Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: why does the Caucasus outbreak risk a wider war

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Par Laurence Brothers
South Caucasus Expert, Chatham House

image copyrightEPA

legendBoth sides appear to be immersed in a longer conflict, risking increased involvement of outside powers

The resumption of hostilities is raging between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the southern Caucasus.

In scale and scale, the fighting that erupted on Sunday exceeds the periodic escalations of recent years, involving heavy artillery, tanks, missiles and drones.

To date, there are over 100 confirmed deaths among civilians and Armenian fighters killed in action. Azerbaijan does not publish data on its military losses, but it can be assumed that these are at least as high.

The fighting appears to be motivated by an attempt by Azerbaijani forces to retake parts of territory occupied by Armenian forces during the Karabakh War after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris were displaced from these areas in 1992-4.

The escalation follows a tense year – a diplomatic standoff, belligerent rhetoric and clashes in July in the north in the international border area between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

What are the dangers?

Previous escalations between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces were contained after a few days. The intensity of the current fighting indicates that this may not be possible this time around.

Populated areas of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh were hit by missile strikes and bombing for the first time since the 1990s. Civilian targets in Armenia and Azerbaijan were also hit.

image copyrightReuters
legendThe fighting since Sunday has led not only to the deaths of soldiers, but also of civilians

The two sides appear to be fueling a longer conflict. Azerbaijan has rejected resuming negotiations with Armenia and, unlike previous escalations, it has more Turkish support to count on. The danger is that a longer and protracted conflict will see increased involvement of outside powers, risking a wider regional war.

What is Turkey’s role?

Turkey has traditionally provided moral and diplomatic support to its Turkish compatriot and key geostrategic partner, Azerbaijan. Contacts between defense officials from the two states intensified after the July clashes and joint military exercises followed.

Since the fighting began on Sunday, Turkey has declared its unconditional support for Azerbaijan and appears to be lending Azerbaijan various types of military capabilities. There is no doubt that the popular Turkish military drone technology is being deployed.

Yerevan also accused Ankara of downing an Armenian SU-25 plane on September 29, which Ankara denies. While such claims have already been made and found to be false, there are also unconfirmed – but growing – claims that Turkey has mobilized Syrian mercenaries to fight for Azerbaijan.

What is the role of Russia?

Russia plays various, often contradictory roles in the conflict. Thanks to its bilateral relations and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow offers Armenia security guarantees, but these do not extend to the Nagorno-Karabakh combat zone, which is internationally recognized. as part of Azerbaijan. Moscow is also supplying arms to both sides and is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Conflict Mediation Group.

Russia has called for a ceasefire, but unlike previous large-scale escalations, it has not yet called a meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani political or military leaders.

Moscow has a difficult relationship with the new Armenian ruler after 2018, Nikol Pashinyan, and Yerevan would undoubtedly prefer to handle the escalation as much as possible on its own. Russia was unable in the 1990s to deploy peacekeeping forces on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian doubts that Moscow’s aid would come with conditions attached urge caution in asking for Russian support.

media legendFuneral in Azerbaijan for one of the dead soldiers

As long as the combat is confined to contested territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, the optics of preserving Russian neutrality make overt involvement of Moscow unlikely. However, a longer conflict with growing Turkish participation would threaten Russia’s dominance in an area it sees as part of its sphere of vested interests, and invite a response.

How has the international community reacted?

With the exception of Turkey, other regional and world powers have called for restraint. Iran, Georgia and Qatar offered to mediate. A meeting of the United Nations Security Council on September 29 confirmed the primary role of the Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia and the United States, of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in the mediation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

But it will be difficult to focus sufficient international attention and commitment to renew diplomacy. The fighting coincides with a period of international distraction due to the global pandemic, the US election, and a traditional model where attention shifts once a ceasefire is agreed.

How could the events unfold?

A rapid and consolidated military success, either through the recapture of important territory by Azerbaijan or through the repression of Azerbaijani operations by Armenian forces, could pave the way for a ceasefire, but trigger internal instability. in the part that is doing the worst.

The longer the fighting lasts and / or a party is seen as losing out in a more protracted fight, the more likely it is that Russia and Turkey will face difficult choices to become more involved.

Laurence Broers is Director of the Caucasus Program at the peacebuilding organization Conciliation Resources and author of Armenia and Azerbaijan: Anatomy of a Rivalry

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