By Lara Kovandova
The world is witnessing the worst outbreak of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia in decades. The recent conflict was sparked a month ago over the disputed ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenia. A patchwork of religions and ethnicities, it is greatly significant and meaningful to both countries. Considered their Jerusalem, both the peoples of Armenia and Azerbaijan perceive it as central to their identity.
Nagorno-Karabakh was seized from Azerbaijan by Armenian forces in 1994 after a bloody war that lasted years and swept across both countries – though the roots of the conflict run deeper, and can be traced back to the First World War. After decades of living peacefully side by side under the Soviet Union, the eruption of the war caused an estimated 20,000 deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people: a dramatic episode in the countries’ recent history.
Though the war was halted by a ceasefire, the grievances on both sides were left unaddressed, and tensions simmered. The loss of Nagorno-Karabakh was a traumatic experience for Azerbaijan, and the ceasefire left 600,000 Azerbaijani stranded away from their homes. On the other hand, Nagorno-Karabakh, mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, is vulnerable to attacks from Azerbaijan. The threat Karabakh Armenians felt from Azerbaijan was a central reason for Armenia’s occupation of the area in the first place.
On September 28, 2020, Azerbaijan launched an offensive. Trying to restore national pride and statehood, it is attempting to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh, its lost territory. Now, both countries have declared martial law and have mobilised their troops.
Although clashes over the disputed territory have been regular since the end of the bloody ethnic war that ended in 1994, the scale of the newly-ignited conflict is greater, more threatening, and has the potential of dragging in Turkey and Russia. Turkey is an important ally to Azerbaijan in the region, and has explicitly expressed its support in the Azerbaijani struggle. On October 5, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president declared “we stand by [the Azerbaijani] in their holy struggle until victory.” The generous support may have emboldened Azerbaijan in its military offensive, as this is the first time that Turkey is offering not only political support, but also military. Russia, reluctant thus far to get involved in the struggle, is nevertheless bound by a defence pact with Armenia, pledging to defend it if its sovereignty were under attack.
The current fighting differs from the one in the 1990s. Now, it is marked by intense artillery and armed ‘suicide drones’ capable of tremendous calamity. Destructive, they are also able to document their kills – which is exploited for propaganda use. The footage capturing large-scale destruction of enemy tanks is disseminate in the media in an effort to take back control of the narrative. Over 700 Armenian soldiers have already been killed in an effort to slow the Azerbaijani advances. At the time of writing, Azerbaijan has not disclosed records of its military death toll. The continued conflict threatens to subject civilian areas close to the front lines to disarray and death.
So far, diplomatic attempts by the international community to reach a definitive ceasefire and curb the latent devastation of a war have failed, with truces consistently violated. A continued escalation of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding may usher in a more dangerous, irreversible phase of the conflict with no possibility of a return to negotiations.
Image: by WikimediaImages via Pixabay