By Michael Cruickshank - @MJ_Cruickshank
High in the South Caucasus, the self-proclaimed state of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is not somewhere which the vast majority of people even know exists. Located within the de-jure territory of Azerbaijan, the mainly Armenian region broke away from Turkic majority Azerbaijan in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. A peaceful protest movement in the late 1980s gave way to violent crackdowns, reprisal killings and finally a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
When the dust had settled, in 1994, tens of thousands were dead, and hundreds of thousands were permanently displaced, including almost all Azerbaijanis in NKR, and almost all Armenians in Azerbaijan. NKR, after effectively routing Azerbaijani forces expanded its borders to eventually control approximately a fifth of the internationally-recognized territory of Azerbaijan.
The remnants of this war continue to scar the landscape - abandoned towns, destroyed military equipment, and ruined buildings can easily be seen on even a short drive from the capital Stepanakert. Thankfully, a ceasefire has ensured that in the decades since, these ruins stand as an odd juxtaposition against the now peaceful lives of the regions’ citizens.
But that peace is now in great danger.
On the night of the 2st of April 2016, the town of Talish located in NKR, kilometers from the frontline, came under shelling attack from Azerbaijan. The residents reporting hiding in basements while artillery and rockets rained down around them.
“The residents who had cars were able to evacuate, but the residents who didn’t have cars - they were elderly, they had children [...] we were able to get most people to safety, but we had 2 wounded, and 3 people killed,” said Talish village head Vilen Petrosyan.
The village was then temporarily occupied by Azerbaijani forces, before they were once again forced out by an NKR counterattack. The artillery barrages, combined with the subsequent fighting destroyed approximately 50% of the structures in Talish.
This was just the opening act of what was known as the April War - an Azerbaijani attempt to retake parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Over the course of four days of fighting, this advance was beaten mostly back, at the cost of hundreds of lives across both sides. This conflict also saw the combat debut of the Harop ‘kamikaze’ drone which was used by Azerbaijan against NKR positions, resulting in several casualties.
The April War was eventually ended through a Russian and French brokered ceasefire, and by the time the shooting stopped, the frontlines were once again very similar, with the exception of some strategic heights captured by Azerbaijan near Talish. Nonetheless, the problems underpinning the conflict remained, and by the start of 2017, the ceasefire was starting to unravel.
Throughout the first half of this year, the amount of ceasefire violations has generally increased across the board in the region. Both sides use light weapons and artillery to sporadically bombard each other’s positions. Azerbaijan also recently attempted a drone strike against an Armenian position according to reporting by Haaretz.
On the NKR side of the front line, soldiers report near-daily shooting. Among the weapons used against their positions are long-range rifles, mortars, grenade launchers and large caliber cannons. They also report that Azerbaijan often monitors their positions with drones.
“The situation is getting worse. Everyday there is shooting - including the use of large caliber weapons. All around the frontline there are many snipers, and if you don’t follow security rules, you will be killed,” says Vartan, a soldier in the NKR Defense Army.
“Two years ago, they [Azerbaijan] didn’t use artillery. Now it is used occasionally. At night it is particularly dangerous. For example last night they used 60 and 82mm mortars against our positions.”
“We have also seen many movements of Azerbaijani troops towards the front line. ”
With the ceasefire failing, the risk is that either side could see it as an excuse to return to full-scale war. Azerbaijan, which has seen that (at least small) territorial gains can be made through military aggression may believe that a renewed offensive could be more successful. Moreover, such an attack would serve as a useful distraction from its struggling economy, currently crippled by low oil prices. On the other side, NKR could see increasing hostilities as an excuse to retake the strategic heights lost to Azerbaijan in the April War, something which may provoke a larger conflict.
Within this environment, international backers of both countries, such as Russia, the EU and the US, as well as international organizations like the OSCE need to redouble diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict and enforce the ceasefire. Without this, the region could easily slide back into full-scale war, and the tragedy which befell the region in the early 90s could repeat itself. Of course, with an isolationist US, an EU beset by internal problems, and a Russia distracted by wars in Syria and Ukraine, these diplomatic efforts may sadly never materialize.