Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A simmering conflict on Russia’s volatile southern border threatens to escalate into an all-out war with the potential to attract NATO ally Turkey.
In the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which was claimed by both Armenians and Azerbaijani, there was fighting for a second day. Dozens of service members on both sides were reportedly killed in a flare-up of violence that began Sunday morning. The ethnic Armenian majority in the region waged a bloody civil war of Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union fell apart three decades ago. A tense ceasefire – but not a lasting peace – has since kept tensions high in the Caucasus, an area where Russia, Turkey and Iran have historically rivaled each other.
“The attack came. There were numerous signals, everyone saw them and did nothing for weeks,” tweeted Olesya Vartanyan, senior analyst of the International Crisis Group. “There was a need for proactive international mediation. Many found reasons to accept this attack. If you keep silent now, expect real war.”
International mediation is officially in the hands of a group co-chaired by France, Russia and the United States. Russia, the dominant power in the region for 200 years, has the greatest clout. It has a defense pact with Armenia and an inland military base, but the Kremlin also has good relations with Azerbaijan. Turkey’s relations with Armenia are marred by the mass murders of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915, which many historians have termed genocide. Turks and Azeris share an ethnic kinship, and relations between Turkey and Armenia have been frozen due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“Turkey continues to stand together with the friendly and fraternal Azerbaijan with all its institutions and its heart,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday, blaming Armenia for the renewed fighting.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry claims that Azerbaijan is “receiving extensive military-political support from Turkey” in the form of advisers and weapons, including drones. The ministry says the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh in Armenian, are fighting a “Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance”. Azerbaijan, rich in oil and gas, has built up its military over the past two decades.
“Settling the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is our historic mission,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told his Security Council on Sunday. “We must resolve this so that historical justice can be restored. We must do this to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.”
The declaration of independence by the ethnic Armenian majority of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan, sparked a war with tens of thousands of victims that resulted in a troubled ceasefire in 1994. No country, not even Armenia, has recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country.
The danger now is that the regular Armenian army will become involved in the fighting with Azerbaijan, Vadim Mukhanov, a Caucasus expert at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations, told Meduza news site.
“What we see after the first day of escalation is armaments, aviation, heavy artillery and drones being deployed, suggesting that this was not a spontaneous but a well-planned operation,” Mukhanov said. “If this conflict is not stopped by serious external pressure, it will result in a war that would be a catastrophe. It would affect the entire North Caucasus region and hit all major players, including Russia and Turkey.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on Sunday. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan had a troubled partnership, and their interests have often clashed in Syria and Libya.
In Nagorno-Karabakh Russia is calling for an end to hostilities and “maximum restraint” on all sides. Putin spoke to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and the Kremlin said the Russian President would speak to Aliyev “if necessary”.
“At the moment, the most important thing is to stop hostilities and not find out who is right and who is wrong,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. He said Russia would use its traditionally good relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve the conflict.
The United States is also on friendly terms with both countries. “We have many good relationships in this area,” said President Trump on Sunday about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “We’ll see if we can stop it.”