08 October 2020

What's at stake in the latest Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes

What had been largely a forgotten "frozen conflict" mere weeks ago is now no longer.

Following an Azerbaijani military offensive on 27 September in Nagorno-Karabakh - a disputed territory internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan but administered by ethnic Armenians - clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified to a level unseen in decades. Dozens of soldiers and civilians have been killed and hundreds injured on both sides in what had appeared to be a "frozen conflict" mere weeks ago.

The recent fighting is more than a run-of-the-mill periodic flare-up that Nagorno-Karabakh has occasionally seen since the end of the 1988-94 war in which ethnic Armenian separatists established the unrecognised Republic of Artsakh over the territory. The renewed violence has not only spilled beyond the border region, but also become a conflict involving regional powers in the South Caucasus.Yerevan, Baku and the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh in Stepanakert are not the only parties to the conflict. Much is at stake for Russia and Turkey as well. Russia and Turkey's spheres of influence overlap in the South Caucasus, a region that is also a corridor for gas and oil pipelines that run from Azerbaijan to supply the international market. Construction of a proposed gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan could see Azerbaijan become a link between Central Asia and Europe, a move that would increase the country's importance in energy markets even more.

However, Turkey and Russia reacted very differently to the conflict. A historic opponent of Armenia and a firm ally of Azerbaijan, Turkey allegedly sent as many as 300 Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan, a charge the Azerbaijani government denies. On 30 September, three Syrian contractors working for Turkish security companies were reportedly killed in the disputed territory. On the other hand, Russia, which maintains a military base in Armenia but also supplies military equipment to both countries, has officially proclaimed its neutrality. As the conflict entered its second week, President Vladimir Putin indicated on 7 October that Russia does not have an obligation to defend Armenia because the war with Azerbaijan is not taking place in Armenian territory. Putin's remarks came ahead of Turkey's planned test of a Russia-made S-400 missile-defense system. To the disappointment of Yerevan, Moscow showed that it values maintaining good ties with Turkey much more than with Armenia, even if Turkey's ambitions come at the expense of its own hold over the South Caucasus.

The conflict has generated international attention, not only for the scale of the recent violence but also for its potential to determine the future of the long-disputed region and create a shake-up in the regional balance of powers. The recent violence is not only the culmination of simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also the result of Turkey's increasingly aggressive stance abroad. Strong backing from Turkey has emboldened Azerbaijan in its military campaign against Armenia to change the facts on the ground by retaking territory lost after 1994.

In Armenia, there is likewise strong support to continue military operations. A Turkish-backed Azerbaijani victory would likely end in mass displacement of ethnic Armenians from the Republic of Artsakh. If the separatists were to lose too much ground, even more direct Armenian intervention would follow to ensure that the status quo antebellum is upheld. With implications likely to far extend beyond Armenia and Azerbaijan, clashes between the two sides are likely to continue despite calls for restraint and ceasefire from the international community. Expect the fighting to continue until it establishes a new equilibrium of regional powers in the South Caucasus.