On Sunday, 27 September, at 7am local time, Azerbaijani forces launched a massive attack on the Mountainous Karabakh. By mid-day, the Azerbaijani defense ministry spokesman announced that they had “liberated” six, and later seven, villages in what he qualified as “counter-offensive”, in fact clearly recognizing that Azerbaijan started a new war.
This war is different from the four-day-long clashes that took place in July this year, along Armenian-Azerbaijani border. The current fighting is reminiscent to the April 2016 Azerbaijani attack, taking place along all the frontline of Karabakh. Yet, compared to 2016, the first day of fighting is much more intensive than in 2016, using heavy artillery, tanks and drones. Armenian military sources have announced 58 deaths and dozens of wounded, Azerbaijan – the attacking side has no official casualty statistics.
The Karabakh war is the result of a territorial conflict that the two republics inherited from Soviet times. The Bolsheviks, in early 1920’s, had made compromises by giving national groups territorial autonomies. They thought as society advances towards classless socialism national differences would disappear. In reality, they created systems where national identity meant access to state apparatus and to resources. The result was not only reinforcing national sentiments and identity, but also material discrimination based on nationality.
Karabakh Armenians – who were the vast majority in the “Autonomous Republic of Mountainous Karabakh” but ruled from Baku, had legitimate reasons to feel discriminated. On February 20, 1988 their local parliament voted a motion to be detached from Soviet Azerbaijan and unified with neighbouring Armenia. A week later anti-Armenian pogroms erupted in Azerbaijani town of Sumgait. It was followed by more pogroms, and population exchanges between the two, until then “brotherly”, Soviet republics.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Karabakh conflict became a full-scale war. By the time a cease-fire was signed, in May 1994, the Armenian side had full control of Karabakh itself, but also had also won the control of Azerbaijani territories around it. This conflict, therefore, was born out of the collapse of the Soviet system.
The Karabakh war is the result of a territorial conflict that the two republics inherited from Soviet times.
Now, three decades later, why no solution was found? Why the two neighbouring states failed to find a solution through dialogue? The answer to this question differs between the two sides. After the 1994 cease-fire, Armenians felt they had corrected a historic injustice, and Azerbaijanis felt hurt and frustrated. The Armenian side considered that it was ready to exchange the Azerbaijani territories in return for Baku to recognize Karabakh self-determination. As time passed, and as Azerbaijani threats persisted, the Armenian perspective changed: instead of considering those territories as bargaining chips, they started seeing them as security guarantees against a future Azerbaijani attack. The fighting now is taking place exactly over those territories.
Azerbaijani side, on the other hand, feels deeply wounded by the war losses of the past war. Its defeat has injured its national pride, and since Azerbaijan is seeking revenge. The construction of Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and the oil-money that started coming in from 2006, made Azeri leaders think that they had the means to impose their will: they demand full withdrawal of the Armenian side in return giving nothing more than promises of “autonomy”. Yet, such promises are worthless in a country where most of the local opposition is either in jail or in exile. Moreover, Azerbaijan spent huge sums on armament, buying Russian tanks, Belarus ballistic missiles, Israeli and Turkish drones. Confident by its petrodollars and arms purchases, Baku exchanged the idea to find a compromise with maximalist positions.
After the peaceful revolution in Armenia in 2018, there were new expectations concerning the conflict resolution. Yet, apart from contradictory declarations of the Armenian authorities no “revolutionary” vision of conflict resolution was developed. The lack of a robust negotiations process led to new frustrations, and with time new clashes.
After the 1994 cease-fire, the Armenians felt they had corrected a historic injustice, and Azerbaijanis felt hurt and frustrated.
Crisis in Azerbaijan
The oil-greased ruling class in Azerbaijan is not exactly a warrior cast; they are the children of the Soviet nomenklatura that divided the oil money among themselves –and maintained a state-subsidized economy that kept the population under control. But like all good things the era of petrodollars is coming to an end: Azerbaijani oil production is in decline, oil prices are low, plus the severe pandemic conditions have caused deep social crisis in Azerbaijan.
With less money to divide, in fighting within the various clans of the ruling clan in Azerbaijan increased. Ramiz Mehdiyev, the old “grey cardinal” of the Aliyev regime, was dismissed from his state functions in early September. In mid-August, the long-term foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov lost his job. Many diplomats were arrested on “corruption” charges. A little war with the hated Armenians could effectively distract Azerbaijani public.
Two regional powers have large influence are Russia and Turkey, but their positions differ qualitatively. Russia is the historic hegemonic power in the region, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the Tsarist Empire and later the Soviet Union. Russia is in military alliance and with Armenia, and has two military bases there, but it also has good relations with Azerbaijan diplomatically, economically but also important military cooperation. Russia called the two parties to de-escalate the conflict, but it also expects to extend its influence even further over both Armenia and Azerbaijan as a result of the conflict.
Turkey, on the other hand, has expressed unilateral support to Azerbaijan. Moreover, Turkish direct intervention is unprecedented. Ankara has direct military participation by supplying Bayraktar-2 attack drones and experts to run them. There are also reports about hundreds of Syrian mercenaries that Turkey has transferred to Azerbaijan to take part in the fighting. Turkey’s partial position is a polarizing factor of an already complex conflict. The question remains, how will Russia – and Iran – will react to the increasing Turkish meddling in the affairs of the south Caucasus?