Explainer: Who's fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, and why does it matter?

Published October 12, 2020
Search and rescue teams work on the blast site hit by a rocket during the fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan on October 11, 2020. — Reuters
Search and rescue teams work on the blast site hit by a rocket during the fighting over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan on October 11, 2020. — Reuters

Fighting that broke out on September 27 over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh quickly became the deadliest for more than 25 years in a long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Where and what is Nagorno-Karabakh?

It’s a mountainous, forested patch of land that sits inside the territory of ex-Soviet Azerbaijan and is recognised under international law as part of that country. But the ethnic Armenians who make up the vast majority of the estimated 150,000 population reject Azeri rule. They have been running their own affairs, with support from Armenia, since Azerbaijan’s troops were pushed out in a war in the 1990s. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 but at least 200 people were killed in a violent flare-up in 2016.

Nagorno-Karabakh survives almost totally on budget support from Armenia and donations from the worldwide Armenian diaspora.

Why has fighting broken out now?

Tensions between the two sides have been building over the summer, and spilled into direct clashes on September 27.

The timing is significant because the outside powers that have mediated in the past — namely Russia, France and the United States — are distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the upcoming US presidential election and a list of world crises from Lebanon to Belarus. Lower-level clashes in July prompted only a muted international response.

Turkey, which held large military exercises with Azerbaijan in July and August, has been even more conspicuous in its support compared with past crises. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said Ankara will stand by Azerbaijan “with all its resources and heart”.

What are the risks?

Past outbreaks of fighting have killed some 30,000 people since 1988. Military and political analysts say they have witnessed an increase in deployment of heavy weaponry such as rockets and artillery, bringing a higher risk of civilian casualties that would make it harder to pull the two sides back from all-out war. That in turn could draw in other powers such as Turkey and Russia and destabilise the South Caucasus region, an important corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas.

What could stop the fighting?

Russia potentially holds the key: it has a mutual defence pact with Armenia and a military base there, but also enjoys good relations with Azerbaijan and has no interest in the conflict spreading.

Moscow brokered a humanitarian ceasefire that went into effect on Saturday though it quickly came under strain. If its diplomacy succeeds, Moscow could earn kudos for ending the fighting at a time when it is under intense criticism on other fronts, including over its backing for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko after a disputed election and over the poisoning of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Siberia, which Germany says was carried out with a nerve agent.

Opinion

Editorial

Afghan puzzle
Updated 28 May, 2024

Afghan puzzle

Unless these elements are neutralised, it will not be possible to have the upper hand over terrorist groups.
Attacking minorities
28 May, 2024

Attacking minorities

WHILE Pakistan has watched many perish in the cauldron of sacrilege, the state has done little to turn down the...
Persistent scourge
28 May, 2024

Persistent scourge

THE challenge of polio in Pakistan has reached a new nadir, drawing grave concerns from the Technical Advisory Group...
Mercury rising
Updated 27 May, 2024

Mercury rising

Each of the country's leaders is equally responsible for the deep pit Pakistan seems to have fallen into.
Antibiotic overuse
27 May, 2024

Antibiotic overuse

ANTIMICROBIAL resistance is an escalating crisis claiming some 700,000 lives annually in Pakistan. It is the third...
World Cup team
27 May, 2024

World Cup team

PAKISTAN waited until the very end to name their T20 World Cup squad. Even then, there was last-minute drama. Four...