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Understanding the Recent Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh

Fighting has recently broken out in the Nagorno-Karabakh region disputed between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the past several days, over a hundred people have died, and a conflict that began with the breakup of the Soviet Union has expanded in new and dangerous ways.

In Short: Renewed fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region risks reigniting long-standing regional feuds, and could draw regional powers Russia and Turkey into a potentially explosive confrontation with global implications.

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A Violent History

The conflict in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region has its roots in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

  • The Soviet Union created the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1920s out of a majority-Armenian area within Azerbaijan.
  • As the Soviet Union began to fragment in the 1980s, simmering disputes over the region ignited, and in 1988 the region’s parliament declared their desire to join with Armenia. Azerbaijan responded by violently suppressing the growing separatist movement, leading to a downward cycle of ethnic violence.
  • Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and a full-scale war over the disputed region between Azerbaijan and Armenia soon followed.
  • The war halted with a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994, which left most of Nagorno-Karabakh, and around 20% of the Azerbaijani territory surrounding it, under Armenian control. Around 30,000 people died during the war and over one million were displaced.

Another Frozen Conflict

Since 1994 the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has become one of many “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union.

  • The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has tried to mediate peace talks since 1992, but these have been stalled for decades.
  • Ceasefire violations have occurred sporadically since 1994, with major clashes in April 2016 leaving dozens dead.
  • In mid-July clashes broke out along the northern Armenian-Azerbaijani border, far from Nagorno-Karabakh, that left over two dozen dead.
  • After the clashes, tens of thousands of people called for war with Armenia at protests in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. The protests represented a direct challenge to the rule of dictatorial President Ilham Aliyev.

The Recent Outburst

The most recent fighting broke out along the frontlines on September 27th, and have since reached an intensity not seen since the full-scale war in the 1990s.

A Regional Arena

Russia, Iran, and Turkey all have vested interests in the outcome of the fighting, and have become increasingly involved in the conflict in recent days.

  • Turkey has publicly taken a hard-line in support of Azerbaijan, with Turkish President Recep Erdogan reportedly telling the Azerbaijani government to “go as far as they wanted” with the fighting.
  • Russia is a key ally of Armenia, and has around 3,000 Russian soldiers stationed in the country under a mutual defence pact. The Russian government has called for an immediate ceasefire after the recent clashes, despite being accused of fomenting the conflict to maintain its dominance in the region.
  • Iran, which has a large ethnic Azeri minority and its own territorial disputes with Azerbaijan, has strengthened ties with Armenia in recent years. It has also consistently supported the Syrian government against Turkish-backed rebel forces in that country’s civil war.

Global Implications

The escalating fighting holds dire global implications, as the conflict threats to endanger economic and political stability in the Caucasus.

  • A wider conflict risks disrupting Azerbaijan’s exports of oil to Europe and the Middle East. The country’s economy is already suffering from low oil prices caused by the COVID-related global recession, and any disruption to exports may serve destabilize the country’s political system.
  • A Turkish intervention in the conflict could set off persistent tensions between Armenia and Turkey over the Armenian Genocide. Due to Russia’s mutual defence pact with Armenia, and Turkey’s membership in NATO, any such clash stands to seriously raise global tensions to a point not seen since the Cold War.
  • Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey have consistently backed opposing sides in the Libya and Syria conflicts, where their forces have directly attacked each other in recent years.

The Bottom Line: With rival regional powers backing the opposing sides in the conflict, the recent clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh risk turning a local “frozen conflict” into a wider regional war. Combined with the involvement of Turkey, a NATO member, and Russia, any escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict stands to have serious implications for global stability and security, at a time when global cooperation and peace is desperately needed.