appear somewhat less than significant. The conflict between the former Soviet brethren is, after all, a long-running one. The latest round of hostilities is far from unexpected – or even the first this year.

But with both sides digging in, the potential for a longer and catastrophic war seems obvious. And this time around, the fighting also has much broader geopolitical dimensions.

Turkey’s role in apparently pushing the conflict is the major new factor at play. The regional superpower has long taken the side of Azerbaijan in the conflict – that is certainly not new. But contacts have increased since the last flare-up in July, with evidence suggesting the support has taken on a much clearer military dimension.

In recent months, Ankara has supplied Baku with sophisticated drones and smart munitions. These were employed to devastating effect in the last 48 hours. There are also credible reports of several hundred mercenary fighters, recruited by Turkey in Syria, being deployed in the region.

Turkish president Recep Erdogan has been forthright in his public support for the Azerbaijani military operation. On Monday, he said peace would only return to the region when “Armenia … leaves the occupied Azerbaijani territories”. He added it was time “to put an end …  to the crisis beginning with the occupation of Nagorno-Karabkh”.

Yerevan has been equally forthright in its condemnation of what it described as “genocidal Turkish-Azerbaijani alliances”.

The Turkish belligerence contrasts strongly with the neutral positions of other traditional power brokers in the region.

The United States, which enjoys friendly nations with leaders in both Baku and Yerevan, has mostly retreated from the region as it concentrates on elections in November. “We’re looking at it very strongly …  We’ll see if we can stop it,” was all the president, Donald Trump, could manage on Sunday evening.

Perhaps more remarkably, Moscow has also kept its distance, limiting interventions to diplomacy and pro forma calls for a ceasefire.

On paper, Russia remains a military guarantor of Armenia, long considered its closest ally in the Caucasus. But it also enjoys extremely close economic and military links to the richer, oil nation of Azerbaijan. Trust between Moscow and Yerevan has meanwhile become strained since the revolution of 2018, which saw former journalist Nikol Pashinyan rise to the presidency to the reluctant acquiescence of those in Moscow.

“There is a sense that the Kremlin is offended by what happened in 2018,” says the political analyst and Carnegie fellow Arkady Dubnov. “They want Armenia to know who is boss.”

On Monday, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Vladimir Putin was monitoring the situation “very closely”. Russia was likely to continue to sit it out, Dubnov suggests. “It will watch until it becomes clear who will win,” the expert said.

Iran, the other major regional power, which borders both countries, appeared spooked by the outbreak of fighting. It has strong relations with Yerevan and recently eased tense ties with Azerbaijan.

On Sunday, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif  called for an end to hostilities and offered to mediate between the two countries as shells from the fighting struck several villages in the country’s northwest.

“We cannot tolerate military clashes continuing on our borders and we have been putting all our efforts towards achieving peace in the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying.

Fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh has gone on for more than a century, but its origins in the modern era can be traced to the late Soviet period. Armenian forces claimed the region around the time of the USSR’s collapse. The bloody war that followed over from 1992 to 1994 cost 20,000 lives.

The conflict has festered continuously since then, driving a wedge between Armenia and Azerbaijan and whipping up fervent nationalism in both countries. Russia, Turkey, Israel and other countries have meanwhile fuelled the standoff by selling the two sides increasingly advanced weaponry.

Turkey’s boisterousnew presence in the conflict adds a new dimension, and is unlikely to be welcomed by Russia. At a minimum it complicates an already ambiguous and volatile relationship. A nightmare scenario – theoretically possible via treaty obligations – would be a direct standoff between Moscow and Ankara.

A more likely – and immediate – threat is the prospect of serious escalation on the ground between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with civilians on both sides falling under the fire of increasingly heavy artillery.

A full, protracted war could have devastating repercussions. The conflict zone encompasses a region of the world crowded with gas and oil pipelines and other energy infrastructure, including a nuclear power plant in Armenia.

“The scary thing is it isn’t clear how either side can walk away with a narrative of victory,” says Thomas de Waal, author of the definitive history of the conflict. Both sides were heavily militarised, he said, and supported by increasingly emotional populations. “The Azerbajanis want more ‘liberated’ territory, while the Armenians want a harsher response to the “aggressor”.

“I hope I’m wrong, but I’m afraid it is only a matter of time before an apartment block is hit,” he said.

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