By Andrew Meirelles
For many of you, Armenia and Azerbaijan being at war may come completely out of the blue. Even more likely though, you don't even know these countries exist. For many, this may just seem like another Middle Eastern war with no end in sight, not even warranting our attention. But there's something different about this war in that it may be the dawn of future conflicts within the Middle East and the Caucasus and change the balance of power in the region.
As of writing, this new conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has entered its seventh consecutive day of fighting. Officially the death toll is close to reaching 300, but in an ongoing conflict it is hard to tell, some estimates have put it as high as over a thousand. Armenia has stated it will use "all necessary means" to protect ethnic Armenians from attack by Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has stated that it will remove the Armenian occupiers from their land.
Where did this all start? You can trace the start of the conflict to the formation of the Soviet Union nearly a hundred years ago. After the end of the Russian Civil War, and the subsequent communist victory. The Caucasus was combined into a single autonomous zone of the Soviet Union known as the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (TSFSR). This amalgamation of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and Russians obviously did not work well. In 1938 Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, divided up the territory into the current recognized international borders, what you would normally see on a map.
Stalin did not divide up the territory based on ethnic barriers, but on what gave him the most political leverage at the time. As a result, he gave an area with a majority of ethnic Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh, to Azerbaijan. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992 Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the region, resulting in an Armenian victory. The result was the death of nearly 40,000 people, a further 70,000 people injured, and over a million people displaced. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, but Armenia controls it. Armenia maintains his control against the wishes of the international community by claiming that Nagorno-Karabakh is not a part of Armenia and is in an independent nation, but no one's under any illusion.
In terms of what broke the uneasy peace since the end of the war in the 90’s, one has to look no further than the unfortunate events of 2020. Earlier this year Russia would not agree to the new oil prices mandated by OPEC (Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries). OPEC specifically arranges the prices of oil at any given time to ensure they make a profit. Upon Russia's refusal to use the new pricing, Saudi Arabia dumped oil on the global market, crashing the price per barrel. Azerbaijan is completely reliant on oil exports. On top of economic difficulties caused by the COVID pandemic, the Azerbaijan government needed something to distract the people and deflect anger from them. As a result, they used the tried-and-true tactic of blaming their problems on someone else and going to war. That fact alone is what makes this war so difficult. The Armenians also see this as an ethnic war similar to the genocide committed against them by Turkey a hundred years ago. Further adding to the issue, Turkey is picking Azerbaijan's side, The Armenians claim that Turkey has already shot down one of their fighter jets. To this day, Turkey denies the genocide they committed against the Armenians, which is certainly not helping. As a result, Russia is likely to take Armenia's side further escalating the conflict. This war has the potential to break out into a larger conflict, amplified by economic difficulties caused by the pandemic. At this time the international community must ensure that this conflict does not continue to escalate nor result in ethnic cleansing. As of the 10th of October, both sides had agreed to a cease-fire, but both sides have already accused each other of violating it, and the conflict may still escalate.
Armenian artillery firing at Azeri positions. Photo taken by Sipan Gyulumyan released Sept. 29. 2020 by the Armenian Ministry of Defense/Reuters