Karabakh flare-up risks major conflagration
Heavy fighting over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorny Karabakh has raised fears of large-scale war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in a region where both Russia and Turkey wield influence.
Here are the main questions raised by the latest developments in a conflict that has poisoned the Caucasus neighbours’ relations since the breakup of the USSR.
– What ignited the flare-up?
After weeks of warrior-like rhetoric, Azerbaijan announced a major counter-offensive, calling this a response to ceasefire violations by the Armenian rebel forces controlling the region, which broke away violently from Baku and where most residents are ethnic Armenians.
The separatists, who are supported politically, economically and militarily by Yerevan, say Azerbaijan is the aggressor, aiming to regain control of the region where clashes between 1988 and 1994 caused more than 30,000 deaths.
Ever since then the separatist enclave, lacking international recognition, has seen sporadic clashes between troops on either side of the de facto border, while separatists have retained control.
For Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group, the resurgence in clashes is mainly due to a lack of international mediation despite deadly clashes in July, not in Karabakh but along the official border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“Fighting in July caused a lot of emotion and calls for war (in both countries) that were unfortunately not contained by international mediation,” she said.
– How significant is the fighting?
Sunday’s resumption of hostilities saw a major increase in fire power, with Azerbaijan deploying aerial bombardments, tanks and artillery and claiming to have recaptured some territory.
“We see very coordinated actions in several places on the front line with both camps well prepared and trained,” said Vartanyan.
“In 2016 the fighting was mainly between reconnaissance units. Now, we have full-scale engagement with heavy weaponry,” said Gela Vasadze, a Tbilisi-based analyst.
In what he called a “first” since the early 1990s, Armenia and Karabakh have declared martial law and military mobilisation and Azerbaijan has imposed military rule.
Baku claims to have captured a strategic mountain, which if confirmed, could help it to bomb the main separatist city of Stepanakert.
Vasadze however suggested that neither side has “sufficient resources” to fight a war of “this scale for a long period”.
– Will the conflict escalate? –
For the analyst only a military incursion deep into the territory of Armenia or Azerbaijan — rather than clashes along the frontline — could spark direct intervention by Moscow or Ankara.
Turkey could come to the aid of Baku under their military agreements. Russia is Yerevan’s closest ally and they are tied together by a military alliance.
Vasadze added that “direct intervention would bring little benefit to Moscow and Ankara” and threaten the two regional powerbrokers’ economic ties.”
But Vartanyan pointed to Ankara’s growing support for Baku, shown by joint war games in August, which were the largest ever organised between the two countries.
“In addition to arms deliveries, it is unclear what further aid Turkey would be willing to provide. There are a lot of options on the table,” she said.
Armenia has accused Baku of being supported by mercenaries linked to Turkish forces in Syria, particularly military specialists and drone pilots.
Azerbaijan has also accused Armenia of deploying mercenaries.
– Diplomatic options? –
In Vartanyan’s view, only the Minsk Group, the mediation body since 1992, made up of France, Russia and the United States, could calm tensions.
“Diplomats need to start to travel again and talk with both sides,” she said.
Vasadze argued, however, that “reinforced intervention” by Washington and Brussels is needed, since he believes Moscow has murky motives.
“Russia’s aim is not to resolve the conflict but on the contrary, to periodically rekindle it, to retain its regional influence,” he said.