What’s happening between Armenia and Azerbaijan?

Worst fighting in two years prompts Russian and EU attempts to broker peace

Armenia Azerbaijan
Deadly fighting breaks out between old rivals as international community calls for peace
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Renewed fighting has erupted this week between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with both sides accusing the other of launching the first attacks.

Nearly 100 soldiers have died, according to Reuters, in the “worst fighting between the ex-Soviet republics since 2020”.

Efforts by the international community to broker peace appeared to have made progress on Tuesday after Russia said it had helped negotiate a ceasefire. However, more clashes between the bordering nations broke out on Wednesday morning.

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The fighting centres around the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which has seen Armenia and Azerbaijan locked in two wars and numerous other clashes in the past three decades.

The most recent fighting in 2020 was ended after Russia deployed 2,000 peacekeeping troops to the region under a brokered peace deal. The six-week conflict killed more than 6,500 people.

Where is Nagorno-Karabakh?

Nagorno-Karabakh, known to Armenians as Artsakh, is a small region in central Azerbaijan. In 1918, the two nations declared independence from Russia following that country’s Bolshevik revolution. By the end of 1922, however, both countries had become part of the Soviet Union. “Nagorno-Karabakh was an ethnic-majority Armenian region, but the Soviets gave control over the area to Azerbaijani authorities,” said the BBC.

As the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, the region’s parliament voted to become part of Armenia. “Ethnic violence between Armenians and Azerbaijani in the enclave, which had begun in 1988, escalated into war,” said Britannica.

By 1994, the Armenians were in full control of most of the enclave and also held seven regions beyond the administrative borders of Nagorno-Karabakh. These regions have been under the administrative authority of the so-called Republic of Artsakh, a breakaway state heavily reliant on Armenian support.

Armenia claims the right to control Nagorno-Karabakh owing to the region’s long-standing Armenian ethnic make-up, with a 2015 census showing that 99.7% of the population is ethnically Armenian. There is also a significant religious divide between the two countries, with Armenia being predominantly Christian, while Azerbaijan is overwhelmingly Muslim.

But Armenia’s claim to the region – along with the Republic of Artsakh itself – has not been recognised by any UN members, all of whom still consider the disputed areas as being under Azerbaijani jurisdiction.

What has happened up until now?

Fighting escalated in October 2020 and in six weeks of hostilities it was claimed that more than 5,000 military personnel were killed in total.

The BBC reported that 2,425 Armenian soldiers had died and 2,783 Azerbaijani were killed.

“At least 143 civilians were also killed on both sides and tens of thousands more were displaced by the fighting,” it said, before Russia brokered a peace deal in early November.

Since then peace has largely held until fighting was reported to have broken out on Monday. Officials from Azerbaijan said 50 of its troops had been killed on the first day of fighting, while Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said 49 Armenian soldiers had died.

Azerbaijan accused Armenia of firing mortars and artillery at its positions in Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia said Azerbaijan had shelled the town of Jermuk in its southern region.

The international community immediately urged a ceasefire to prevent the conflict from escalating. Moscow said President Vladimir Putin was “personally” taking a role in mediating the fighting, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pushed for an “immediate halt to fighting and a peace settlement”.

Russia said it had successfully negotiated a truce on Tuesday, but US officials said that it was “almost immediately broken”, according to CNN, with fighting taking place on Wednesday.

What will happen next?

The clashes are “another major strategic headache” for Putin, said Politico, as the Russian president attempts to deal with an “unexpectedly successful” Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Russia is a military ally to Armenia, and Pashinyan has already called on the Kremlin’s assistance through the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The CSTO “dispatched a delegation to assess the situation on the border”, said Reuters, but has not agreed to send forces.

For the US, Blinken expressed concern that Russia could “stir the pot” between the two nations to “create a distraction from Ukraine”.

The conflict also pulls in Turkey, a long-time ally of Azerbaijan. It backed Azerbaijan in the 2020 war and has held “joint military drills” since then, said Reuters. The Turkish government on Tuesday said Armenia should “cease its provocations”.

“Moscow and Ankara have been jostling for influence in different theatres around the world including in Syria and Libya,” wrote The Guardian, and Russia’s war in Ukraine and stake in the Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict “adds a fresh element of uncertainty to the crisis”.

The EU is “increasingly working to fill the gap” of peacekeeping, wrote Politico, as the bloc attempts to avoid further escalation in the South Caucasus. French President Emmanuel Macron held calls with both nations’ leaders on Tuesday to encourage a ceasefire.

As well as trying to avoid another conflict on its doorstep, Europe’s energy crisis “raises the stakes of a new war” enormously, said The New York Times.

With Russian gas supplies cut off, the EU is “scrambling to make up for the lost fuel” that could push up energy prices and drive “European economies into recession”.

The South Caucasus pipeline now plays a crucial role in supplying Europe and wider markets, and the EU agreed already this year to increase its energy supply from Azerbaijan, which is why it has “been working hard to secure a peace deal” between the two countries.

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