Dozens of people were killed in fierce fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia Monday, officials said, after a longstanding territorial dispute over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh roared back into life.
Since Sunday, renewed fighting over the territory – a majority-Armenian secessionist enclave within Azerbaijan – has fuelled fears it could swiftly escalate into all-out war, prompting urgent calls from world leaders for calm.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have declared martial law and blame the other for the latest violence, the fiercest clashes between the neighbouring former Soviet republics since 2016.
According to officials, more than 50 people have been killed in the fighting so far, which escalated sharply Monday as both sides pounded the other with rockets and artillery along the frontline. Nagorno-Karabakh reported that 28 of its soldiers had been killed Monday, on top of the 16 troops and two civilians who were killed Sunday. Azerbaijan said two of its civilians were killed on Monday, after five civilians were killed Sunday in shelling by separatists near the town of Terter.
Armenian military officials said Monday that Azerbaijan’s forces were continuing to strike the separatists with heavy artillery, while Azerbaijan's defence ministry claimed the rebels were shelling civilian targets.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in a televised address that Azerbaijan's “authoritarian regime has once again declared war on the Armenian people”.
"We are on the brink of a full-scale war in the South Caucasus, which might have unpredictable consequences,” he said, adding: “We are ready for this war.”
Nagorno-Karabakh is a majority ethnic Armenian enclave entirely within the borders of Azerbaijan, which broke away in a war that started amid the fracturing of the Soviet Union in 1991. With backing from Armenia, the ethnic Armenians who predominate in the territory have run their own affairs, despite the territory being internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
Talks to resolve the bitter and longstanding dispute have foundered over the decades, and clashes have regularly broken out in Nagorno-Karabakh or along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In a previous flare-up in July, at least 16 people were killed in border fighting, prompting angry protests in Azerbaijan’s capital calling for war with Armenia.
Fears have been raised that the current violence could drag in Russia and Turkey, regional powers which are already at odds in Syria. Moscow has a defence alliance with Armenia, a majority Christian country, while Ankara has been emphatic in its support of Azerbaijan, a fellow Turkic and Muslim nation.
Armenia has already accused Turkey of supporting Azerbaijan militarily and sending mercenaries to the battlefield, while Azerbaijan has denied any Turkish involvement.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given vocal support to Azerbaijan in the conflict, labelling Armenia “the biggest threat to peace in the region” and demanding Armenia immediately withdraw from Azeri lands.
Laurence Broers, associate fellow at the Chatham House international affairs think-tank, told VICE News that the current fighting could partly be a reflection of the greater support for Azerbaijan from Turkey over the issue.
He said the latest fighting followed a flareup in July, which had ended with greater losses on the Azerbaijan side and damaged the growing narrative in recent years that Baku was “turning the tide” in the conflict as a result of its military investment.
“What we are seeing now looks like an intentional operation, albeit with limited aims to recoup some military positions,” he said. “This might be happening now because of coming economic problems due to global recession related to COVID-19, because the wider international community is distracted, and possibly also because Turkish support to Azerbaijan is more forthcoming than it was previously.”
He said there was “huge frustration” in Azerbaijan at the lack of results from mediation over the issue – and a strong belief that the status quo was unacceptable.
Broers said the potential direction of the conflict hinged largely on what happens over the next few days.
“If the military outcomes are relatively inconclusive, it's possible that each side might be able to craft a narrative of success, allowing them to step away, making this a four, five or ten-day war,” he said. Both sides made conflicting claims about their gains in the fighting Monday, with the separatists claiming they had won back territory lost the previous day, and Azerbaijan claiming to have made further progress.
“But if either side inflicts heavy losses on the other, this will confront their respective larger allies with uncomfortable choices as to whether to step in, thereby escalating the conflict and taking it into new, uncharted territory.”
He said that how Russia reacted would be crucial, although its security guarantees to Armenia did not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh. “Whether it can restrain an Armenian counterattack is a key issue,” he said.