Oct 26, 2020 - World

U.S.-brokered ceasefire collapses in Nagorno-Karabakh

Volunteer fighters in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S.-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh crumbled within hours on Monday, leaving the month-old war rumbling on.

Why it matters: Nearly 5,000 people have been killed, according to Vladimir Putin’s rough estimate, including more than 100 civilians. Between 70,000 and 100,000 more are believed to have fled the fighting.

  • “The efforts of the international community, this time brokered by the United States, to establish a ceasefire, have failed,” Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Monday night.
  • Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, meanwhile, declared that his country was “fed up” with “nearly 30 years” of failed diplomacy. Military force was required to “create a new reality," he said.
  • Two previous ceasefires negotiated by Russia also broke down within minutes.

The big picture: Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-governing, majority ethnic Armenian enclave which lies entirely within Azerbaijan's borders. The conflict over the territory dates back a century and flared up at either end of the Soviet era, Thomas de Waal writes in Foreign Affairs.

  • In 1921, the region was placed within Soviet Azerbaijan by the Soviet Caucasus Bureau, led by Joseph Stalin, but granted relative autonomy, de Waal writes.
  • In 1991, as the USSR was collapsing and the post-Soviet borders were hardening, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the territory.
  • Armenia prevailed in 1994, “taking control not just of Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also of seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories,” de Waal writes.
  • Since then, international mediators have helped put down a series of clashes but left in place a status quo which Azerbaijan bitterly rejects.

What’s happening: Spurred on by its ally Turkey, Azerbaijan last month launched the most ambitious offensive seen in the conflict since the 1990s. It has reclaimed a number of villages lost in that war.

  • On the one hand: "Baku has little incentive to agree to peace talks which they say did not produce any kind of results for such a long time,” says Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group.
  • On the other: Armenia has called for international mediation, in particular from its military ally, Russia. Putin has been involved but in the role of neutral arbiter, pointedly noting that Russia's alliance with Armenia doesn't apply outside its borders.
  • The latest: In the most significant U.S. intervention to date, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the foreign ministers of both countries on Friday. His deputy Stephen Biegun finalized a ceasefire deal which President Trump predicted would save many lives. It quickly collapsed on Monday.

On the ground: "In Stepanakert — the now nearly empty capital of the self-styled ethnic Armenian Artsakh Republic — the remaining residents spend their nights cowering in makeshift shelters that are often little more than musty cellars under aging Soviet apartment blocks," Simon Ostrovsky reports for Newlines Magazine.

  • Azerbaijan’s offensive has been powered by drones purchased from Turkey and Israel.
  • The Azeri advance is challenging the longstanding Armenian belief that they are "the superior warriors" and will have Russia on their side when it counts, Ostrovsky reports.
  • Not only has Aliyev rejected the old status quo, Ostrovsky notes, he's also vowed to push beyond the occupied formerly Azeri villages.

What to watch: “If the Azerbaijani advance is slowed by winter or highland geography, the conflict could turn into a slow war of attrition around Nagorno-Karabakh itself, where Armenian forces are still dug in,” de Waal writes.

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