The Continuing Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh
With tensions at the highest point in recent years, Armenia and Azerbaijan both enacted martial law starting September 27. The conflict has led to casualties in both countries. Armenia’s state-run Armenian Unified Infocenter reported 220 casualties of army servicemen, 21 civilian deaths, and 82 civilian injuries. Azerbaijan has not released figures for its military casualties, but as of October 6, the Press Service of the Prosecutor General of Azerbaijan reported 27 civilian deaths, 141 civilian injuries, 63 destroyed civilian facilities, and 376 homes destroyed.
Following six days of fighting, the Armenian government has announced that it is ready to engage with the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group – Russia, France, and the U.S. – to establish a ceasefire, with the stipulation that the deal would be based on the 1994-1995 agreements. Azerbaijan has rejected the call for negotiations with the OSCE Minsk Group because of Armenia’s demands for prerequisites, as Armenia has consistently ignored the prerequisites called for by four U.N. resolutions—resolutions 822, 853, 874, and 884—which demand the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied territories.
Turkey, a vocal supporter of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, backed up Azerbaijan’s stance on the issue. Turkey’s Minister of National Security Hulusi Akar denounced the OSCE’s calls for a ceasefire, referring to them as “not sincere and far from credible.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also criticized the OSCE Minsk Group in the opening of the autumn session of the Turkish Parliament, stating that “the solution to the problem will come after the withdrawal of the Armenian Armed Forces from the territory of Azerbaijan.” “The calls of the countries that ignore the fact of occupation mean nothing to us,” he added.
On October 2, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met via a phone conference. According to a statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry, both countries agreed on an immediate call for a ceasefire, with Russia offering to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Russia and Iran are calling for diplomatic measures to bring an end to the conflict, their actions indicate different objectives.
Iran, which shares a border with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, claims neutrality in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On September 30, President Hassan Rouhani held a phone call with Nikol Pashinyan where the two leaders agreed that the clashes should be resolved through discourse and international laws. In a phone conversation on September 30, President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi told Shahin Mustafayev, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister, that Iran was willing to serve as a mediator. Additionally, Vaezi stated that “the Islamic Republic’s position on Azerbaijan has always been clear and transparent, and it has always recognized and respected the territorial integrity of this neighboring country.”
Despite these claims, Iran has been caught providing support for Armenian forces. Beginning in early September 2020, images surfaced showing military equipment and Kamaz trucks crossing the border between Iran and Armenia. Footage of additional military trucks being transported across the border appeared on September 29, two days after the beginning of the most recent clash. Iran denies these reports, but the consistent flow of equipment indicates that this was not a one-time event that slid under Tehran’s radar.
Following Armenian forces’ July provocation on the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border in the Tovuz rayon, Russia initiated seven military cargo flights from Rostov-on-Don to Yerevan using IL-76 military cargo planes. The flights, carrying an estimated 400 tons of equipment, circumvented Georgian and Azerbaijani airspace and instead passed through the airspace of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran before arriving in Armenia. Yerevan enjoys heavy discounts on its purchases of Russian-made equipment, as Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. In addition to receiving discounted and free weaponry, Armenia is home to the Russian 102nd Military Base, and Russia has conducted numerous joint exercises with Armenian forces. Russia’s actions indicate its interest in fueling the conflict rather than reaching an agreement, and it shows a clear violation of Moscow’s supposed neutrality as a co-chair of the Minsk group.
Despite Moscow’s outward support for Armenia and its desire to keep the conflict smoldering, Russia faces limitations in the current confrontation. As described by Caspian Policy Center advisor Major General U.S. Army (Ret.) Michael Repass, Russia is already engaged in conflicts in military activities in Syria, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Libya, and Belarus. While Russia relies on Nagorno-Karabakh as a strategic wedge in the region, Russia cannot afford to back Armenian forces and then watch those forces lose to Azerbaijani armed forces. As Russia already faces confrontation with Turkey in other regions, the risk of conflict with Turkey adds additional pressure for Russia to avoid involvement.
It has been over 30 years since the outbreak of the original Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and while little change has transpired, the induction of social media has diversified the battle from military confrontation to hybrid warfare. The current situation is receiving attention from international media, but there are numerous shortcomings that drastically sway the narrative away from the facts and towards a back-and-forth blame game. Publications with millions of readers, including The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, incorrectly refer to Nagorno-Karabakh as ‘disputed territory.’ Per U.N. Security Council law, there is no dispute in ownership: the Nagorno-Karabakh region is the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In its coverage of the current situation, BBC lays the foundation of its argument by describing Armenia as majority Christian and Azerbaijan as majority Muslim. This is a conflict regarding the territorial integrity of a sovereign state and simply has nothing to do with religion.
Analysts have noted that the newest development in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the risk of involvement of international forces. Armenian news sources allege that Azerbaijan has recruited Syrian mercenaries to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh. President Emmanuel Macron announced support for this idea while commenting on the conflict and added that the alleged fighters were from ‘jihadist groups,’ once again fueling the narrative of a Christian versus Muslim conflict. Meanwhile, U.S. State Department officials have stated that there is no intelligence or information supporting the idea that Turkey aided in deploying Syrian rebels in the conflict. Armenia and Armenian media have pushed this idea in an attempt to villainize Azerbaijan. As explained by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in an interview with Rossiya-1, Azerbaijan has a population of 10 million while Armenia has a population of 2 million. Aliyev stated that Azerbaijan has no need for additional human resources and that the allegation was “fake news.”
In an attempt to involve third countries, Armenian forces began to launch attacks on Azerbaijan outside of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding occupied territories, according to President Ilham Aliyev in his interview with TRT Haber. Armenia shelled several civilian areas including Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city with a population of more than 330,000. The purpose of the strikes on Azerbaijani cities is to further provoke Azerbaijan, and Armenia is attempting to bait Baku into launching attacks on Armenian territory. All warfare has been conducted on Azerbaijani soil, but if Azerbaijan were to attack Armenia, then Russia and CSTO member states would have a reason to become formally involved on the Armenian side, only leading to further escalation of the conflict, the continuation of destruction of civilian settlements, and further war crimes against the Azerbaijani people.