Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A seething conflict on Russia’s volatile southern border threatens to escalate into all-out war, with the potential to lure NATO ally Turkey.
The fighting continued for a second day in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, claimed by both Armenians and Azeris. Dozens of service members on both sides were killed in a flare-up of violence that began Sunday morning. The ethnic Armenian majority in the region fought a bloody war of secession from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union fell apart three decades ago. A tense ceasefire – but no lasting peace – has since kept tensions high in the Caucasus, an area in which Russia, Turkey and Iran have historically competed.
“The attack was coming. There were numerous signs, everyone saw them and did nothing for weeks,” Olesya Vartanyan, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, tweeted. “There was a need for proactive international mediation. Many have found reasons to accept this attack. If they are silent now, expect a real war.”
International mediation is formally in the hands of a group chaired by France, Russia and the United States. Russia, the dominant power in the region for 200 years, has the most weight. It has a defense pact with Armenia and a military base in the landlocked country, but the Kremlin also maintains good relations with Azerbaijan. Turkey’s relations with Armenia are clouded by the 1915 mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, which many historians have described as genocide. Turks and Azeris share an ethnic kinship, and ties between Turkey and Armenia have been frozen due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
“Turkey continues to stand with friendly and fraternal Azerbaijan with all its structures and heart,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday, blaming Armenia for the new fighting.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry says Azerbaijan is receiving “large-scale political-military 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 spent the past two decades strengthening its army.
“The solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh question is our historic mission,” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told his security council on Sunday. “We have to solve this problem so that historical justice can be restored. We have to do it to restore the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.”
The declaration of independence by the ethnic Armenian majority of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region within Azerbaijan, sparked a war with tens of thousands of victims that ended in a disturbing ceasefire in 1994. No country, not even Armenia recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country.
The danger now is if the regular Armenian army gets involved in fighting with Azerbaijan, Vadim Mukhanov, a Caucasus expert at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations, told Meduza news site.
“What we are seeing after the first day of escalation is that armor, aviation, heavy artillery and drones are being used, which suggests that this was not a spontaneous but well-planned operation,” Mukhanov said. “If this conflict is not stopped with serious external pressure, war will come, which would be a catastrophe. It would send ripples across the entire North Caucasus region and hit all major players, including Russia and Turkey.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov phoned his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu on Sunday. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan have had a difficult collaboration, and their interests have often clashed in Syria and Libya.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia is calling for an end to hostilities and “maximum restraint” from all sides. Putin spoke to Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and the Kremlin said the Russian president will also speak with Aliyev “if necessary”.
“Right now, the most important thing is to stop the hostilities and not try to understand who is right and who is wrong,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. He said Russia will use its traditionally good relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan to resolve the conflict.
The United States also has friendly ties with both countries. “We have a lot of good relations in that area,” President Trump said on Sunday about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “We’ll see if we can stop him.”