Why You Should Care About the Escalating Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Almost 100 people have so far been killed in the latest outbreak of fighting around the Nagorno-Karabakh pocket, a dispute over which has been simmering for decades between Armenia and Azerbaijan—punctuated by upticks in violence claiming hundreds of lives.

The Nagorno-Karabakh region is internationally-recognized Azeri, land but is controlled by ethnic Armenians as the self-declared Republic of Artsakh. The two nations were at war between 1988–94 over the region, which broke away from Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The two main players are relatively small, relatively poor nations—2.9 million Armenians and 9.9 million Azeris located in the strategic Caucasus corridor connecting Europe and Asia, bordered by major powers Russia, Turkey and Iran.

So far, the fighting has been largely in the Nagorno-Karabakh pocket with its 150,000 residents. But escalation could draw in Armenia's official forces—already mobilized—and prompt full-scale war between Yerevan and Baku.

Geopolitical, economic and cultural considerations have brought foreign nations into the local dispute. This week's eruption of violence is the most serious since 2016, and could draw the region's two main power brokers—Turkey and Russia—into the mix on opposing sides.

Azerbaijan can count Turkey among its closest backers. Azeris are a Turkic people and the country is majority-Muslim, meaning successive governments in Ankara—particularly those led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—have been keen to support Baku. Turkey also runs joint energy projects with Azerbaijan.

Erdogan has vowed to back the Azeris, demanding Armenia end the "occupation" of Nagorno-Karabakh. On Monday, Erdogan said it was time for the dispute to be "to be put to an end."

Some have suggested a direct Turkish hand in the fighting. Unconfirmed reports have said Turkey has deployed Syrian mercenaries to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh—as it already has done in Syria and Libya—while others have said Turkish drones, warplanes and military advisers are present on the frontlines in support of the Azeris.

Anna Naghdalyan, a spokesperson for Armenia's foreign ministry, accused Turkey in a tweet Tuesday of "active encouragement, political & mil support" of Azeri forces.

Turkey and Armenia have historically fraught ties; a result of the World War One era Armenian Genocide that Ankara still denies. Between 1915 and 1923, Armenian groups say as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire, of which Turkey is the modern successor state.

Turkey puts the death toll in the hundreds of thousands, and says those who died did so fighting against government troops rather than in an orchestrated genocide. Nonetheless, large numbers of Armenians were forcibly relocated to the deserts of Syria and elsewhere during this period, many dying on the way.

Armenia is part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization that protects members from external aggression. Moscow—which has so far urged a ceasefire and negotiations—could yet be pulled in to help its allies in Yerevan. Russia has a military base in the country and provides weapons to the Armenian armed forces.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said Moscow is closely tracking the situation but urged a diplomatic resolution. The foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey spoke by phone shortly after fighting erupted, and according to the Russian Tass state news agency also stressed the importance of a ceasefire and dialogue.

Russia and Turkey have already taken opposing sides in the civil wars in Syria and Libya, and another proxy confrontation in the Caucasus cannot be ruled out if Yerevan and Baku end up engaged in full-scale conflict.

Still, the Kremlin maintains good relations with Azerbaijan and is part of the Minsk Group—along with France and the U.S.—which has the international responsibility to mediate on the conflict.

The Minsk Group's last significant peace effort collapsed in 2010. President Donald Trump said Sunday that his administration is monitoring the conflict and will try to avoid further escalation.

Other nations keeping a keen eye on Nagorno-Karabakh include Israel, which has expanded weapons sales to the Azeris in recent years. These include so-called "suicide drones"—unarmed vehicles packed with explosives than can loiter over the battlefield for hours before diving onto a target. One of these drones destroyed an Armenian bus in 2016, killing seven soldiers.

Israel is also keen to retain good relations with Azerbaijan to help contain arch-rival Iran to the south. For the same reason, the U.S. has upped its security investment in Azerbaijan from around $3 million in 2016-17 to some $100 million in 2018-19. Armenia received $4.2 million in U.S. security assistance in the 2018 financial year.

As such, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh plays into the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. Tehran has called for calm and offered to moderate peace talks. Iran will see the conflict as a way to expand its diplomatic influence, something Israel and the U.S. have been trying to undermine through all possible means.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh, war
People greet Azeri service members in military vehicles on September 27, 2020 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Aziz Karimov/Getty Images/Getty