For approximately four decades, territorial disputes and ethnic conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Central Asia have impacted the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the South Caucasus. This past weekend, tensions escalated at the border between the two countries and resulted in the death of at least four Azerbaijani soldiers. Following the killings, Armenia and Azerbaijan were engaged in a verbal spat, accusing the other for having instigated the most recent conflict.
On July 6, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev had said peace talks with Armenia had stalled over the ongoing conflict between the two nations in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
What is this conflict about?
Conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region began following the breakdown of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and lasted till approximately 1994, with both Armenia and Azerbaijan claiming this strategic territory. At that time, the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh had held a referendum boycotted by Azerbaijan where the people chose independence over joining either of the two countries.
The conflict between ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh reached a particular low with Armenia and Azerbaijan accusing each other of having instigated ethnic cleansing. The situation worsened when the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, an administrative unit, decided to vote to join Armenia given its large Armenian population. By 1992, the violence had increased and thousands of civilians had been displaced, compelling international bodies to take notice.
In May 1994, Russia mediated a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but the conflict has continued for three decades, with instances of ceasefire violations and violence instigated from both sides.
What has the situation been like since the ceasefire?
Experts say the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been tense since 2018, particularly after Azerbaijan moved troops into the area, close to its border with Georgia. In a break from the violence that the disputed region has witnessed for over 30 years, this area has been relatively calm for the past two years.
In April 2016, the region was particularly tense because of violent fighting between the two countries in what came to be known as the Four-Day War. Since then, while there have been sporadic instances of flare-ups in the region, it came nowhere close to the situation in 2016.
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What happened this past weekend?
It was not immediately clear what started this round of fighting over the weekend. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence said three Azerbaijani soldiers were killed on Sunday and one on Monday in the artillery fire near the Tavush region, in northeast Armenia. Five other soldiers were injured. Reports suggested that two Armenian soldiers had also been injured during this incident.
According to a BBC report, Azerbaijan had said it had destroyed an Armenian fortification and artillery and had inflicted casualties on “hundreds” of Armenian soldiers, a claim that Armenia had denied. On Monday, the Azerbaijani president doubled down on his government’s claim that Armenia had started the fighting, saying: “Armenia’s political and military leadership will bear the entire responsibility for the provocation.”
Armenia in turn said Azerbaijan had triggered the conflict, with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announcing during a cabinet meeting on Monday that Azerbaijani “provocations will not be unanswered”.
The defence minister had added that Armenian forces “do not shell civilian targets in Azerbaijan and only target the engineering infrastructure and technical facilities of the Azerbaijani armed forces”.
What is next for Nagorno-Karabakh?
Observers believe an all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is unlikely due to a number of factors. In this disputed region, there are hundreds of civilian settlements, residents of which would be directly impacted and potentially displaced if any large-scale war were to break out between the two countries.
Although Turkey released a statement following the developments this past weekend that it would back Azerbaijan “in its struggle to protect its territorial integrity”, observers believe any military escalation would draw regional powers like Turkey and Russia more deeply into the conflict, something that wouldn’t be preferred by either Ankara or Moscow.
There is also the question of the network of oil and gas pipelines and strategic roads to which access might be blocked or interrupted for the region at large should any large-scale fighting ensue. For both Armenia and Azerbaijan, these would create immediate challenges, leading observers to believe that a war would not be in the interest of both countries.
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