The South Caucasus region is once again on the brink of war as Armenia and Azerbaijan clash over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous enclave internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but which until 2020 was populated and fully controlled by ethnic Armenians.
A cease-fire brokered by Russia on September 19 has temporarily halted the hostilities, but the situation remains volatile and unpredictable.
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The conflict dates back to the late 1980s, when Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. A war erupted in the early 1990s, which resulted in Armenia gaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts. The war ended with a fragile truce in 1994, but sporadic skirmishes continued for decades.
In 2020, a 44-day war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended with a Russian-brokered deal that saw Azerbaijan regain significant territorial gains in and around the enclave. The deal also deployed Russian peacekeepers to patrol the remaining parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, which are still governed by local pro-Armenian authorities.
However, the peace agreement did not resolve the underlying issues of the conflict, such as the status and security of Nagorno-Karabakh and its inhabitants, the return of displaced people, and the demarcation of borders. Both sides have accused each other of violating the deal and provoking new clashes.
The current escalation has also involved attacks on Armenian towns outside Nagorno-Karabakh and within Armenia itself, a notable expansion of the conflict zone. Armenia has blamed Azerbaijan for launching “illegal attacks” on its sovereign territory, while Azerbaijan has said it was responding to Armenian provocations.
The renewed violence has raised concerns about the role and influence of regional powers, especially Russia and Turkey, in the South Caucasus. Russia has a defense alliance with Armenia and operates a military base there, while Turkey backs its ethnic Turkic kin in Azerbaijan both politically and militarily. Both countries have called for restraint and dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but have also expressed their readiness to support their respective allies if needed.
The conflict also poses a threat to the stability and security of the region, which is an important corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe and beyond. The war in Ukraine has already disrupted energy supplies in Europe, and a new war in the South Caucasus could further aggravate the situation.
However, analysts say that lasting peace will require addressing the root causes of the conflict and finding a mutually acceptable solution that respects the rights and interests of all parties involved.