The conflict risks all-out war, and dragging in Russia and Turkey


ARMENIA AND Azerbaijan stood on the brink of war on September 28th, as deadly clashes continued over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh a day earlier. Dozens of people have already been killed in the fighting, which has involved artillery strikes and airpower. It marks the second time in under three months that the two countries have come to blows.

Both sides have blamed each other for the violence, which has awakened memories of a war that devastated the region during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and which now risks dragging in two outside powers, Turkey and Russia. Armenia’s foreign ministry published footage of tanks devoured by flames and said it had downed an Azerbaijani helicopter. Azerbaijan claimed to have captured several villages in Nagorno-Karabakh. Both countries have declared martial law and total military mobilisation.

Clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh have erupted repeatedly since 1994, when a ceasefire halted a war in which tens of thousands of people were killed and about a million displaced. The region, as well as seven surrounding districts, has since been controlled by Armenian forces. It has an ethnic-Armenian majority, but remains internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. At least 16 people, including an Azerbaijani general, were killed in skirmishes north of the breakaway enclave in July. Thousands of Azerbaijanis responded by taking to the streets in the capital, Baku, to demand the recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh.

That may be exactly what Azerbaijan now has in mind. The scale of the current fighting suggests a broader military offensive and a return to a more dangerous conflict than in the summer, say analysts. “This is a more serious escalation, much better prepared, with more troops, and happening simultaneously on all parts of the front line,” says Olesya Vartanyan, a Caucasus analyst at Crisis Group, an international think-tank. “In addition to heavy weaponry, we see infantry, we see many more helicopters, and masses of drones,” she says. The clashes threaten to spill over into civilian areas close to the front lines.

Renewed war could also spark a wider confrontation between Turkey and Russia. Turkey is Azerbaijan’s most important regional ally and has already promised to provide its government with whatever support it requests. Indeed, Armenia has accused Turkey of involvement in the fighting already, which Azerbaijan has denied. Russia, meanwhile, has a defence pact with Armenia, though it also sells arms to Azerbaijan. “The Russians don’t want to be involved and prefer to play a balancing act and be a mediator,” says Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, another think-tank. “But if Armenian territory is under attack, they have no option but to defend Armenia.”

Turkey’s position may have emboldened Azerbaijan. Turkey has always backed Baku politically, says Mr de Waal, but now seems more willing than ever to lend it military support. Azerbaijan is said to be using Turkish-made drones against Armenian forces in the current clashes. Following the flare-up in July, Turkey vowed to avenge the deaths of Azerbaijani soldiers and deployed F-16 jets to Baku for joint exercises. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has accused Russia of supplying Armenia with weapons. Turkey and Russia are already tangled up in two proxy wars in Libya and Syria. They run the danger of fighting a third one in the Caucasus.

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