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Explained: What is the Armenia Azerbaijan conflict in Nagorno Karabakh?

Explained: What is the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Explained: What is the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh?
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By Yashi Gupta  Oct 6, 2020 1:51:33 PM IST (Updated)

While these clashes are regular in the region, this time it was severe with both the countries proclaiming martial law. The alarms might draw in Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the conflict as well, in which case, the situations might escalate to war.

A week ago, Nagorno-Karabakh — also called Artsakh, a breakaway region in South Caucasus in Azerbaijan with an Armenian majority — witnessed violent acts that resulted in the deaths of over 100 people.

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While clashes are regular in the region, it was particularly severe this time with both the countries proclaiming martial law. There is fear that Russia, Turkey, and Iran might be pulled into the conflict as well.
The two former Soviet states have a dispute about the mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is an Armenian-controlled enclave, recognised internationally from the past three decades as a part of Azerbaijan.
So, what happened?
Elections organised in the spring of 2020 by the self-declared government of Armenia was viewed as a provocation by Azerbaijan and it also drew international criticism. In July 2020, as tensions escalated, more than a dozen people lost their lives.
On the morning of September 27, Azerbaijan allegedly launched air and artillery attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, claimed that it was conducting a “counter-offensive in response to the military provocation.”
According to the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), the current conflict was likely escalated by Azerbaijan in its bid to reclaim its territories occupied by the Armenian separatist group.
As the clashes continued to break out in the region, both the countries mobilized troops and declared martial law.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the international mediators missed the warning signs as the tensions mounted in the region.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Ankara (the capital of Turkey) and Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) share close cultural ties, given their shared Turkic heritage. On the other hand, Turkey and Armenia have a long history of tensions deepened by Ankara’s constant refusal to admit the 1915 Armenian genocide and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey has severed its trade and diplomatic relations with Armenia since 1993.
Russian role in the conflict is somewhat ambiguous majorly because technically enclave is a part of Azerbaijan and it can do whatever it wants in the region. But if the situation escalates, Russia would defend Armenia. It has maintained close economic ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan—by supplying weapons to both.
Russia’s relationship with Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) is deeper—Yerevan hosts a Russian military base and is a part of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Significance of the conflict
The region was always ripe for the renewed conflicts, but in the past Turkish and Russian cooperated to keep the tensions from worsening.
The conflict is drawing worldwide attention, majorly because unlike Russia Turkey promoting war by openly backing Azerbaijan militarily. It has always supported Baku politically, but this is new.
Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on September 28 that peace would come to the region only once Armenia withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh. A day later, Turkey announced its unconditional support to Muslim-majority Azerbaijan.
Turkey and Russia also back opposite sides in the Syria-Libya civil wars and Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan may be an attempt to counter Russia’s influence in South Caucasus.
Since the United States has stepped back, both Turkey and Russia have been trying to assert its dominance in the Middle East.
The relations between the three countries are getting increasingly complicated. On the one hand, Turkey alienated the US by buying antiaircraft missiles from Russia and cutting the natural gas pipeline deal with Ukraine; on the other hand; it managed to antagonize Russia by fighting proxy wars against it in Syria-Libya case.
The most striking significance of all—the pipelines connecting Turkey and Azerbaijan pass close to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. This pipeline is crucial for the EU’s oil and natural gas supply.
A quick recap
The conflict stems from Joseph Stalin’s (the former premier of the Soviet Union) decision to place Armenian majority region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan after the Caucasus was conquered by the Red Army (the army and the air force of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) in the early 1920s. Neither of the countries was pleased by the decision, but for a few decades, they did not seem to care.
As the USSR empire collapsed, clashes broke out between its Armenian enclave, which sought union with Armenia or independence, and its Azerbaijani minority. Following this, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan declared independence in 1991.
Azerbaijan could not stand its borders being violated by foreigners, so they declared war on the enclave. The enclave was supported by the Armenians. Some 30,000 people were killed and about 1m displaced before a ceasefire in 1994.
By 1994, Armenians had succeeded in driving Azerbaijani army from the Armenian enclave and nearby lands by capturing large areas of Azerbaijan. After the Russian intervention, a ceasefire was established between the two countries.
Since then, both the countries have remained inside their line of control marked by landmines and snipers.
The enclave is now ruled by The Republic of Artsakh; however, the United Nations still identifies Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Azerbaijani territory. Moreover, no country considers the enclave as a separate country, not even Armenia; however, it continues to support them financially and militarily.
As of October 2, Armenia had reported 158 fatalities among the troops, while Azerbaijan claimed 550 Armenian casualties, which the former denied. Meanwhile, Armenia contended that it has killed 200 soldiers, but Baku did not report any military casualties. However, both the sides have reported civilian causalities—Armenia 13 while Azerbaijan reported 19.
What now?
International mediation has failed to bring about a breakthrough in the region. The US tried to mediate and solve the conflict 20 years ago but they quickly dropped it off their agenda after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister since 2018, seemed open to talks when he came to office but has since reverted to a more rigid position. In a speech last year he called for Nagorno-Karabakh to be unified with Armenia. Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, on the other hand, has since ruled out negotiations.
The previous clashes in 2016 and in July 2020 lasted only for a few days, but currently, it is difficult to say whether or not these clashes would escalate into a full-blown war.
The fear is that Azerbaijan is now bent on taking back the entire enclave.
However, if the situations escalate, Russia and Turkey would also engage themselves in the conflict. So far, both countries have limited themselves to rhetorics only.
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