Hundreds Dead as Armenia and Azerbaijan Conflict Increases


The photo above shows the bombed city of Ganja, Azerbaijan (Photo By: Ismail Coskun/IHA via AP)

Safa Hameed

Over the past two weeks, fighting has broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over disputed claims to the Nagorno-Karabakh, a region which both countries border and share. The fighting has claimed over 500 reported lives, shedding a light on the bleak tensions that both countries have shared since the Soviet dissolution. Unlike normal skirmishes that have taken place over the past couple of years, this is the only instance where they have stretched over a warring period of time, leading regional and political analysts to claim that the potential of an ugly war is on the horizon. The potential of war is heightened by the involvement of Turkey and Russia who have proxy interests in the Caucasus.

The exchanges of fire started September 27, but because of the many different stories from the ground and controlled news coming out of both countries, no one has been able to pinpoint the instigator. A recent precipitator of these tensions can be traced back to July of this year when clashes along the border lead to 20 deaths and caused the biggest mass demonstration in Azerbaijani history as citizens marched on Baku, the capital, demanding that Nagorno-Karabakh be reprimanded.  President Aliyev of Azerbaijan declared martial law and addressed the nation saying, “I am confident that our successful counter-offensive operation will put an end to the occupation, to the injustice, to the 30-year-long occupation.” Minister Mnatsakanyan of Armenian Foreign Affairs replied, “We strongly condemn the aggression of the military-political leadership of Azerbaijan.”

The photo above shows a burning home in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. (Photo By: AP)

Armenia claimed that Azerbaijan had launched attacks on non-military target areas in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, including the capital Stepanakert, that killed and injured civilians. In response, they took down several Azerbaijani assets near the border including tanks, drones, and helicopters. Since then, Armenia has reported constant shelling on Stepanakert since October 2nd. Azerbaijan’s second-largest city Ganja has been shelled since October 4th from Armenia; however, the leader of Stepanakert, Arayik Harutyunyan, has taken responsibility for the attacks. What’s concerning is that, like in Armenia, the ones who are bearing the brunt of the fighting in Ganja and other border towns are civilians. An article by BBC explores this juxtaposition as two reporters, Orla Guerin and Steve Rosenberg, individually explore the disruption of civilian Azerbaijani and Armenian lives. A common variable between what they reported is how the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict transcends military, political, and even ethnic agenda to a problem that is now rooted in extreme nationalism and pride for both countries. 

According to the Associated Press, there have been 532 soldier deaths on the Armenian side and while the Azerbaijani government has refused to disclose that number, it is reported that they have similar counts. The number of wounded on both sides exceeds 100, with the number of civilian deaths not far behind. 

On October 10, Russia was able to use its unique position as an ally to both to broker a cease-fire that would stop the fighting long enough for the two countries to exchange bodies and remains of the dead. It took only two days for both countries to break off the agreement and accuse one-another of firing on neighboring towns. As of now, the fighting is still ongoing as Russia and U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo continue to urge both sides to stop.

Turkey and Russia have both taken a great interest to foment their power in this region of Central Asia that’s devoid of American influence. Russia has close ties with Armenia, but it is also cozy with Azerbaijan which was a former Soviet satellite. Turkey, on the other hand, has gone out of its way to show it support for ethnic and Turkic speaking Azerbaijan. This is a problem because it escalates the likeliness of a full-scale war blowing out now that both countries have strong allies who they could drag in the war–including their large range of troops and military weapons. Russia and Turkey are also notorious for the proxy wars that they are fighting in Libya and Syria, both of which they are on the opposite sides of. So, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were to join the war in order to exert their dominance as the main power in the region.

Unfortunately, it looks like the fighting isn’t stopping anytime soon, in fact, it’s just getting started. In the 1990s, both countries fought a much deadlier war for the same reason: the Nagorno-Karabakh war which displaced 1,000,000 and killed nearly 30,000. The war never actually ended; in other words, a cease-fire was reached, with the help of Russia and the U.S, that helped to stop a war that had already cost many lives. However, instead of a clear resolution that solved matters, the cease-fire was more like a band-aid put on a situation that was bound to spill over again.

Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over Nagorno-Karabakh because, although it is internationally and legally recognized as part of Azerbaijan (de jure), it is majority ethnic Armenians who consider themselves as a de facto part of Armenia. Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh have been trying to secede and become a part of Armenia since the formation of the Soviet states of both of their countries which is where many of their problems originate from.

Once the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R) was able to spread its sphere of influence over to the Caucasus region of Central Asia, it had to deal with settling the land disputes between the now Soviet Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh at that time, advocated for itself to be part of Armenia, however, that would clearly upset Azerbaijan who had ancient land ties to that region. Ultimately, the U.S.S.R wanted to appease neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia, but the new nationalist state on the rise: Turkey. Stalin thought it best, given their shared ethnicity, that Turkic Azerbaijan should get to keep Nagorno-Karabakh, but in order to please the Armenians, they made it an autonomous Oblast or province.

For a while, this put the lid on the dormant tensions until the Soviet Union lost its power and was dissolved during the last part of the 20th century, leading to a power vacuum in Central Asia. Seeing its chance, Nagorno-Karabakh declared that they were going to secede and join Armenia. This upset Azerbaijan and pushed them into the four-year war which ended on the ceasefire that led us right back to where we are today.