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Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict: What’s Behind the Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia and Azerbaijan have traded accusations of blame for the current outbreak of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Photo: Aziz Karimov/Reuters

International concern is growing over rapidly escalating turmoil in the South Caucasus as fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan continues to spiral, threatening to draw in regional powers and destabilize an area that serves as an important energy corridor for global markets.

Monday saw a second day of clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics that have been embroiled in a simmering conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh for almost three decades.

Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting now?

Both sides have traded accusations of blame for the current outbreak of hostilities, which began on Sunday.

In Azerbaijan, state media said shelling by Armenian armed forces had left civilians wounded and dead, without specifying an exact toll. The Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan said its troops had reclaimed a strategic high point previously controlled by Armenia. The National Assembly of Armenia countered that Azerbaijan was responsible for a large-scale armed attack “including the targeting of peaceful settlements with large-caliber weapons, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructures.”

Pro-Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh reported that 27 fighters were killed on Monday, in addition to 15 on Sunday.

“It’s very difficult, it’s very dangerous, but…practically every year we have something similar,” said Alexey Malashenko, a Moscow-based chief researcher at the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute, a German think tank.

An elderly woman sat in a basement being used as a bomb shelter in Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday.

Photo: NAREK ALEKSANYAN/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Why has Nagorno-Karabakh been a point of contention?

In 1988, tensions arose in the mountainous enclave, which was then still part of Soviet Union. Armenians who are the predominant ethnic group in the area that lies within Azerbaijan’s borders rose up to demand unification with Armenia. Yerevan took over the region during a six-year war that claimed some 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The violence ended with a 1994 cease-fire that froze the conflict along a boundary, known as the line of contact, between the two sides. They never signed a peace agreement. Azerbaijan has long threatened to retake the region, which is now run by ethnic Armenians.

The volatile province has been plagued by numerous flare ups, with skirmishes in July killing at least 16 people.

What is at stake?

Following the downfall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan sought to export its oil and gas without relying on the Russian pipeline network. It attracted Western investors, laying a series of oil and gas pipelines allowing it to transport its energy from the Caspian Sea to international markets.

A gas pipeline completed last November runs close to the conflict front line and stretches across Turkey, and is intended to help ease Europe’s reliance on Russian gas imports.

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Energy Corridor

A network of oil and gas pipelines allows Azerbaijan to access international markets without passing through Russia

Natural gas pipelines

Russian military bases

Trans-Adriatic

South Caucasus

Trans-Anatolian

Trans-Caspian

(projected)

AZERBAIJAN

Oil pipeline

Western Route Export

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

Caspian

Sea

AZERBAIJAN

Shah Deniz

gas field

97.9% completed

Mediterranean Sea

Natural gas pipelines

Russian military bases

Trans-Adriatic

South Caucasus

Trans-Anatolian

Trans-Caspian

(projected)

AZERBAIJAN

Oil pipeline

Western Route Export

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

Caspian

Sea

AZERBAIJAN

Shah Deniz

gas field

97.9% completed

Mediterranean Sea

Natural gas pipelines

Russian military bases

South Caucasus

Trans-Caspian

(projected)

AZERBAIJAN

Oil pipeline

Western Route Export

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

Caspian

Sea

AZERBAIJAN

Shah Deniz

gas field

97.9% completed

Mediterranean Sea

Russian military bases

AZERBAIJAN

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

Natural gas pipelines

South Caucasus

Trans-Caspian

(projected)

Oil pipeline

Western Route Export

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan

97.9%

completed

Mediterranean Sea

But analysts say it is unlikely that either side would risk damaging energy-transport infrastructure.

“The risks of physical destruction during these hostilities arise only if a full-scale war begins between Azerbaijan and Armenia along the entire length of their borders,” said Igor Yushkov, senior analyst at Russia’s National Energy Security Fund, which studies the influence of political factors on the energy industry. “As long, as the hostilities are taking place only on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, gas and oil pipelines are unlikely to be damaged.”

Who are the regional players?

Turkey, which boasts the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s second largest army after the U.S., has shown that it could rapidly project military forces with recent interventions in Syria and Libya.

Another regional power, Iran—which has relations with both Yerevan and Baku—has called for a cease-fire and the start of negotiations.

Russia is by far the dominant military force in the Caucasus. Moscow’s military might was on full display last week with the organization of a multinational exercise dubbed “Kavkaz 2020,” in which troops from China, Iran and Armenia took part, with drills stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.

What’s the Kremlin response?

Russia, which has close ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and regards the former Soviet republics as its backyard, has offered to mediate.

“Russia has always taken a balanced position, it is this position that gives Russia the opportunity to use its influence and traditionally good relations with both countries—both with Azerbaijan and with Armenia,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week attended a multinational military exercise dubbed Kavkaz 2020.

Photo: michail klimentyev/kremlin/EPA/Shutterstock

But Russia’s ties with both nations puts Moscow in a vulnerable position, analysts said.

“Any Russian step could be considered by both sides as non-friendly and this is quite a difficult situation for Russian foreign policy and that is why Russia tries to put both sides at the table to start a new round of negotiations,” said Stanislav Pritchin, a senior research fellow at the Center for Post-Soviet Studies at the National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

How has Turkey reacted?

Turkey, which closed its border with Armenia in the early 1990s in solidarity with Azerbaijan, has vowed to stand by Baku.

“Armenia proved once more that it is the greatest threat to peace and tranquility in the region,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday. “As always, the Turkish nation stands with its Azerbaijani brothers with all its means.”

Turkey regards the Azeri people as next of kin, part of a Turkic brotherhood stretching from the Balkans to Central Asia. Following the July skirmishes between Baku and Yerevan, Turkey organized two weeks of land and aerial military drills in Azerbaijan.

What are the military forces on the ground?

After nearly three decades of on-again, off-again fighting, the region is heavily militarized. Armenia has a defense agreement with Russia, which supplies most of its military equipment and maintains two bases in the country. Azerbaijan also largely relies on Russian equipment but has diversified its suppliers, notably with the purchase of surveillance and attack drones from Israel.

Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of recruiting foreign fighters from Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, Turkey transported about 300 fighters from territories it controls in northern Syria to Azerbaijan. Turkish authorities didn’t respond to questions about the matter.

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com and David Gauthier-Villars at David.Gauthier-Villars@wsj.com

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