Heavy fighting erupted along the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan claiming more than 500 lives. People are killing each other over the mountain territory called Nagorno-Karabakh, a region occupied by the armed forces of Armenia but internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan. Soldiers and civilians are being killed and life has moved underground. There has been a dispute between the two countries over this area for decades and war has also flared up between the two earlier. Peace talks have been ongoing for 27 years but no progress had been made so far. The current war is just a diplomatic failure. As countries like Russia and Turkey take an entry, the question that is now being asked globally is whether World War III has started amidst the Covid – 19 pandemic.
History of the war
The history of their dispute goes back generations. Armenians accounted for about 77% of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh while Azerbaijan accounted for 22%. In the seven adjacent districts surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh, roughly 95% of the population was ethnic Azerbaijani. The two communities lived in peace in the Soviet Era. But things started falling by the end of the Soviet period.
In the 1920s, the Soviet government established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region within Azerbaijan. In 1988, the Nagorno-Karabakh legislature passed a resolution to join Armenia despite the region’s legal location within Azerbaijan’s borders. As the Soviet Union was dissolving in 1991, the autonomous region officially declared that it would not join either of the countries and officially declared independence. Armenia laid territorial claims against Azerbaijan and tensions arose. In 1992 a full-scale war ignited Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region. By 1993 Armenian forces came out on the top and took control over Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied 20 per cent of the surrounding Azerbaijan territory. They ethnically cleansed Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts. Russia mediated a cease-fire which was signed in 1994. Peace talks started between Armenia and Azerbaijan with Russia, France, and the United States acting as the primary mediators. Numerous proposals were negotiated but the most feasible one was The Minsk Group’s Mirage of Progress introduced in 2007. But a compromise was no longer on the table. Azerbaijan warned to take back its territories by force, while Armenia threatened to take even more territories. By 2020 negotiations have been ongoing for 27 years, all in vain. Not a single land had been returned to Azerbaijani control. In April 2016, the region was tense because of the greatest outbreak in violence since the cease-fire.
Role of other Countries
What makes this particular fight far more dangerous is the external intervention. Turks and Azerbaijanis enjoy a special relationship on all front. Turkey’s connection to Azerbaijan is cultural, ethnic, and historic. Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin says “We call ourselves one the nation, two states.” Turkey has declared its unconditional support to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is using military drones supplied by Turkey and Israel. Turkey is also accused of recruiting Syrian fighters to help against Armenians which Turkey and Azerbaijan deny. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is an opportunity for Turkey which is trying to expand its geopolitical reach and enter the South Caucasus. So Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh started looking for outside help. Russia is in a good tie with both Armenia and Azerbaijan however, Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a host to a Russian military base. So it was expected that Russia would aid Armenia. Under Article 4 of the CSTO treaty, Armenia can seek help from Russia and if Moscow responds favorably, it would mean that Russia will come face-to-face with Turkey, a NATO member. Russia remained neutral and hosted talks in Moscow for a truce as it is already involved in military conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and Libya and didn’t want to open another front. Russia has remained indifferent and rejected to aid Armenia mainly because fighting is taking place not in the territory of Armenia but in Karabakh which belongs to Azerbaijan. Russia cannot get involved as long as there is no danger to the Republic of Armenia. But as war tightens with increasing Turkish participation, Russia will be forced to take sides and is likely to support Armenia. Meanwhile, for Iran, the situation in Karabakh represents a dilemma. Iran had allied with Armenia against Azerbaijan. Roughly a quarter of the population in Iran is ethnic Azerbaijani. However, recently military equipment has been spotted being transported to Armenia through Iran. This lead to protests by Azerbaijanis in Iran in the major cities and attacks in the border checkpoints with Iran and the road connecting it. To ease the social tensions, Iran has withdrawn its open support for Armenia. Azerbaijan operates a large fleet of Israeli drones and maintains political, military, and commercial ties with Israel. If Azerbaijan succeeds in taking control of Karabakh, then Israel will gain a foothold on Azerbaijan possibly allowing for Israeli military operations against Iran in future. South Caucasus is a place where foreign policy is driven by neighbouring powers- Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Whenever the relationship between these three changes, the results immediately affect Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Regional and global powers have called for mediation with the exception of Turkey. But putting insufficient international attention and commitment to renewing diplomacy will be challenging especially when the world is distracted due to the global pandemic and the US elections.
Let’s wrap up..
Based on visual confirmations and geolocations by neutral parties, things are not looking so good for Armenia. It is losing more than a dozen vehicles a day and the number of causalities is rising. It is rapidly decreasing Armenia’s capacity for counterattacks. Armenian military is collapsing fast. Azerbaijan on the other hand has just as many human causalities but it has captured more military vehicles than it has lost. War has been so far going in favour of Azerbaijan. Experienced researcher of conflicts in the South Caucasus and a Practitioner of peacebuilding initiatives in the region, Dr Broers says “if one side appears to be losing, then outside powers might intervene and we would have a broader conflagration.” There is still time to negotiate a diplomatic resolution. The longer the fighting goes on the more likely it is that Russia and Turkey will face difficult choices over whether to become more involved. If it so happens, the current clashes which are confined to Nagorno-Karabakh could evolve into a full-blown war involving heavy intervention by Turkey and Russia.