By Chak Kai Wong— Correspondent
Military conflict has stirred up again in the Southern Caucasus region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet countries and traditional adversaries fighting for disputed regions since the 1980s.
The two bordering countries are bitter rivals and have been clashing over territorial claims fiercely with violent exchanges occasionally erupting into full scale wars. Hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan this month originated from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war where more than 7,000 soldiers were killed. As part of Azerbaijan territory, Nagorno-Karabakh is the primary disputed land due to the significant population of Armenians living there. The previous conflict concluded with a peace deal brokered by Russia, but believing that Russia’s ability to project power is constrained by the war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan began a new offensive in early September.
Last year, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev threatened to forcibly open a land “corridor” that would connect Azerbaijan to its Nakhichevan exclave via Armenia’s southeastern Syunik province. “Armenia and the whole world saw [during the war] that nobody could stop us … I was demanding that they present us with a date for the liberation of our lands before we take necessary means,” Aliyev said in a remark in 2021.
Both sides have blamed the other for escalating the conflict, but more recent rounds of fighting have also extended into Armenia, a notable divergence from the previous conflicts. “This was an Azerbaijani attack in Armenia proper,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and the author of a book about Nagorno-Karabakh.
The international society has pushed for peace and echoed similar criticism for the Azerbaijani government. “There is significant evidence of Azerbaijani shelling inside Armenia and significant damage to Armenian infrastructure,” said Ned Price, a US State Department spokesperson.
But the position of the EU seems more complicated this winter as it urgently depends on the energy from Azerbaijan to make up for the loss from Russian imports given Russia’s weaponization of oil and gas. “The EU was ready to make efforts to prevent further escalation, and there was no alternative to peace and stability in the region,” said Charles Michel, president of the European Council, in a phone call with the Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan.
Armenia’s regional defense deterrence relies primarily on its security pact with Russia. But Russia’s sway in the region has gradually dwindled as its military campaign faced significant setbacks amid a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces. “Moscow’s ability to project strength in the South Caucasus, for example by supplying arms or providing other military support to Armenia, is constrained by its war in Ukraine,” said Arkady Dubnov, a Russian expert on the country’s ties with former Soviet republics.
What makes the regional conflict more delicate is the key role played by Turkey, an EU member state. Turkey says it will stand by its ally Azerbaijan as part of a turn to a more assertive foreign policy by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We find the situation that has occurred due to Armenia’s violation of the agreement, reached after the 2020 war that resulted in the victory of Azerbaijan, to be unacceptable. This aggressive attitude will, of course, cause consequences for the Armenian side,” said Erdogan at a rally in the Turkish capital Ankara.