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Armenia and Azerbaijan War: Explained

How did political forces draw deep-rooted local conflict? And after a cease-fire declaration, what are peace prospects?

MOSCOW — At the end of September, a moderate, decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave exploded into the heaviest combat since a brutal ethnic war in the 1990s.

Skirmishes have been popular for years along Nagorno-Karabakh front lines, widely recognised as part of Azerbaijan but home to ethnic Armenians.

This time the war is different, experts and former diplomats say, because Turkey has given Azerbaijan more direct assistance and the size of the battle. Both sides used drones and strong long-range rocket artillery.

Turkey 's overt pledge to help its Turkish ethnic ally Azerbaijan in an environment of conventional Russian control risks converting the local conflict into regional.

the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, armored vehicles of the Turkish and Azerbaijani armies took part in military exercise in Baku.
the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry, armored vehicles of the Turkish and Azerbaijani armies took part in military exercise in Baku.

A cease-fire agreement signed on November 9 is an example: Russia brokered the deal and Russian peacekeepers began deploying to Nagorno-Karabakh the next day. Azerbaijan insisted that it still has the right to invite Turkish peacekeepers, raising the risk that the troops of the two countries will work nearby along a volatile front line.

Attacks extended far from front lines until the cease-fire. Cities in Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia were targeted by long-range guns launched by both sides. Nagorno-Karabakh 's capital, Stepanakert, was repeatedly bombed.

Azerbaijan accused Armenia of firing powerful rockets at Ganja, the country's second-largest city, and at a hydroelectric dam, indicating an attempt to destroy civilian facilities.

Three earlier cease-fire negotiations brokered between Russia , France, and the U.S. soon failed. The new Russian initiative is distinct in sending peacekeeping forces and supporting Armenia 's sweeping compromises to avert frontline defeats.

Here's a Nagorno-Karabakh war guide and why it flared again.

It's a racial tinderbox

Nagorno-Karabakh is long ripe for revived local violence.

A war begun in the late Soviet era between Armenians and Azerbaijanis set the tone for today's fighting. At that point, the Armenian ethnic enclave in Azerbaijan proclaimed independence and was almost defeated in the ongoing war until its forces captured Azerbaijan in a series of victories leading to a cease-fire in 1994.

But tensions go back , at least to World War I, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when Armenians were killed and expelled from Turkey in what many today believe to be a genocide. The history, Armenians claim, justifies their ethnic enclave's military security.

The cease-fire of 1994, only intended to be temporary, left some 600,000 Azerbaijanis — who had fled Nagorno-Karabakh and seven neighboring districts occupied by the Armenians — out of their homes. It also left Nagorno-Karabakh, close to Armenia, vulnerable to Azerbaijan's assault, which vowed to recapture the region.

The remains of a home in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Oct. 8 after shelling
The remains of a home in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Oct. 8 after shelling

Local war attracted regional forces

In the past, Russia and Turkey occasionally orchestrated tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But the awkward partnership between Turkey and Russia, Armenia 's ally, comes as both countries grow more assertive in the Middle East and the US steps back. Cross-country ties have been more complex.

Through purchasing anti-aircraft missiles from Russia and cutting off a natural gas pipeline contract, Turkey has alienated the United States. It also conducts proxy wars against Moscow in Syria and Libya.

Earlier this year, after Russian airstrikes in Syria killed Turkish troops, Turkey quickly emerged on other battlefields where Russia was vulnerable.

Turkey sent military advisors, armed drones and Syrian proxy fighters to Libya in May to help the U.N.-backed government and restrain a Russian-backed rival group in that conflict. In July and August, it sent Azerbaijan troops and equipment for military drills.

Armenia said Turkey was actively engaged in combat in and near Nagorno-Karabakh, and a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down an Armenian plane. Turkey dismissed those allegations.

After satellite photos showed F-16s parked on the apron of an Azerbaijani airfield, Azerbaijan 's president acknowledged that Turkish aircraft were in his country, but said they hadn't flew in combat.

Russia and France also backed Armenia 's assertion that, following its Libyan playbook, Turkey deployed Syrian militants to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Alert signals missed

Distracted by other concerns like the pandemic and a widespread rebellion in Belarus, another former Soviet state, foreign mediators ignored warning signals and potential diplomatic opportunities, analysts claim. Busy with a general race, America played a small diplomatic role.

Coronavirus-related travel restrictions prevented conventional summer shuttle diplomacy, International Crisis Group senior Caucasus analyst Olesya Vartanyan said. For Nagorno-Karabakh antagonists, "this is a great moment" to launch a war, she said.

When Armenia killed a general and other officers in the Azerbaijan Army during a border skirmish in July, Turkey immediately volunteered to help plan a response, a retired Turkish general, Ismail Hakki Pekin, said.

Turkish and Azerbaijani joint drills followed, raising tensions.

The chances of stability

Early November, the war turned toward Armenia. Azerbaijani forces seized the second largest city in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, cutting a main access road required for military supplies to enter the mountain enclave, hungering its defenders for hope of holding out.

The truce signed by Russia's President Vladimir V. Putin, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, and Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan calls for Armenia 's army to withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh and be replaced by Russian peacekeepers.

The contract delivered much of what Azerbaijan has tried in talks for years.