Heavy fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. The international community fears a war between the two countries, in which Russia and Turkey will also face each other.
1. What are the fights about?
About a sparsely populated mountain region over which Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at war once before. Tens of thousands of people died in the Battle of Nagorno-Karabakh between 1988 and 1994. Armenia won the war and has ruled the mountain region ever since, but the international community sees Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan.
Both countries have been preparing for years for an attempt by Azerbaijan to retake the region. Shelling is part of daily life in Nagorno-Karabakh (150,000 inhabitants). With each intensification of the air strikes, the question is whether they will usher in Azerbaijan’s final ground offensive to recapture the region.
2. Which country launched the attack?
Armenia and Azerbaijan blame each other for every outbreak of violence and that is no different now. It is clear that only one party has an interest in war: Azerbaijan. President Ilham Aliyev makes no secret of wanting to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh. On state TV, he said on Sunday that “our counter-offensive will end the 30-year occupation.”
Armenia has a particular interest in the status quo. The country owns the territory it wants to own and calls for an armistice after every outbreak of violence, with Armenia retaining de facto ownership of the region.
3. Why are these battles different from those of the past 30 years?
In any case, it is the heaviest fighting since 2016. Air strikes and artillery killed at least 37 people on Sunday and Monday. Azerbaijan conquered strategically important positions, but has already lost them, according to Armenia.
Both countries expect the fighting to intensify. The Armenian government has declared martial law and has begun a general mobilization. The Azerbaijani government also declared martial law in parts of the country.
4. Why would Azerbaijan want to strike right now?
Azerbaijan has an increasing chance of retaking Nagorno-Karabakh. Thanks to oil revenues, the country has built up a large and modern army in recent years. The defense budget is almost ten times that of Armenia.
An advantage for Azerbaijan is that it seems distracted abroad. The US, a mediator in the conflict, has long made an aloof impression under President Trump and is even more focused on its own country due to the US elections. Another mediator, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, is facing an internal leadership crisis.
At the same time, Azerbaijan feels increasingly supported by its most important ally: Turkey. Turkey has usually called for a peaceful solution in the past, but now openly encourages an Azerbaijani military campaign. Other countries should also support Azerbaijan in “the fight against invasion and cruelty,” Turkish President Erdogan said on Sunday.
The Turkish support, according to some reports, consists of fighters and weapons. Two fighters in northern Syria told Reuters news agency that they have received an offer from pro-Turkish fighters groups to fight in Azerbaijan. Armenia says Turkey has already relocated 4,000 fighters from Syria. Azerbaijan denies those reports.
5. Why can a war for Nagorno-Karabakh have major geopolitical consequences?
The conflict can put Russia and Turkey against each other. While Turkey is on the side of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, Russian support goes to predominantly Christian Armenia. The Russians have a military alliance with Armenia and have a military base there. That alliance obliges Russia to defend Armenian territory. If Turkey immediately intervenes in an Azerbaijani operation to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh, then there is a growing chance that Russia will be drawn into war.
But Russia wants to prevent war from breaking out in the Caucasus, which, according to President Putin, belongs to the Russian sphere of influence. Russia is the main mediator in Nagorno-Karabakh and, despite its military alliance with Armenia, also has lucrative links with Azerbaijan. The Kremlin has a good relationship with the government in Baku and makes a lot of money from arms deliveries to Azerbaijan. Putin called Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinjan on Monday to call for a ceasefire as soon as possible.
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