The worst fighting in 22 years broke out on April 1 in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh on the Armenian-Azerbaijan border, leading to fears of a renewed war between the two bitter enemies that could also potentially drag in Russia and Turkey.
With almost no international correspondents in the area the situation is extremely confused, with both sides issuing a welter of contradictory reports. As of April 3 fighting appeared to be continuing, despite Baku’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire on April 2, with Yerevan declaring that Azerbaijan's announcement was just a "trick".
"The statement of Azerbaijan - the information trap," said Armenia’s Defence Minister Artsrun Hovhannisyan, reports Interfax. "This statement does not mean hostilities has ceased. Fighting continues in the [unrecognised] Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.”
The enclave is the longest unresolved dispute since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been a festering sore since a ceasefire was signed in 1994 that left what the international community recognize as Azerbaijan sovereign territory under the control of Armenia. Both sides have been sniping at each other ever since: both diplomatically as well as literally.
The question is why the fighting has flared up now. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan had been content to maintain a low-watt conflict for more than two decades, though Azerbaijan has always been determined to show Yerevan and the rest of the world that the status quo is not an option.
The outbreak of fighting is almost certainly politically motivated and notably started on a weekend when both Azerbaijan's president Ilham Aliyev and Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan were returning from Washington, where they had attended a US-sponsored anti-nuclear weapon summit.
“Big violations of the Karabakh ceasefire tend not to be accidents but to have a political cause. There are strong vertical chains of command from the officers on the ground to the presidents in Baku and Yerevan,” Thomas de Waal, a senior associate with Carnegie Europe specialising in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, wrote in an opinion piece at the weekend, adding that Azerbaijan has more reason to break the ceasefire than Armenia.
One of the obvious possible motives is that Aliyev is taking a page out of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s playbook. Azerbaijan’s economy has been even harder hit than Russia’s by the collapse of oil prices and the hardline Aliyev’s regime has been seriously undermined by the rapidly falling standards of living. Putin found himself in the same position but has seen his personal popularity soar to all-time highs on the back of short sharp military campaigns in both Ukraine and Syria. A short little war would clearly bolster Aliyev’s position at home as the enmity at Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh runs all the way down to street level.
But the reawakening of the dispute may also be linked to the rising tensions around the region, which have polarised the positions of not only the two adversaries but also their respective supporters. In particular the dispute between Moscow and Ankara, since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber in November last year, could have helped spark the conflict.
The dispute now threatens to drag in both Russia and Turkey, which as a Nato member could involve the western alliance. All this will harden and extend a line of diplomatic demarcation that was already running down Russia’s border with the Baltics and Ukraine, and is now being extended to the Black Sea coast.
Armenia is closely tied with Moscow. It has joined Russia’s Eurasia Economic Union (EEU) and hosts a Russian military base that in part is supposed to be insurance against Azerbaijani aggression. The conflict will now push the struggling country only deeper into the arms of Russia, which acts as the de facto guarantor of its integrity.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan in the last two years alone has spent upwards of $4bn on a smorgasbord of Russian arms, including helicopters, drones, MiG aircraft, and heavy artillery, but its balancing act between Moscow, Ankara and Washington has become more difficult to maintain since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber in November.
At first Baku gave the impression of being neutral as Turkey’s spat with Russia got increasingly nasty, but in reality it took measures to help Turkey evade Russia’s trade embargo imposed in December, such as lowering freight tariffs and re-exporting banned Turkish goods to Russia. Now it looks increasingly that Baku will be forced to choose sides and back its economic partner Turkey.
In Washington, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately rallied to the side of Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, saying Turkey will support Azerbaijan “to the end,” in a statement during the opening of the Turkish-American Center of Culture and Civilization on April 3.
"We are faced with such an incident, because the Minsk Group had underestimated the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is under the occupation of the [Armenians] for many years. If the Minsk Group has made fair and decisive steps in this regard, such a situation would not arise, " said Erdogan, answering Azerbaijani journalist questions. "May Allah help our Azerbaijani brothers."
De Waal suggests that Moscow might also have a hand in pouring oil on the fire to “discredit the reputation of the United States as a peacemaker,” explains de Waal, even though Russia and the United States are formally partners as two of the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group that is supervising the ceasefire.
The problem with this argument is that while Moscow has clearly helped undermine the stability of the region by selling Baku a lot of sophisticated hardware in the last couple of years, it would be unable to control a war or bring it to an end. Another nasty regional war being fought on the basis of ethnic and religious differences (Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim, whereas the residents of the disputed region are predominately Armenian Orthodox Christians) is not in Moscow interests, as it is already struggling to contain similar ethnic and religious forces along its own southern borders.
“The trouble with this theory is that Russia, although the most important secondary actor in the Karabakh conflict, does not control the situation on the ground. It is not powerful enough to make the Armenian or Azerbaijani military forces do as it wants. They are strongly independent bodies, answerable only to their own presidents. Russia’s ability to shape events is probably smaller than it looks,” says de Waal.
For their part the Russians seems genuinely alarmed by the escalation of hostilities. Putin immediately called for a end to the fighting on April 2 and was followed up by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who repeated the calls.