Azerbaijan and Armenia have been on the edge of the abyss since last Sunday. Despite international warnings, the fierce battles for the Nagorno-Karabakh Caucasus region still continue. “There are dozens of dead soldiers and dozens of wounded. There are dozens of dead and injured civilians,” said Arayik Harutunyan, president of the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The death toll on the Armenian side is said to have risen to 58. At least 100 other people, including many civilians, were injured. It is unknown how many victims the Azerbaijani side has to mourn.
Since the outbreak of the fighting, both parties to the conflict have accused each other of “provocation”: peaceful places, including the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh Stepanakert, were shelled with grenades, a spokeswoman for the Armenian Defense Ministry said early on Sunday morning. And:“all responsibility for this lies solely with the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan.” Immediately afterwards, Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan declared a state of war for Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region and ordered general mobilization. “We are facing an all-encompassing war in the South Caucasus,” he said in his speech to the Nation. This war could have “unforeseeable consequences"for the entire region of the South Caucasus and possibly beyond.
A conflict from the old days
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, spoke of a “provocation of Armenia”. In his speech to the nation, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said that his country had only responded to this provocation with a counter-attack on Armenian positions. He affirmed that " our soldiers were the first to fall “and implored his people:” the army of Azerbaijan today defends the territorial integrity of our country. Armenia is an occupying power. This occupation must end and it will end”. And: “our cause is just and therefore we will prevail. Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”
So what is it all about? The historians on this and on the other side of the common border trace the conflict over this relatively small territory between Azerbaijan and Armenia with its fascinating mountain landscape, dense forests and abundance of water back to the 1920s. Although the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants had been Armenians since time immemorial, Joseph Stalin, then Commissioner for the nationality question of the young Soviet Union, assigned its territory to the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. But even today, the mountain farmers of Karabach have a reputation for being particularly stubborn, even downright stubborn. Sixty years later, they took at their word Michael Gorbachev’s promise that “every Nation can choose its own path and determine its own destiny, territory and resources.” In 1988, its supreme party organs decided to secede from the" Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic “and unite with the"Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic”. This decision was peaceful, but one-sided; he plunged both Soviet republics into a devastating war and, last but not least, hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s cost the lives of some 30,000 people and resulted in ethnic cleansing on a macabre scale. The formerly flourishing minority of Azerbaijan’s 400,000 Armenians was forced to flee by bloody pogroms and massacres. The 200‘000 Azerbaijanis, who for generations knew only Armenia as their homeland, were also expelled from their ancestral homeland. When the bilateral war reached its climax in 1992, according to the UN Refugee Agency, a further 580‘000 Azerbaijani refugees were added-who had been expelled from the Armenian – occupied provinces of Azerbaijan around Nagorno-Karabakh. In the early 1990s, almost one Million people in Transcaucasia, disenfranchised, uprooted and without prospects, moved to the outskirts of major cities, to forgotten refugee camps or to ghost towns destroyed by war.
In 1994, Moscow brokered a ceasefire that cemented the military situation on the ground. The truce gradually degenerated into a state that could be described as “neither war nor peace.” Azerbaijan wants to reintegrate Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding provinces into its territory as soon as possible – and has tried again and again, especially in recent years, to win back Nagorno-Karabakh with offensive parts. The Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal assumes that the battles of today are also most likely due to Azerbaijan. Armenia has no interest in changing the status Quo on Nagorno-Karabakh, he told the Turkish opposition online Platform “Ahval”. In fact, Armenia was primarily concerned to legitimize the status Quo of Nagorno-Karabakh. “Azerbaijan is defending a piece of territory on Nagorno-Karabakh, and we are defending our people. That has been the case since 1988,” an Armenian Diplomat in Yerevan told me. During a visit to Stepanakert in 2019, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan affirmed: “Karabakh is Armenia point!”. Since 1994, more than 90 percent of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh consists of Armenians, and Baku has not exercised any power in this Region since then. Nevertheless: “Karabakh is Azerbaijan exclamation point!”, repeated Azerbaijani President Aliyev. Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan.
International community, alarmed
Can the approaching catastrophe still be averted? The Nagorno-Karabakh question undoubtedly has an identity-creating function for Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The memory of the war, of the pogroms and the mass expulsions is still fresh and omnipresent. Any populist politician could turn it into an emotional time bomb. And that is what makes this conflict so dangerous.
There is something else that highlights the explosive nature of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh among all the regional conflicts in the post-Soviet region: the 1994 ceasefire and the resulting loss of Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding provinces was a national humiliation for Azerbaijan. Since then, Baku has upgraded itself with state-of-the-art, highly refined weapons from Russia, Israel, Turkey and elsewhere and paid for these purchases with the Petrodollars, which until recently were plentiful in its coffers. Armenia followed this insurrection without end, albeit with less means. The Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (Sipri) ranks Azerbaijan and Armenia among the ten most militarized countries in the world today. The Caucasus expert Uwe Halbach of the German Foundation “science and politics”, warns that a new war could take place on a far higher military level than the first Karabakh war of the 1990s.
It is gradually dawning on the international community that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has the Potential to once again bring the whole Caucasus to the brink of the abyss. Since last Sunday, Russia, the EU, Nato and Washington have, with one voice, urged Yerevan and Baku to urgently cease their war activities and return to the negotiating table. All but one foreign policy player: Erdogan.
Play with fire
Armenia was the" biggest threat to peace in the Region, " Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, even before it was clear who fired the first shot. He immediately set the conditions for peace: “peace in the Region can only be achieved if the Armenian troops withdraw from the occupied territory of Azerbaijan, including Nagorno-Karabakh.” He immediately accused the international community of having contributed nothing to the resolution of the conflict all these years and instigated: “now Azerbaijan must take its fate into its own hands”. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who has blindly followed his president for the past four years, spoke of a “heinous attack by the Armenians”. Turkey would support the brother state of Azerbaijan “until the end with all means at its disposal”, he assured.
In its efforts to be respected as a regional power, Ankara has always adopted the same approach in its military operations abroad over the past four years: first, it declares an area of its neighbourhood, whether in Syria, northern Iraq, the eastern Mediterranean or Libya, to be Turkey’s zone of influence. The politicians then declared that the supposed “national interests of Turkey” or its allies were threatened in this area. Finally, the Turkish army uses its now well-oiled war machine in this area.
In 2010, Ankara made a contractual commitment to assist Azerbaijan in the event of war. Turkey, which shares the same language and culture with Azerbaijan, held back for many years in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. This has changed in the meantime. Under the terms of this treaty, the largest joint military exercises to date have been launched in Azerbaijan this summer, in Baku, Nakhichevan and Gendzhe. According to the Turkish press, thousands of Turkish soldiers participated. Ankara announced that it wanted to establish a military base on Azerbaijani territory.
It is a game with fire. In the event of a major armed conflict in the area, Russia would also have to defend this country on the Caucasus due to the countless agreements for military cooperation with Armenia. Up to 5000 Russian soldiers are also stationed on Armenian soil. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh would thus have far exceeded the scope of the regional conflict.