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Armenia and Azerbaijan: The Conflict Explained


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MOSCOW — A simmering, decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted in late September into the worst fighting the area had seen since a vicious ethnic war in the 1990s.

Skirmishes have been common for years along the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan but is home to ethnic Armenians.

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Area self-declared as the

Nagorno-Karabakh Republic



former Soviet region



By The New York Times

This time the conflict is different, analysts and former diplomats say, because Turkey has offered more direct support to Azerbaijan, and because of the scale of the fighting. Both sides have been using drones and powerful, long-range rocket artillery, they say.

Turkey’s direct engagement in support of its ethnic Turkic ally, Azerbaijan, in an area of traditional Russian influence, risks turning the local dispute into a regional one.

A cease-fire agreement reached on Nov. 9 is a case in point: The deal was brokered by Russia and the next day Russian peacekeepers began deploying into the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan has insisted it has a right to invite Turkish peacekeepers as well, raising the possibility that the two countries’ soldiers would operate in proximity along a tense front line.

Before the cease-fire, attacks had spread far from the front lines. Cities in Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia have been hit by long-range weaponry fired by combatants on both sides. The capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, has been repeatedly bombarded.

Azerbaijan accused Armenia of firing powerful rockets at the country’s second largest city, Ganja, and at a hydroelectric station, suggesting an effort to destroy civilian infrastructure.

Three earlier cease-fire agreements, brokered by Russia, the France and the United States, quickly broke down. The latest Russian effort is distinct for sending peacekeeping troops and for the sweeping concessions Armenia accepted to avoid battlefield losses.

ImageAzerbaijani soldiers at a makeshift military base in the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992.
Credit…Reza/Getty Images

Here’s a guide to the Nagorno-Karabakh war and why it flared again.

Nagorno-Karabakh has long been ripe for renewed local conflict.

A war that began in the late Soviet period between Armenians and Azerbaijanis set the stage for the fighting today. At that time, the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan declared independence and was nearly crushed in the ensuing war before its fighters captured areas of Azerbaijan in a series of victories leading up to a cease-fire in 1994.

But the tensions go back further, to at least World War I, during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when Armenians were slaughtered and expelled from Turkey in what many now consider a genocide. That history, Armenians say, justifies their military defense of their ethnic enclave.

Credit…Karen Mirzoyan/Associated Press

The 1994 cease-fire, always meant to be temporary, left about 600,000 Azerbaijanis — who had fled Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts captured by the Armenians — stranded away from their homes. It also left Nagorno-Karabakh, closely aligned with Armenia, vulnerable to attack by Azerbaijan, which vowed to recapture the area.

Russia and Turkey had coordinated at times in the past to tamp down tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But the uneasy cooperation between Turkey and Russia, an ally of Armenia, comes as both countries become increasingly assertive in the Middle East and as the United States steps back. Relations between all three countries have become more complicated.

Turkey has alienated the United States by buying antiaircraft missiles from Russia and cutting a natural gas pipeline deal seen as undermining Ukraine. At the same time, it is fighting proxy wars against Moscow in Syria and Libya.

After Russian airstrikes in Syria killed Turkish soldiers earlier this year, Turkey soon appeared on other battlefields where Russia was vulnerable.

In May, Turkey deployed military advisers, armed drones and Syrian proxy fighters to Libya to shore up the U.N.-backed government and push back a Russian-supported rival faction in that war. In July and August, it sent troops and equipment to Azerbaijan for military exercises.

Armenia has said that Turkey is directly involved in the fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, and that a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down an Armenian jet. Turkey denied those accusations.

After satellite images revealed F-16s parked on the apron of an Azerbaijani airfield, Azerbaijan’s president conceded that Turkish planes were in his country but said they had not flown in combat.

Credit…Azerbaijani Defense Ministry/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

Russia and France have both supported Armenia’s claim that Turkey deployed Syrian militants to Nagorno-Karabakh, following its playbook in Libya.

Distracted by other issues like the pandemic and a popular uprising in Belarus, another former Soviet state, international mediators missed warning signs and possible openings for diplomacy, analysts say. Busy with a presidential election, the United States played a limited role in the diplomacy.

Travel restrictions related to the coronavirus prevented traditional shuttle diplomacy over the summer, said Olesya Vartanyan, a senior Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group. For the antagonists in Nagorno-Karabakh, “this is a perfect time” to start a war, she said.

When Armenia killed a general and other officers in Azerbaijan’s Army in a missile strike during a border skirmish in July, Turkey immediately offered to help prepare a response, a retired Turkish general, Ismail Hakki Pekin, has said.

Turkish and Azerbaijani joint military exercises ensued, raising tensions.

By early November, the fighting had turned against Armenia. Azerbaijani forces captured the Nagorno-Karabakh region’s second largest city and cut a key access road needed for military supplies to reach the mountain enclave, starving its defenders of hope of holding out.

The cease-fire signed by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia calls for Armenia’s army to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and be replaced by Russian peacekeepers.

The deal delivered to Azerbaijan much of what the country has sought for years in negotiations.

Along with withdrawing its army from the enclave, Armenia agreed to open a transport corridor for Azerbaijan through Armenia to the Azerbaijani region of Nakhichevan and to allow the United Nations to oversee the return of the internally displaced people.

The settlement sealed a role in the region for an increasingly assertive Turkey, which backed Azerbaijan in the war that began in September. It also left Armenia deeply dependent on Russia for security.

Protests immediately erupted in Armenia, showing deep anger at the agreement and calling into question whether the government of Mr. Pashinyan that negotiated the deal could remain in power to enforce it.



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