Armenia and Azerbaijan on the Brink of War

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 29.9.2020 14:44

Violence has flared up in Nagorno-Karabakh with both countries blaming each other over the latest escalation. The ongoing fighting is a huge blow to the fragile peace process, but the risk of a war could have a grave impact far beyond borders and threaten international peace and stability by embroiling regional powers such as Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces has once again erupted over the three decade long-disputed mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The disputed separatist enclave has been at the heart of a conflict between the two former Soviet Union republics in the Caucasus since the late 1980s and, while a ceasefire had been signed in 1994, the region witnessed sporadic clashes between both countries.

The recent border skirmishes in July which claimed sixteen lives were, until now, the most serious outbreak of hostilities in the region since the Four-day War in 2016. However, one of Europe’s frozen conflicts has evolved from periodic bouts of fighting to a region on the brink of a large-scale war should the situation further escalate.


What is Happening?

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have declared martial law and mobilised their armed forces following an escalation of conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region which led to reports of casualties among military personnel as well as civilians.

What led to the escalation this time remains unclear as both arch foes have continuously blamed each other for initiating hostilities. While Armenia accused its neighbour of launching a military operation inside the disputed separatist region, the latter maintained it attacked following Armenian shelling.

Nonetheless, witness accounts and multiple video footage revealing the destruction of tanks, helicopters and of anti-aircraft vehicles, shelling of towns in the enclave as well as evidence of casualties, highlight the unprecedented level of the conflict.

“Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have declared martial law and mobilised their armed forces following an escalation of conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.”


Armenian forces driving through Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, and heading towards the frontline. European Security Journal


While the fighting has prompted international calls for a ceasefire, prospects for an immediate de-escalation of the dispute over the breakaway territory seem rather slim as Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of a “full-scale military attack” on Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan has pledged to take back the enclave, by force if necessary.

Adding to this, a report by the Independent revealed last August that the rival countries had engaged in a dangerous arms race, acquiring missiles, (un)manned aircraft, tanks and howitzer artillery cannons - a modern arsenal which would most likely exacerbate an armed conflict between both countries.

As to why the sudden escalation of violence between the two countries, many analysts believe that governments of both countries may have political interests in waging war following the Covid-19 pandemic impact on oil and gas prices.


What is the Root Cause of the Conflict?

Despite the vast majority of its population being ethnically Armenian and Orthodox Christian, the Soviet government established the autonomous region within the Muslim-majority Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. As the Soviet Union began to collapse, Nagorno-Karabakh overwhelmingly voted in favour of independence from Azerbaijan in 1988.

When the Soviet Union finally dissolved in 1991, the autonomous region officially declared independence leading to a bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and more than one million displaced.


Mapping the disputed territory. European Security Journal


The war finally ended in 1994 after a Russia-brokered truce, with Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent districts under Armenian military control, yet still legally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Since then, both countries have remained in one of the bloodiest and most intractable disputes to emerge from the breakup of the USSR, and all attempts to resolve the conflict have thus far failed. 

Attempts to produce a sustainable peace in the South Caucasus have been blocked by the uncompromising attitudes of both governments leading to a “frozen conflict” situation with a highly militarised border and sporadic skirmishes.


Possible Foreign Interference?

Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan are, similar to any other conflict,  ripe for exploitation by regional powers, among them Turkey and Russia, which further adds complexity and danger to the highly volatile situation. 

Russia and Armenia, both members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), signed a deal in August which extends Russia’s military presence - of 5,000 Russian military personnel - in the country in exchange for security guarantees. Russia’s presence in the country acts as a crucial deterrent against the possible threat of a Turkish intervention in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is also worth noting that Armenia’s lower defence budget makes Yerevan more dependent on Russian support.

Meanwhile Turkey, which has kept its border with Armenia closed since 1993 and still remains at odds over the Armenian Genocide, has been vocal from the beginning in vowing total support for Azerbaijan, has called for a complete Armenian withdrawal from the disputed autonomous region and promised to support Baku “with all our means in their fight to protect their territorial integrity”.


Convoy of pick-up trucks in the city of Horadiz transporting alleged Syrian mercenaries. European Security Journal


Ankara has been accused by Yerevan of providing direct military support to Azerbaijan by using drones as well as US-built F-16 jets against Armenian targets. There have also been increasingly (unconfirmed) news reports as well as accounts of Syrian mercenaries airlifted to Azerbaijan by the Turkish government.

“Russia and Turkey will likely engage each other in the same way they did in both Syria and Libya while fighting continues between Baku and Yerevan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.”


While both parties are fully committed in their war of words whereby each vows to achieve victory over the other, regional powers - Russia and Turkey - will likely engage each other in the same way they did in both Syria and Libya while fighting continues between Baku and Yerevan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

Direct full scale Russian and Turkish involvement would seem highly unlikely due to the risks of miscalculation. Despite Ankara’s and Moscow’s uneasy partnership and clashing interests in two civil wars, they still remain more likely to fill the diplomatic vacuum left by the European Union and the United States and convince their respective allies to return to the negotiating table.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy


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