The largely mountainous and forested Nagorno-Karabakh, home for some 150,000 people, is at the centre of the conflict
Story so far: Fresh clashes erupted on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border on Sunday, threatening to push the countries back to war 26 years after a ceasefire was reached. Dozens have been killed so far as the violence is entering the third day. The conflict between the two former Soviet republics has wider geopolitical implications as Turkey, which shares a border with Armenia, is backing Azerbaijan, while Russia, which has good ties with both countries, has called for a ceasefire.
Why are they fighting?
The largely mountainous and forested Nagorno-Karabakh, home for some 150,000 people, is at the centre of the conflict. Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan but is populated, mostly, by those of Armenian ethnicity (and mostly Christian compared to the Shia Muslim majority Azerbaijan). The conflict can be traced back to the pre-Soviet era when the region was at the meeting point of Ottoman, Russian and the Persian empires. Once Azerbaijan and Armenia became Soviet Republics in 1921, Moscow gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan but offered autonomy to the contested region.
In the 1980s, when the Soviet power was receding, separatist currents picked up in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1988, the national assembly voted to dissolve the region’s autonomous status and join Armenia. But Baku suppressed such calls, which led to a military conflict. When Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the clashes led to an open war in which tens of thousands of people were killed. The war lasted till 1994 when both sides reached a ceasefire (they are yet to sign a peace treaty and the border is not clearly demarcated).
By that time, Armenia had taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh and handed it to Armenian rebels. The rebels have declared independence, but have not won recognition from any country. The region is still treated as a part of Azerbaijan by the international community, and Baku wants to take it back.
What triggered the current clashes?
Despite the ceasefire, there were occasional flare-ups on the border. In July this year, at least 16 people were killed in clashes. After Sunday’s violence, Azerbaijan and Armenia blamed each other. Baku said it was forced to respond after Armenian attacks killed and wounded Azeris. The Defence Ministry said the troops have captured territories from Armenian forces. Armenia, on the other side, blamed Azerbaijan for launching the “large-scale” attack targeting peaceful settlements. Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have claimed that dozens were killed in the region in the Azeri attack.
What is the strategic significance of the region?
The energy-rich Azerbaijan has built several gas and oil pipelines across the Caucasus (the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea) to Turkey and Europe. This includes the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (with a capacity of transporting 1.2 billion barrels a day), the Western Route Export oil pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline. Some of these pipelines pass close to the conflict zone (within 16 km of the border). In an open war between the two countries, the pipelines could be targeted, which would impact energy supplies.
What’s Turkey’s role?
Turkey has historically supported Azerbaijan and has had a troublesome relationship with Armenia. In the 1990s, during the war, Turkey closed its border with Armenia and it has no diplomatic relations with the country. The main point of contention between the two was Ankara’s refusal to recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide in which the Ottomans killed some 1.5 million Armenians.
On the other end, the Azeris and Turks share strong cultural and historical links. Azerbaijanis are a Turkic ethnic group and their language is from the Turkic family. After Azerbaijan became independent, Turkey established strong relations with the country, which has been ruled by a dynastic dictatorship. In July, after the border clashes, Turkey held a joint military exercise with Azerbaijan. On September 28, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Armenia for the most recent clashes and offered support to Azerbaijan. There were reports that Turkey was recruiting mercenaries from West Asia to fight for Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. This fits well into Ankara’s aggressive foreign policy, which seeks to expand Turkish interests to the former Ottoman territories. Recently, Turkey has either joined conflicts or stepped up tensions in West Asia, East Mediterranean, North Africa and now the Caucasus.
Where does Russia stand?
Moscow sees the Caucasus and Central Asian region as its backyard. But the current clashes put President Vladimir Putin in a difficult spot. Russia enjoys good ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and supplies weapons to both. But Armenia is more dependent on Russia than the energy-rich, ambitious Azerbaijan. Russia also has a military base in Armenia. But Moscow, at least publicly, is trying to strike a balance between the two. Like in the 1990s, its best interest would be in mediating a ceasefire between the warring sides.