The most recent fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian armed forces broke out in the morning of 27 September 2020. Both countries introduced martial law and announced the mobilization of the military reserves. Each side accused the other in starting the military offensive and blame each other on civilian casualties.
Despite the call from the international community to stop the fighting and start peaceful negotiations, the conflict has been escalating. Each side claims heavy losses in both the personnel and military equipment suffered by the opposite force. The lack of an independent, impartial reporting from the frontline in the mist of the mutual propaganda and accusations makes it impossible to have an accurate account of the situation.
This centuries-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged in 1988 when the region mainly populated by ethnical Armenians announced its secession from Azerbaijan and its intention to join Armenia. That triggered ages-old animosities between the two peoples and ethnic clashes began in both then Soviet republics. This occurred in the final years of the USSR, constituent parts of which both Armenia and Azerbaijan were. That was one of the first ethnic-territorial conflicts within the declining Soviet empire.
The violent clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis increasingly escalated into a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1992 which lasted until 1994 when the truce was signed. By then Armenian military forces apart of Nagorno-Karabakh also controlled about the tenth of Azerbaijan’s territory outside the enclave, including a mounting pass linking it with Armenia. Over thirty thousand people were killed in the conflict, the inter-ethnic сlashes, ethnic cleansing and the war resulted in the mass exodus of almost a quarter-million Armenians and seven hundred thousand Azerbaijanis, which became a serious political factor in both countries.
In 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed itself an independent state ‘Republic of Artsakh’ whose statehood is not recognised internationally and which is a de facto client state of Armenia. The breakaway region is considered by the international community de jure a part of Azerbaijan. Interestingly that even Armenia officially has not recognised its statehood.
The peace talks between the conflicting parties began in 1994. They were mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group but despite involvement of such major players as France, Russia and the US have failed to achieve a peace treaty. In this frozen conflict, the skirmishes from time to time have occurred, but they rarely escalated into full-blown military clashes. However, this time it is different as there has not been such scale, intensity and ferocity of fighting since 1994.
Many international observers tend to consider that this latest escalation has been started by the Azerbaijani forces and there is a number of reasons to believe so despite the denials by the country’s officials and its propaganda. First of all, there is no reason to think that Armenia would have gained anything from the escalation as it controls Nagorno-Karabakh and even some other territories of Azerbaijan, thus it should be quite satisfied with the status quo. Meanwhile, the president of Azerbaijan stated that as the quarter-century-long peace negotiations did not deliver any satisfactory results, this time his country is determined to take back its legitimate territories.
The current geopolitical situation seems to be quite favorable for such efforts. The US, Russia and the EU have been currently dealing with the pandemics and an economic downturn caused by it. Besides, the American leadership at the moment is preoccupied with the presidential elections while Russia is focused on the situation in Belarus and the ongoing domestic protests in various regions.
At the same time, ‘brotherly’ Turkey is an open and committed supporter of Azerbaijan’s aspirations to recapture its legitimate territories. Over the recent years, Turkey, the growing regional superpower, provided substantial military and technical assistance to their ally, which now militarily is better equipped than Armenia.
Both countries recently held joint military exercises in Azerbaijan, after which some of the Turkish troops and its military equipment, including F-16 jet-fighters, remained in the country. It is also remarkable that the Turkish minister of deference stated that peace in Nagorno-Karabakh would come only after the restoration of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
In such circumstances, Azerbaijan is in preferential conditions, both geopolitically and militarily. Actually, Armenia could counterbalance these with help from Russia, its ally, but apart of already said before, there are some other factors which make Russia refrain.
It seems that although both Turkey and Russia regard each other as their regional geopolitical competitor, Russia is not currently interested in damaging their relations of partnership in other conflicts such as Syria and Libya. Besides, the Russia’s autocrat president Vladimir Putin feels hostile toward Armenian democratically elected government led by Nikol Pashinyan. It came to power as a result of peaceful mass protests that swept away the former corrupt authoritarian government supported by Moscow.
At the same time, Armenia can count on its numerous and a quite influential diaspora, especially in the US and France, which could press their governments to act upon. Armenian American super popular TV and the social media star Kim Kardashian alone with over a quarter of a billion followers between her Instagram and Twitter accounts has significant lobbying potential. Kim started a campaign in support of Armenia, and she has been asking her followers to demand from their representatives and the president to put pressure on Azerbaijan and Turkey to stop the offensive.
Some international defense analysts also argue that the technological superiority of the Azerbaijani army is balanced by the better preparedness of the personnel of the Armenian armed forces, given that in this kind of conflicts infantry still plays a crucial role. This is especially true for a mountainous theater of military operations. In contemporary warfare, the strategical communications play an increasingly important role, and both sides try to fully use the potential of the information-psychological operations in parallel with the military operations on the battlefield. This is why the official claims about the number of the casualties and the successes of the particular army operations should be taken with a much of caution.
So where is it all going? As the surprise factor of an offensive is gone the initial impulse of this escalation will go into decline soon too. The fight is not over yet, and it looks like this stage of the war will be protracted as militarily the forces of the both sides are approximately equal, and neither is going to give in or even retreat. Therefore, it seems that this war will remain far from its denouement, as the conflicts of this kind are extremely difficult to bring to a lasting peaceful resolution.
Usually, the lasting peace would be possible in two cases. One is when one side wins a decisive victory by the military means, and the other side fully accepts that. Another is when both parties realize that there is no military solution and through negotiations they eventually come to a compromise.
Unfortunately, both Armenia and Azerbaijan still believe that they can decisively defeat militarily the other side and make them to accept it. In this situation, the international community could play a more active role not just in stopping the bloodshed and bringing both parties to the negotiation table, but also in designing an agreement acceptable for both parties of the conflict.
*Oleg Chupryna, PhD Candidate, Centre for European and Eurasian Studies, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University, Ireland