A tragedy is unfolding on the edge of Europe in and around the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. A mostly forgotten war has restarted between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Outsiders are struggling to respond. As someone who has reported on and studied this conflict for more than 25 years on both sides, let me try to lead you through the labyrinth.
It is worth emphasising first of all the human cost. Hundreds of people have died since 27 September, when the fighting broke out, almost certainly because Azerbaijan decided to launch a surprise offensive. Each side is now using fearsome long-range weapons that it has acquired over the last decade.
The rather limited reporting from the region tells us the Armenian population of Karabakh itself is suffering greatly under sustained bombardment. The local human rights commissioner for the region has said that more than 70,000 civilians have fled. Amnesty International has reported the use of cluster bombs, prohibited under international law.
We are also getting reports of Armenian artillery hitting urban centres in Azerbaijan near the frontline. We know even less about the pure military engagements, but it is certain that many young conscripts are dying in fierce battles over small pockets of territory.
In parallel, an intense information war is fought on television and social media. The toxic rhetoric of this conflict in which each side dehumanises the other as “fascists” and “fanatics” fuels the conflict. It seems to be aimed not just at the other side but at the few brave voices in the region who advocate for peace and dialogue, and their international partners.
No one has a monopoly on truth in the dispute. Each side has legitimate and passionately held claims to justice, in a conflict whose roots lie in the early 20th century and the twilight of the Russian empire. The mountainous region had a majority Armenian population and a long Armenian cultural heritage but was geographically within Azerbaijani territory and also home to many Azerbaijanis.
The Bolsheviks imposed order by force in 1920. But their solution – a new autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh dominated by Armenians, but within the territory of Azerbaijan – was a source of mutual insecurity for both sides.
In 1988 the Armenians of Karabakh lobbied Mikhail Gorbachev to let them leave Soviet Azerbaijan and join Armenia. Low-level violence broke out. In 1991, the end of the USSR made this an armed conflict between two independent nation-states. After three years of fighting, 20,000 deaths and mass displacement, the Armenians prevailed on the battlefield and a ceasefire was signed.
Each side in the conflict has legitimate but different grievances. Armenians fear that Azerbaijan wishes to destroy the Armenians of Karabakh and drive them from their homeland. In 1992, this very nearly happened. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev has spoken of granting the Armenians of Karabakh “the highest autonomy in the world” – yet since 1991, the Azerbaijani government in Baku has not drafted a single document saying what this entails. For Armenians the missiles raining down on Karabakh in the past week tell the real story.
Yet the Armenian side is also culpable and – by its actions across the last two decades – is a kind of co-sponsor of the new conflict
In 1992-4, Armenian forces took control not just of Nagorno-Karabakh itself but, in whole or part, seven ordinary Azerbaijani districts, causing a humanitarian catastrophe as they drove more than half a million Azerbaijanis from their homes. Initially, Armenian leaders said they had just temporarily captured a “buffer zone”. But over the years they have begun to indicate that they do not plan to give these regions back, calling them “liberated” and allowing about 17,000 Armenian settlers to set up home there.
Azerbaijan’s frustration with this state of affairs is totally understandable. But ultimately each side can only receive redress and find peace by working with the other.
A framework peace plan first drafted by the mediators of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe seeks to satisfy each side’s demands in a phased approach.
It is a sophisticated plan on paper. The trouble is that the negotiations have always been a flimsy foundation on which to build peace. They are very intermittent, have not engaged society or sought to build a constituency for compromise, and have relied far too heavily on Russia, which has its own agenda in this region. There has also been no penalty for failure of political will. After an outbreak of fighting in April 2016, the two sides both agreed to re-engage with the peace process, but then walked away from their commitments.
The new conflict is costing lives and breeding grief and anger in a new generation. The fighting has a logic of its own and will probably pause only if Azerbaijan decides it wants to call a halt, after recapturing a significant amount of territory at great human cost. The approach of winter in the mountains may help.
If and when that moment comes, Turkey’s active involvement on the side of Azerbaijan adds a new complicating factor. Presidents Erdoğan and Putin may try to impose a new settlement on Armenians and Azerbaijanis that suits their own interests but is careless of humanitarian principles and the claims of both countries to be part of Europe. Lenin and Ataturk did this in the Caucasus exactly a century ago in 1920-1.
Or else Europeans, and perhaps a post-Trump United States, may try to convene a multilateral peace conference, first mooted in 1992, to resolve the conflict, seeking to respect people’s needs and the differing claims of international law.
That looks distant now. At the moment the only people who are celebrating are extreme nationalists, Erdoğan’s Turkey – and Russia’s defence industry which has supplied both sides with arms and will be ready to give them more as soon as they start to run out of weapons of death.
Thomas de Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War.