A frozen conflict thaws
Until late September, Stepanakert’s air-raid sirens were silent for some 26 years. Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city had not seen active warfare since a ceasefire was brokered in 1994 between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of which claim the mountainous territory as their own.
But Sept. 27, one of Europe’s longest-running conflicts erupted into full-scale combat when Azerbaijan accused Armenia of carrying out a “large-scale” military operation, wounding multiple civilians and damaging infrastructure. Since then hundreds of people have been killed and 70,000 civilians have fled their homes in a rapidly escalating war which has embroiled Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective allies and diasporas across the globe.
The military conflict shows no sign of abating: Three ceasefires have failed within hours of coming into effect, and each day brings fresh allegations of violence from each side. Questions have arisen for the future of those living and working in Nagorno-Karabakh. NGO staff near the frontline have been forced to take shelter due to the intensity of shelling, while international media outlets have pulled teams out of the region.
On Oct. 8, Armenia introduced new restrictions on publishing work that criticizes the government’s actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, a move condemned by media rights groups. Azerbaijan was accused of placing significant restrictions on internet usage in late September, forcing residents to use VPNs to access social networks. With few objective sources remaining, reporting on the conflict has been reduced to a claim-based narrative where each side accuses the other of being the most brutal.
“We've seen a lot less videos of just chatter footage from the front line,” said Factal Editor Alex Moore, an arms control expert with a focus on the post-Soviet sphere. “We don't see as much of that now. So it has made it pretty tough to verify [reports].”
The borders of Nagorno-Karabakh, where those frontlines are now located, were drawn up in 1923 when the broader territory was under Soviet rule. It remained under Moscow’s control until 1988, when Nagorno-Karabakh’s leaders voted to unify with Armenia, reflecting the will of the region’s Armenian ethnic majority. Protests erupted in Baku and Yerevan, which descended into a full-scale war that saw 30,000 people killed and more than a million displaced until Russia brokered an uneasy military ceasefire. However, the underlying question of the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh was never resolved.
September is not the first time since the 1994 ceasefire that Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, previous skirmishes were predominantly confined to military frontlines, with limited impact on Nagorno-Karabakh’s civilian population.
“Stepanakert is a city of 50,000 people, and we've seen it get hit with cluster munitions on time and time again,” Moore said. “[Civilian impact] hardens both sides and makes it less likely that we'll see an imminent ceasefire or diplomatic agreement.”
The conflict has also become something of a proxy war between Turkey and France, with the former supporting Azerbaijan and the latter emerging arguably as Armenia’s greatest ally. French President Emmanuel Macron blamed Azerbaijan for starting the conflict and condemned Turkey for supplying Syrian mercenaries to fight on the frontlines.
One party that has remained neutral throughout is Russia, to the surprise of many observers, as Moscow has historically been highly engaged in maintaining security in its so-called near abroad. As Moore explained, Russia is particularly interested in post-Soviet regions where it can influence NATO expansion or use oil and gas diplomacy to exact political favors, neither of which applies to Armenia.
“Those two things add up to make Armenia a bit of a strategic afterthought for Russia,” Moore said.
Despite this, Russia has attempted to broker peace in Nagorno-Karabakh on several occasions, although without success. Rather, the conflict has escalated into the third interstate war of the century, and the only one without US involvement.
“It’s truly historic, what we’re seeing, which is two countries deploying their entire military might fighting over territory." Moore said. "It's a relic of the Concert of Europe era."