War is looming in the Caucasus. There have been exchanges of gunfire and skirmishes between the troops of the warring neighboring countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan since Monday, and agreed ceasefires have been broken. The governments of the ex-Soviet republics, which have been enemies since the early 1990s, have accused each other: Yerevan accused Azerbaijan of "provocations". Azerbaijani artillery shelled Armenian positions. According to Reuters, Azerbaijan's government in Baku, on the other hand, spoke of Armenian sabotage: "Responsibility for the situation lies with Armenia's military-political leadership."
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan turned to Armenia's protecting power Russia and asked President Vladimir Putin for international intervention. He also sought diplomatic help from France's head of state Emmanuel Macron; France has traditionally had close ties with Armenia.
The new fighting in the Caucasus region hardly comes as a surprise. The neighboring states have been fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region in the South Caucasus, for three decades. The last war took place in autumn 2020: Baku's troops were able to push back the Armenians, but only regained parts of the originally Azerbaijani region. Baku could possibly try to recapture more areas in the shadow of the Ukraine war. What is worrying is that this time it was apparently not Nagorno-Karabakh itself that was attacked, but positions near the cities of Goris, Sotk and Jermuk. These are on the actual territory of Armenia.
Part of Azerbaijan under international law, but mostly inhabited by Armenians
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh - "the black garden" - fell under international law to the young, predominantly Muslim Republic of Azerbaijan. However, the region is inhabited by Armenians. The neighboring republic of Armenia, which is dominated by Christianity, therefore also made a claim. She regards the area as historically part of Armenia.
The conflict is therefore also a consequence of internal Soviet demarcations. These disregarded the ethnic and religious conditions in the Soviet republics in order to strengthen Moscow's retention of power. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian forces secured control of the region in a war from 1992 to 1994 and established a kind of satellite state with the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. In autumn 2020, Azerbaijan recaptured parts of its territories. However, the capture of all of Nagorno-Karabakh failed due to a ceasefire enforced by Russia after 44 days of war.
When Armenia conquered Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, parts of the plains surrounding the mountainous region had also been conquered. No Armenian claim could be justified on these, Baku had reclaimed them. However, Yerevan used the districts in the plain as a military buffer zone for Nagorno-Karabakh. Large parts of the seven Azerbaijani districts located in the plain were recaptured in 2020. Even in the mountainous region itself, the Azerbaijanis advanced surprisingly quickly and captured the city of Shusha. Large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, and there Stepanakert as the largest city, remained in Armenian hands.
Turkey is also concerned with a land corridor to the Caspian Sea
Baku, which had modernized its armed forces in previous years thanks to its raw material income, faced an opponent that was clearly inferior militarily in 2020. Azerbaijan also benefited from support from neighboring Turkey; Ankara had trained the army and equipped it with combat drones. The Armenians dug in the mountains had only outdated Soviet-Russian weapons at their disposal.
Armenia's protecting power, Russia, also intervened late: Moscow negotiated a ceasefire together with Ankara. Russia and Turkey were to guarantee these, with Moscow playing the larger role. Without Moscow's intervention, Yerevan's defeat would have been even more drastic.
In addition to the ceasefire lines, an important part of the agreement was that Azerbaijan would be connected to Turkey by a land corridor. So far, only the exclave of Nakhichevan, which belongs to Azerbaijan, has a border with Turkey. The corridor through Armenian territory should enable a land connection from Turkey to the Azerbaijani coast of the Caspian Sea and open Ankara trade routes to Central Asia.
Azerbaijan, which is rich in raw materials, is of geostrategic importance for Turkey. Ankara wants to expand its influence in the South Caucasus and challenge Moscow for supremacy: Historically, the entire Caucasus is considered Russia's backyard. Since the 2020 war, Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has further intensified relations with the Turkic-speaking "sibling Muslim nation" of Azerbaijan and has issued the slogan "Two states and one nation".