Was the Spark for WWIII just light in the Azerbaijan – Armenia Conflict?…With Updates

Was the Spark for WWIII just light in the Azerbaijan – Armenia Conflict?…With Updates

Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict (Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry/dpa/picture-alliance) image obtained from:

The genesis for this post came from a Facebook discussion yesterday in which a friend posted about the recent flare up in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia while noting that this flashpoint has the potential to ignite a larger regional conflict. I, trying to appear smart and well read, wanted to jump in the conversation by stating that I read an article about that earlier in the day and even linked to the source. However, I could not provide any other details about the conflict; the people, the geography or the countries that are lining up and taking sides. Generally speaking, my comment was ignored and the conversation continued without me. Instead of just kicking some rocks, I thought I should do a little research and put something together for the one or two of you out there that are like me and don’t really know what this conflict is about and why this particular region of the world is important. So to begin this post let’s start with some facts.

What happened?

There are several sources that you can check to see the details of the event (see here, here, here, and here) but for the purpose of this discussion we will use this story from the AP.

Armenian and Azerbaijani forces fought over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh for a second day Monday, with both sides blaming each other for resuming the attacks that reportedly killed and wounded dozens as the decades-old conflict has reignited.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry claimed Armenian forces shelled the town of Tartar, while Armenian officials said the fighting continued overnight and Baku resumed “offensive operations” in the morning.

Azerbaijani military officials told the Interfax news agency that over 550 Armenian troops have been “destroyed (including those wounded)” in a claim that Armenia denied.

According to officials in the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, 58 servicemen on their side have been killed so far. The territory’s Defense on Sunday also reported two civilian deaths — a woman and her grandchild.

About 200 troops have been wounded, but many were only slightly hurt and have returned to action, the Armenian Defense Ministry said. Azerbaijani authorities said nine civilians were killed and 32 wounded on their side. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said Sunday there were losses among Baku’s forces, too, but he didn’t elaborate.

John Batchelor discussed this event last night on his radio show. In the podcast, Batchelor interviews the Ambassador form Azerbaijan who entirely lays the blame on the Armenians.

“As a result of the shelling of Azerbaijani villages, a number of civilians were killed and many more injured. Extensive damage has been inflicted on houses and civilian infrastructure. So far, 19 civilians have been wounded and hospitalized. Regretfully, just in one shelling of a house in Naftalan region of Azerbaijan five members of the same family, including children, were killed by Armenian forces. 

The latest provocation by Armenia follows the 12-14 July attacks against Azerbaijan across the international border in the Tovuz region, when Azerbaijan lost over a dozen of military servicemen, including one major-general, and a 76-year-old civilian…”

When we go back to the AP story we begin to get a glimpse of why they are fighting.

The heavy fighting broke out Sunday in the region that lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the Yerevan government since 1994 at the end of a separatist war…

Both sides are blaming each other for the conflict and the recent aggression but what are the underlying reasons for the conflict?

Armenia-Azerbaijan Regional Map, image obtained from:

Why they are fighting

The AP story referenced a ‘decades old conflict’ so let’s start there in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan that has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces and the Armenian military since the 1994 end of a full-scale separatist war that killed about 30,000 people and displaced an estimated 1 million.

Nagorno-Karabakh proper has an area of about 4,400 square kilometers (1,700 square miles) — about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware — but Armenian forces occupy large swaths of adjacent territory.

The story continues with some background on the region and the conflict.

Long-simmering tensions between Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Azeris began boiling over as the Soviet Union frayed in its final years. Once the USSR collapsed in 1991 and the republics became independent nations, war broke out.

A 1994 cease-fire left Armenian and Azerbaijani forces facing each other across a demilitarized zone, where clashes were frequently reported.

When I was going through the language section of the Special Forces Qualifications Course (q-course) my Russian teacher was from this area and was actually caught up in this conflict which pitted long-time neighbor against neighbor and eventually was burned out of their home before finally moving to the U.S. as a refugee. For more details on the Nagorno-Karabakh War we will get some wave tops from Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

The Nagorno-Karabakh War,[e] referred to in Armenia as the Artsakh Liberation War,[f] was an ethnic and territorial conflict that took place in the late 1980s to May 1994, in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan, between the majority ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh backed by Armenia, and the Republic of Azerbaijan. As the war progressed, Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet Republics, entangled themselves in protracted, undeclared mountain warfare in the mountainous heights of Karabakh as Azerbaijan attempted to curb the secessionist movement in Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave’s parliament had voted in favor of uniting itself with Armenia and a referendum, boycotted by the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh, was held, whereby most of the voters voted in favor of independence. The demand to unify with Armenia began in a relatively peaceful manner in 1988; in the following months, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, it gradually grew into an increasingly violent conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, resulting in ethnic cleansing,[47][48] with Sumgait pogrom (1988), Baku pogrom (1990) and Khojaly Massacre (1992) being notable examples. Inter-ethnic clashes between the two broke out shortly after the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) in Azerbaijan voted to unify the region with Armenia on 20 February 1988. The declaration of secession from Azerbaijan was the final result of a territorial conflict regarding the land.[49] As Azerbaijan declared its independence from the Soviet Union and removed the powers held by the enclave’s government, the Armenian majority voted to secede from Azerbaijan and in the process proclaimed the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.[50]

Map of Azerbaijan-Armenia Disputed Region obtained from:|||

This conflict is all about who controls the Nagorno-Karabakh region and goes back much further than the 1990s. Basically, Azerbaijan does not recognize the break-away province that is comprised primarily ethnic Armenians. The Wikipedia article continues:

The territorial ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh today is heavily contested between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The current conflict has its roots in events following World War I. Shortly before the Ottoman Empire‘s capitulation in the war, the Russian Empire collapsed in November 1917 and fell under the control of the Bolsheviks. The three nations of the Caucasus, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians, previously under the rule of the Russian Empire, declared the formation of the Transcaucasian Federation which dissolved after only three months of existence.[54]

Some sources push the origins of this conflict back even further to 1905. Honestly, I suspect it goes back much farther than that given both regions were under the heal of the Ottoman Empire long before the collapse in 1917. For more information about the roots of this conflict you can go here but some of the details are as follows:

The first clashes between the Armenians and Azeris took place in Baku in February 1905. Soon, the conflict spilled over to other parts of the Caucasus, and on August 5, 1905 the first conflict between the Armenian and Azeri population of Shusha took place.

In the March 1918, ethnic and religious tensions grew and the Armenian-Azeri conflict in Baku began. Musavat and Committee of Union and Progress parties were accused of Pan-Turkism by Bolsheviks and their allies. Armenian and Muslim militia engaged in armed confrontation, which resulted in heavy casualties. Many Muslims were expelled from Baku, or went underground. Meanwhile the arrest of General Talyshinski, the commander of the Azerbaijani division, and some of its officers all of whom arrived in Baku on March 9, increased the anti-Soviet feelings among the city’s Azeri population. On 30 March, the Soviets, based on the unfounded report that the Muslim crew of the ship Evelina was armed and ready to revolt against the Soviet, disarmed the crew which tried to resist [1] This led to 3-day fighting resulting in the death of up to 12,000 Azeris.[2][3][4]

The article continues with various flashes of conflict until the entire region fell under Soviet rule in 1920 with an official end to hostilities in 1921.

The violence in Transcaucasia was finally settled in a friendship treaty between Turkey and the Soviet Union. The peace Treaty of Kars was signed in Kars by representatives of the Russian SFSR, Azerbaijan SSR, Armenian SSR, Georgian SSR, and Turkey. Turkey had another agreement, the “Treaty on Friendship and Brotherhood”, also called the Treaty of Moscow, signed on March 16, 1921 with Soviet Russia.

By this treaty Nakhchivan was granted the status of an autonomous region within Azerbaijan. Turkey and Russia became guarantors of Nakhichevan’s status. Turkey agreed to return Alexandropol to Armenia and Batumi to Georgia.

Regional Implications

If this conflict was isolated to just Azerbaijan and Armenia it would barely make a blip on the news cycle but unfortunately countries are beginning to line up and take sides in this age old dispute. From Yahoo News:

The fighting between majority-Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia is threatening to draw in Turkey and Russia — the main powerbrokers in the Caucasus region — which back opposing sides of the conflict.

Yerevan is part of a military alliance of former Soviet states led by Moscow and the Kremlin on Tuesday urged Turkey and the warring sides to pursue “a peaceful settlement of this conflict using political and diplomatic means.”

Ankara backs Azerbaijan and has been accused of sending mercenaries from northern Syria to bolster Baku’s army, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday it was time for the longstanding dispute over Karabakh “to be put to an end”.

More from the AP:

Orthodox Christian Russia is Armenia’s main economic partner and has a military base there, while Turkey has offered support to Azerbaijanis, ethnic brethren to Turks and fellow Muslims. Iran neighbors both Armenia and Azerbaijan and is calling for calm.

Meanwhile, the United States, France and Russia are meant to be guarantors of the long-stalled peace process, under the auspices of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Others are classifying this as Europe’s next ‘avoidable’ war

Heavy fighting over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh has raised fears of a large scale-war in Europe as Azerbaijan and Armenia do battle in a region where both Russia and Turkey wield influence.

“It’s certainly, I think, Europe’s next avoidable war,” says Donnacha Ó Beacháin, Associate Professor at the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University, where he lectures on post-Soviet politics and unrecognised states.

“If there’s going to be a major conflict in the greater European landmass, it’s going to be over Nagorno-Karabakh, because it has the potential to bring in other powers.”

Are the larger regional powers already involved? According to a report in the BBC, Turkey may have unequivocally chosen a side:

The Armenian foreign ministry said the pilot of the Soviet-made SU-25 died after being hit by the Turkish F-16 in Armenian air space…

Azerbaijan has repeatedly stated that its air force does not have F-16 fighter jets. However, Turkey does.

The fighting that started three days ago now appears to be spilling out of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenia and Azerbaijan trading accusations of direct fire into their territories…

While Turkey openly backs Azerbaijan, Russia – which has a military base in Armenia but is also friendly with Azerbaijan – has called for an immediate ceasefire.

Turkey has denied responsibility for the downed airplane but their denial may not matter as battle-lines have already been drawn and a cease fire does not seem to be imminent as Azerbaijan and Armenia have both  brushed’  off peace talks.

Leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia brushed off the suggestion of peace talks Tuesday, accusing each other of obstructing negotiations over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, with dozens killed and injured in three days of heavy fighting.

The international community is calling for talks to end the decades-old conflict between the two former Soviet republics in the Caucasus Mountains region following a flareup of violence this week. It centers on Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by the Armenian government since 1994 at the end of a separatist war.

If both sides remain this inflexible, peace will not be achieved anytime soon. The report continues:

“The Armenian prime minister publicly declares that Karabakh is (part of) Armenia, period. In this case, what kind of negotiating process can we talk about?” Aliev said. He added that according to principles brokered by the Minsk group, which was set up in 1992 to resolve the conflict, “territories around the former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region should be transferred to Azerbaijan…”

But first, Azerbaijan must “immediately end (its) aggression towards Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia,” Pashinyan said. “We all perceive this as an existential threat to our nation, we basically perceive it as a war that was declared to the Armenian people, and our people are now simply forced to use the right for self-defense.”

Why this matters.

Why does this matter? In a word, geography. The disputed area has geographic and economic significance not only to the main players but periphery states also. According to Foreign Policy:

Regional disputes have larger geopolitical implications due to the Caucasus’ position as a key transit point for pipelines delivering oil and gas to the world market, and clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have always had outsized significance due to the possibility of dragging key international actors into a wider conflict.

The Foreign Policy piece continues noting the significance to Turkey and Russia:

Turkey getting involved. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has long been at odds with Armenia, strongly backed Azerbaijan and urged Armenians to stand against the government’s strategy. “I call on the Armenian people to take hold of their future against their leadership that is dragging them to catastrophe and those using it like puppets, we also call on the world to stand with Azerbaijan in their battle against invasion and cruelty,” he said on Twitter. Days before the clashes took place, Turkey reportedly transferred militants out of Syria and into Azerbaijan.

Russia watching. Pashinyan spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call shortly after the outbreak, during which Putin warned against further escalations of violence and urged against a military confrontation. “We are calling on the sides to immediately halt fire and begin talks to stabilise the situation,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. Russia is a long-standing ally of Armenia, and it has supplied the country with enormous supplies of arms since the end of its war with Azerbaijan in 1994.

Turkey and Armenia have a long history that includes a genocide that I doubt has been forgotten but further discussion of that would require its own article that hopefully I can get to this week. This situation will definitely be something to keep an eye on and if the escalation continues, I doubt that Turkey and Russia will be able to sit on the sideline for too long. While I believe that all sides want this conflict to remain below the threshold of a total war response, they may not be able to control the fuse that has just recently been reignited.


Turkey appears to be escalating the rhetoric and the stakes, from the Telegraph UK:

Turkey raised the spectre of full-blown war in the flashpoint Caucus region of Nagorno Karabakh on Tuesday after vowing to help its ally Azerbaijan seize the disputed territory back from Armenian control….

The conflict appears to be getting worse and France and Turkey are not trading barbs from Reuters:

NATO allies France and Turkey traded angry recriminations on Wednesday as international tensions mounted over the fiercest clashes between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces since the mid-1990s.

In reference to the messages coming out of Ankara, the French President released a statement:

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country is home to many people of Armenian ancestry, hit back during a visit to Latvia. He said France was extremely concerned by “warlike messages” from Turkey “which essentially remove any of Azerbaijan’s inhibitions in reconquering Nagorno-Karabakh”.


3 thoughts on “Was the Spark for WWIII just light in the Azerbaijan – Armenia Conflict?…With Updates

  1. Reply
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    October 16, 2020 at 8:05 AM

    […] breaks down what they have witnessed so far in the Armenia-Azerbaijan war which we wrote about earlier. They noted that even though we have been engaged in continuous fighting for the last 20 years this […]

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    […] complicated map and don’t want to pick a side. We have written more in-depth about it here and here. The following two maps illustrate what Armenia lost and why this is bad for […]

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