Fighting Intensifies In Contested Nagorno-Karabakh Region


Simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan came to the boil this past week, as the long-lasting dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh turned violent. The region, internationally recognized as an Azerbaijani territory despite its Armenian ethnic majority, was the battleground for a territorial conflict that claimed 30,000 lives in a 6-year war that ended in 1994.

Despite decades of mediated talks between the two ex-soviet republics, no agreement has ever been reached, and the recent resurgence in fighting has already claimed over 200 lives. On Sunday, Armenian forces shelled the Azerbaijani city of Ganja, in retaliation against an Azerbaijani assault on the Nagorno-Karabakh capital – Stepanakert. As of Sunday afternoon, there is one confirmed casualty however, this is likely to rise, with a nurse working in one of the city’s major hospitals stating that there were “casualties all over the city.” 

The Azerbaijani defense ministry has strongly denounced the attack and has said that it is a “clearly provocative” move that will merely intensify the conflict. The ministry has also sought to combat the dissemination of fake news, which they claim the Armenian forces are spreading. Contrary to official statements released by the Armenian forces, the Azerbaijani defense ministry states that Sunday’s attack on Ganja resulted in harm to “civilians, civilian infrastructure, and ancient buildings.”

Armenia has hit back, stating that Stepanakert itself remains the target of Azerbaijani shelling, and even accused them of “deliberate targeting of the civilian population.” In an aggressive ultimatum from the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, he reasserted Azerbaijan’s claim over the long-disputed territory, whilst also demanding the immediate withdrawal of all Armenian forces. These demands are unlikely to be met. Instead, an intensification of fighting is inevitable, and the countries are seemingly on the path towards a full-blown war.

Despite the declaration of a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993, there has never been a resolution to the tensions in the region. This is despite the formation of the Minsk group, a mediating organization composed of Russian, American, and French ambassadors, which has sought to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The Minsk group’s failure to fulfill its raison-d’ȇtre, has certainly contributed to the recent re-escalation of tensions.

Like many conflicts that have arisen around the Middle East and the Caucasus in recent years and months, larger, more powerful geopolitical actors have played a pivotal role. Similar to the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, Nagorno-Karabakh has become the latest battleground upon which Turkey and Russia are waging their proxy wars. In this instance, Turkey has played the role of the agitator, with Erdogan’s demand for the withdrawal of Armenia’s forces from the region being seen as an explicit attempt to stoke tensions. Russia has sought to counter Turkey’s attempt at destabilizing the region: attempting to de-escalate tensions and calling for a ceasefire. The US, France, and the EU have since joined Russia in calling for a ceasefire, however, these calls have thus far fallen on deaf ears. 

The recent renewal of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict exemplifies how a ‘no war, no peace’ scenario risks a return to violence, and ultimately, once again, war. The deficiencies of the Minsk group have been exposed. In failing to bring about peace in the region, they have failed in their remit, and in doing so, have delegitimized the entire organization. Although mediation is necessary in order to reach a peaceful accord, the Minsk group may not be fit for the task, and intervention from other powerful actors, such as the UN may be required. Regardless of who takes on the mantle of trying to find a peaceful solution, it is imperative that it truly tackles the root cause of conflict in the region rather than merely kicking the can down the road. The ‘no war, no peace’ scenario perpetuates a ‘negative peace’ which will – eventually – lead back to war.  

Luke Entwistle