What Happened?

Last week’s fighting, which killed at least sixteen people, represented the bloodiest few days since the two countries fought their brief Four Day War in April 2016.

Since the late Soviet era, Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnically Armenian breakaway region of Azerbaijan. After the Soviet Union collapsed, ethnic Armenians in the territory declared their independence from Azerbaijan. But Azerbaijan still considers the area part of its sovereign territory.

Paul Stronski
Paul Stronski is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on the relationship between Russia and neighboring countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus.
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In 1994, the two sides reached a ceasefire, which led to a period of relative stability. Occasional skirmishes still took place along the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact. But this week’s escalation went much further. Fighting boiled over along the Tavush region in Armenia, on the far northeast side of the disputed territory, and in areas populated with civilian villages on both sides. One elderly Azerbaijani civilian was killed in this week’s violence.

Who Started It?

It is still unclear who initiated this latest round of fighting. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have tossed accusations against each other, as they generally do whenever their forces clash.

Azerbaijan blamed Armenia for launching an assault against the frontline troops of Azerbaijan and shelling Azerbaijani villages in the Tovuz district, bordering Armenian Tavush, with mortars and howitzers. Armenia, in response, accused the Azerbaijani army of a breakthrough attempt on the border. Then, on July 16, Azerbaijan threatened to strike Armenia’s nuclear power plant, which is close to the country’s capital and provides almost half of Armenia’s electricity. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry called this threat “genocidal.”

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev removed Elmar Mammadyarov from his former position as foreign minister, which he had held since 2004, accusing him of conducting “meaningless negotiations” with Armenia. Aliyev appointed former education minister Jeyhun Bayramov, who has limited foreign policy credentials, as Mammadyarov’s replacement. The situation is still volatile, as Yerevan claimed it repelled a July 21 Azerbaijani attack in the same region, an accusation Baku denies.

How Are Ordinary Citizens in Both Countries Reacting?

Both countries are experiencing a rally-around-the-flag moment. At first, opposition figures put their differences aside and pledged to support the troops. In Azerbaijan, however, pro-war sentiment got out of hand on the night of July 14, when thousands took to Baku’s Azadilq Square for a demonstration that turned into a fracas. What started as a largely spontaneous nationalist march in support of the war somehow devolved into antigovernment and anti-police outbursts of anger. A small group stormed the parliament building as police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons to break up the melee. Protesters were angry at the country’s high death toll in the fighting, including a well-respected and decorated general. These demonstrations are the biggest and most visible expression of grassroots discontent in Azerbaijan recently, highlighting that war can have unpredictable consequences.  The protests come on the heels of rising social grievances and anger over police brutality as the country’s social contract has frayed amid stagnating economic performance and the coronavirus pandemic. 

In Armenia, political polarization remains high, especially in light of the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashiniyan’s widely criticized response to the coronavirus. The fighting appears to have put those issues on the back burner, at least for the parliamentary opposition.  Far-right elements and members of the former government, which was ousted in the 2018 Velvet Revolution, have been more critical. Pashiniyan and his My Step Alliance, however, continue to enjoy broad legitimacy and will likely weather this storm. Yet, with positions hardening in both countries, the prospects for a negotiated solution to the conflict remain dim.

How Is the Coronavirus Pandemic Reshaping the Humanitarian Situation and Conditions on the Ground?

Military conflict is the last thing that either country needs right now. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Neither country benefits from an escalating conflict right now. Fighting complicates what already is a delicate humanitarian situation across the region. Russia, Iran, and Central Asia are all coping with extremely high infection rates from the coronavirus, rising unemployment, and struggling economies.  

How Has the International Community Responded?

The Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States, has mediated the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict since the ceasefire. It urges both sides to abide by the ceasefire, return to negotiations, and curb their inflammatory rhetoric.

So far, Russia has been the most active mediator with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brokering a telephone discussion between both sides. The Russian Security Council held a closed session on the conflict, and Russian President Vladmir Putin also urged de-escalation. Russia, however, has also been part of the problem.  It has supplied arms to both sides—a move that irks Armenia, Russia’s official ally. On July 17, Russia unnerved Azerbaijan with a combat readiness check in its southern and Western military districts, which includes the Russian-Azerbaijani border region. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is publicly backing Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan. Baku sent a deputy defense minister to Ankara, where Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar promised to help and claimed Yerevan would “pay” for the recent escalation—words viewed as an escalatory threat in Armenia. Israel in recent years has apparently provided high-tech arms to Azerbaijan.  On July 21, Armenia showcased alleged Israeli-made drones that it claims to have shot down during the fighting. Meanwhile, neighboring Iran pledged to help mediate between the two sides.

What About the United States?

In the United States, however, senior government officials are paying little attention. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not appear to raise the issue in his July 13 phone call with Lavrov and waited two more day before commenting on the issue in a press conference. Despite being in its fourth year of office, the administration of President Donald Trump has yet to issue a policy on the South Caucasus region, creating a vacuum that other powers—including Iran and Russia—appear eager to fill. The lack of senior level response to the latest violence shows once again that Washington does not see the Caucasus as a priority.