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Violent exchanges of fire and heavy bombardment echo once again in the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh, an isolated region on the edge of Europe that has seen several major wars since the fall of the Soviet Union.
On Tuesday, the South Caucasus nation of Azerbaijan announced that its armed forces had launched “local counterterrorism activities” in Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies within Azerbaijan’s borders but is controlled as a breakaway state by its population of Armenian origin.
Today, as fighting rages and allegations of an impending “genocide” reach a fever pitch, all eyes are on the decades-old conflict that threatens to draw in some of the world’s greatest military powers. .
What is happening?
For weeks, Armenia and international observers have warned that Azerbaijan was massing its armed forces along Nagorno-Karabakh’s heavily fortified contact line, preparing to mount an offensive against local ethnic Armenian troops. Clips shared online showed Azerbaijani vehicles daubed with an upside-down “A” symbol, reminiscent of the “Z” sign painted on Russian vehicles before the invasion of Ukraine last year.
In the early hours of Tuesday, Armenian officials in Karabakh announced that a major offensive by Azerbaijan was underway, with air raid sirens blaring in Stepankert, the de facto capital. The region’s approximately 100,000 residents were ordered by Azerbaijan to “evacuate” via “humanitarian corridors” leading to Armenia. However, Azerbaijani forces control all entry and exit points and many residents fear they will not be able to pass safely.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s top foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, insisted to POLITICO that “the goal is to neutralize military infrastructure” and denied that civilians were being targeted. However, unverified photographs posted online appear to show damaged apartment buildings, and Karabakh’s Armenian human rights ombudsman Gegham Stepanyan reported that several children were injured in the attacks.
Concern is growing over the fate of civilians caught in the crossfire, as well as the risk of a new large-scale war in the former Soviet Union.
How did we get here?
During the Soviet era, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, home to both ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis, but the lack of internal borders made its status largely irrelevant . Everything changed when Moscow lost control of its peripheral republics and Nagorno-Karabakh was officially left inside the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan.
Amid the collapse of the USSR from 1988 to 1994, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces fought a series of grueling battles in the region, with Armenians taking control of swaths of territory and forcing the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands ethnic Azerbaijanis, razing several towns. on the ground. Since then, citing a 1991 referendum – boycotted by the Azerbaijanis – Karabakh Armenians have unilaterally declared independence and maintained a de facto independent state.
For nearly three decades, this situation remained stable, with both sides stuck in a stalemate maintained by a line of bunkers, landmines and anti-tank defenses, often cited as an example of one of the few “frozen conflicts” in the world. world.
However, everything changed in 2020, when Azerbaijan launched a 44-day war to regain territory, conquering hundreds of square kilometers around Nagorno-Karabakh. This left the ethnic Armenian enclave connected to Armenia proper by a single road, the Lachin Corridor – supposedly under the protection of Russian peacekeepers as part of a ceasefire agreement -fire negotiated by Moscow.
What is the blockade?
As Russia’s ability to maintain the status quo rapidly diminishes in the face of its increasingly catastrophic war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan has moved to take control of all access to the region. In December, amid a conflict allegedly over illegal gold mining, self-described “eco-activists” – acting with the support of the country’s authoritarian government – staged a sit-in on the road , halting civilian movement and forcing the local population to rely on Russian peacekeepers and the Red Cross for supplies.
This situation has worsened over the past two months, with a newly erected Azerbaijani checkpoint on the Lachin corridor refusing to allow the passage of any humanitarian aid except for one-off, occasional deliveries. In August, amid warnings of empty shelves, malnutrition and a worsening humanitarian crisis, Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, released a report calling the situation a “genocide in progress.” .
Azerbaijan denies imposing the blockade on Nagorno-Karabakh, with Hajiyev telling POLITICO that the country is ready to reopen the Lachin corridor if Karabakh Armenians accept transport routes from inside Azerbaijan-held territory. Aliyev has repeatedly called on Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh to withdraw, local politicians to resign and those living there to accept being governed as part of Azerbaijan.
Why have things escalated now?
In recent months, the US, EU and Russia have urged Azerbaijan to maintain confidence during diplomatic negotiations aimed at ending the conflict once and for all, rather than seeking a military solution to assert its control over the entire region.
As part of the negotiations in Washington, Brussels and Moscow, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan made a series of unprecedented concessions, going so far as to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory. However, his government maintains that it cannot sign a peace agreement that does not include internationally guaranteed rights and security for Karabakh Armenians.
Aliyev has categorically rejected any such arrangement, insisting that there should be no foreign presence on Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory. He insists that as citizens of Azerbaijan, those living there will have the same rights as any other citizen – but he has continued his fierce anti-Armenian rhetoric, including describing separatists as ‘dogs’ , while the government issued a postage stamp after the 2020 war depicting a worker in a hazmat suit “decontaminating” Nagorno-Karabakh.
Refusing to accept the compromise, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of blocking the peace process. According to former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, a military escalation is necessary to force a deal. “It may be a short-term confrontation, or it may be a war,” he added.
Facing growing domestic pressure amid dwindling supplies, Karabakh’s former Armenian president, Arayik Harutyunyan, resigned and called elections, which was castigated as a provocation by Azerbaijan and condemned by the EU, Ukraine and others.
Azerbaijan also claimed that Armenian saboteurs were behind the landmine explosions that it said killed six servicemen in the region, without presenting any evidence to support the claim.
What is Russia doing?
Armenia is officially an ally of Russia and a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) military bloc. However, Russian peacekeepers deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh have proven completely unwilling or unable to contain Azerbaijani advances, while Moscow has refused to offer Pashinyan the support he demanded following the capture of strategic heights in the region. inside Armenian borders during an Azerbaijani offensive last September.
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko previously said Azerbaijan had better relations with the CSTO than with Armenia, despite not being a member, and described Aliyev as “our man.”
Since then, Armenia – the region’s most democratic country – has sought to distance itself from the Kremlin by inviting an EU civilian observer mission to the border. This strategy has accelerated in recent days, with Pashinyan telling POLITICO in an interview that the country can no longer rely on Russia for its security. Instead, the South Caucasus country sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and Pashinyan’s wife traveled to Kiev to show her support, while also hosting US troops for exercises.
Moscow, which maintains close economic and political relations with Azerbaijan, reacted furiously by summoning the Armenian ambassador.
In a Telegram message posted Tuesday, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president and secretary of its security council, said Pashinyan “decided to blame Russia for his botched defeat.” He ceded part of the territory of his country. He decided to flirt with NATO and his wife brought cookies to our enemies. Guess what fate awaits him…”
Who supports who?
The South Caucasus is a tangled web of shifting alliances.
Besides Russia, Armenia has established close relations with neighboring Iran, which has pledged to protect it, as well as with India and France. French President Emmanuel Macron has already joined negotiations in favor of Pashinyan and the country is home to a large historical Armenian diaspora.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, operates on the basis of the “one nation, two states” principle with Turkey, with which it has deep cultural, linguistic and historical ties. It also receives large shipments of weapons and military equipment from Israel, while supplying gas to the Middle Eastern country.
The EU has turned to Azerbaijan for help in replacing Russia as an energy supplier. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made an official visit to the capital, Baku, last summer with the aim of increasing natural gas exports, describing the country as a “reliable and worthy partner”. trust “.