Azerbaijan–Armenia ConflictBraced for Escalation
Nikola Mikovic reports on the intensification of violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as foreign superpowers wait in the wings
Heavy fighting between Turkey-backed Azerbaijan and Russian ally Armenia is continuing, as the two sides battle over the disputed mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Over the weekend, hostilities spilled over to Azerbaijan, and it is only a matter of time before Azeri forces start shelling Armenian cities.
After the Azerbaijani armed forces reportedly shelled Stepanakert – the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh – the region’s army retaliated by striking Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan with a population of around 330,000. According to Artsakh officials, the main target was the Ganja airbase, although it is still unclear if the facility has been damaged. Azerbaijan’s officials claim that several civilian buildings in the city were destroyed.
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Azerbaijani presidential spokesman Hikmet Hajiyev posted on Twitter pictures of the Ganja strike. Armenian authorities have already accused Turkey of deploying its proxy fighters from Libya and Syria to Azerbaijan. Even though Baku denied the involvement of foreign mercenaries in the Caspian country, at least 10 of them have reportedly been killed so far.
Turkey is openly supporting Azerbaijan, and it is no secret that Ankara has provided drones and weapons to Baku. Given that the Azeri forces managed to penetrate into Nagorno-Karabah, at this point it is unlikely that the Turkish military will directly intervene and help its Azeri allies to capture the territory they consider occupied by Armenia.
However, if the Azerbaijani army suffers heavily losses, and does not make significant progress on the ground in the coming weeks, it is not improbable for Ankara to provide additional assistance to Baku, even if that means deploying Turkish troops in the region. That would be the first time that Armenia and Turkey have been engaged in direct combat since the war they fought exactly 100 years ago.
Baku has accused Armenia of attacking not only Ganja, but also the Mingechevir Hydro Power Plant – the largest hydroelectric dam in the South Caucasus. This facility has a huge importance for Azerbaijan; during the accident at Mingechevir in 2018 most of the country was left without electricity. Any damage to this facility could have fatal consequences for Azerbaijani industrial and civil infrastructure. Armenia denied it had directed fire “of any kind” towards Azerbaijan, while Armenia-sponsored Artsakh forces took responsibility for the Ganja shelling.
Although Armenia has never officially recognised the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, it is openly supporting this entity, which is majority ethnic Armenian yet is claimed by Azerbaijan.
In response, Baku will likely start shelling Armenia sooner rather than later. Azerbaijani officials already said their army will “destroy military targets in Armenia from which Armenians shelled Azeri cities”. Once that happens, Armenia is expected to officially request protection from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
Since Russia acts as a mediator in this conflict, and aims to maintain good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow will likely try to find other ways to help its ally. For instance, Russia could deploy a limited number of mercenaries to Armenia, or provide its ally with modern, sophisticated weapons – something that could act as a deterrence for Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Additionally, one of the most dangerous scenarios for Baku would be Armenia’s purchase of Iranian strike drones, as has been muted. This technology has been used with destructive efficiency during the civil war in Yemen. Officially, Iran is taking no side in this war, although reports suggests that Tehran allowed a transit of Russian weapons to Armenia through Iranian territory.
In the long term, Russia, Turkey and potentially Iran will likely reach a compromise over the decades-old conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In the meantime, the war will go on – causing destruction on both sides, and leading to an ever-greater reliance on the foreign powers that are fuelling the conflict.