AT Nagorno-Karabakh hostilities resumed. What is happening in the conflict zone now? Is it possible that a new war will break out in the region? Is the new aggravation in Nagorno-Karabakh connected with the war in Ukraine? And what is the position of Russia and Turkey? DW asked these questions to Olesya Vartanyan, an expert on the South Caucasus of the International Crisis Group.
DW: On August 3, the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan announced the capture of several dominant heights in Karabakh during a special military operation called “Retribution”. What exactly happened there?
Olesya Vartanyan: From the reports that we now have and that are coming from several sides, we understand that yesterday Azerbaijan attempted to conduct a military operation. Initially this was limited to gunfights, but then drones connectedwho carried out the attack. We have seen at least three videos distributed by the Azerbaijani side, and geolocation shows that the fighting took place mainly in the northern and northwestern parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, and also not far from the road that connects this region with Armenia – near city of Lachin.
Stepanakert reports that at least two servicemen were killed and 19 were wounded. From the Azerbaijani side, there is information about one dead soldier. There was information about the movement of Azerbaijani troops along the line. But it is still not completely clear how large-scale these movements are and what positions they managed to take. The losses are still being counted and the events that took place directly along the front line are still being analyzed – since it is quite long, this will take time.
– What led to the current aggravation of the situation?
– Reports of growing tensions in the region – along the front line and in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone – have been coming in for several days now. For example, on August 1, Stepanakert reported that one soldier had been wounded, and after that, the Russian peacekeeping mission reported an attempt (of the Azerbaijani side. – Red.) even change the front line. In other words, even then the situation could lead to open confrontation directly on the ground. So what happened yesterday was a continuation of the escalation that has been observed in recent days.
– Did the war in Ukraine influence the escalation of the conflict?
– Yes, definitely. Over the past six months, we have been witnessing an ongoing aggravation of the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. Some skirmishes are constantly taking place, the front line is beginning to change. We see that the Russian peacekeepers are unable to stop the growth of tension. This can be attributed, first of all, to Russia’s vulnerability in the international arena. Not everyone will be ready to believe what the Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh are saying.
On the other hand, over the past six months, diplomatic mechanisms have completely collapsed, which worked for some kind of settlement of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, containment of this conflict. I mean, first of all, the OSCE and the Minsk Group, where Russia is one of the co-chairs along with the United States and France. As soon as the war in Ukraine began, the Russian Foreign Minister sacrificed Russian participation in this group, announcing the withdrawal of his representative from it. Such steps are not conducive to maintaining stability – especially in such a fragile time.
– And how can one explain the rather passive role of Russia in the current aggravation of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh?
– Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russia has been striving with all its might to avoid the emergence of any other centers of military confrontation that imply its participation, especially in the near abroad. This concerns not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but also, for example, Georgia. Moscow is doing everything possible to prevent this from happening, because then it will have to spend some resources, which it already has little. Russia now has neither the strength nor the time to resolve any other crisis situations. Of course, this can change at any time. But until now, Moscow has done everything possible to avoid opening a second front.
– In addition to Russia, there are other external players in this conflict, for example, Turkey. Is she interested in aggravating the conflict?
– Turkey and Azerbaijan are strategic partners, they are very closely connected with each other both politically and economically. After the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Azerbaijan is considered as one of the main sources of alternative gas and also oil for Europe – all this, of course, will go through Turkey. At the same time, Ankara and Yerevan have launched normalization process, and Turkey is primarily interested in this process because it is helping it rebuild its relationship with the Biden administration in the United States. So it’s hard for me to imagine that Turkey is currently interested in some kind of major escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Of course, everything can change if the situation becomes extremely serious or if there are any signals that Russia, for example, wants to use force against Azerbaijan. Well, then, we must not forget that President Erdogan is a person who can change his point of view by 180 degrees overnight. On August 5, a meeting between Putin and Erdogan is due, at which, of course, they will discuss the topic of the South Caucasus. So we will be watching developments.
– Is there any chance that after yesterday’s escalation the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh could escalate into a full-scale war?
– Unfortunately, there is such a possibility. After wars of 2020 situation (in Nagorno-Karabakh. – Red.) has become even more unsteady, the front lines even more dangerous. The military positions are very close to each other – to such an extent that in many places the soldiers can hear each other. On the other hand, these military positions are very close to civilian targets. So any, even a small escalation, instantly affects the locals. Because of this, the situation looks much sharper and more complicated, both in terms of stopping hostilities and in the negotiation processes.