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The Debrief

November 2020

Welcome to The Debrief, from the editors at Factal. Each month, we reflect upon an impactful yet underreported story that has significant regional or global implications. We'll examine how the story has progressed and how Factal's coverage has shifted to ensure we are always supplying our members with the most up-to-date, accurate, factual reporting.

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This map shows the location of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in relation to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran. (Photo: Peter Fitzgerald.)

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."

Further reading:

  • Factal members can chart our coverage of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in our incident arc.
  • This 2016 report produced for the European Parliament charts the history of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict along with other frozen conflicts in the Caucasus region and explores the human rights impact.
  • This episode of the Economist's The Intelligence podcast offers a succinct review of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh in early October. 
A pro-Armenian protester holds an Armenian flag during a demonstration in Toronto on Nov. 1, calling for Canada to condemn Azerbaijan's actions in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Photo: Michael Swan)

The Lowdown: Disputed territories

There are just a handful of countries that aren't involved in some sort of territorial dispute, according to data from the CIA World Factbook. Some conflicts have remained frozen for decades, while others frequently escalate into outbreaks of violence.

The Kuril Islands: The dispute over the four southernmost Kuril Islands began in the waning days of World War II when the Soviet Union annexed the island chain just north of Japan’s Hokkaido Prefecture. The entirety of the Kurils has been administered under Russia’s Sakhalin Oblast ever since, and the dispute has persisted despite the Soviet Union and Japan formally ending hostilities in 1956. 
  • Outlook: Outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it a priority to solve the issue of the Kurils, something his father put significant effort into as foreign minister. However, no deal was made, something Abe lamented in his farewell address. The possibility of a deal remains, potentially involving Japanese investment in the sluggish economy of Russia’s Far East, something President Putin has repeatedly promised.
The Kuril Islands, located between eastern Russia and eastern Japan, as seen from space. (Photo: NASA)
Ukraine: Integrated as part of the Soviet Union in the early-20th century, the Donbass has always retained heavy Russian influence, particularly after the region was repopulated with ethnic Russians following the Nazi German invasion. This influence, together with Russian language preponderance, came to a head in 2014 following the Ukrainian revolution that led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktok Yanukovych. This created a power vacuum that quickly morphed into an insurgency featuring strong Russian backing.
  • Outlook: Intense fighting in 2014 and 2015 has since devolved into a largely frozen conflict, with Luhansk and Donetsk governing as breakaway protostates. Russia, meanwhile, now governs the strategically vital Crimean Peninsula after annexing the territory in 2014.

Kashmir: Kashmir has long been the site of ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, even before the two nations gained independence from Britain in 1947. Today, India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir in full, but control only parts of it. An independence movement and armed revolt against Indian rule in the restive Jammu and Kashmir have existed for decades, with India blaming Pakistan for financing separatists behind the revolt — a charge Pakistan denies.

  • Outlook: Both countries have moved to integrate the territories they administer. India in 2019 scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and has since imposed a near-total clampdown in the region. Pakistani leadership is reportedly nearing consensus on granting Gilgit-Baltistan status as the fifth province. Meanwhile, near-daily skirmishes along the Line of Control and raids against militants in Jammu and Kashmir continue.
This map shows the location of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh in relation to India, Pakistan and China. (Photo: CIA)

Ladakh: The territorial dispute between China and India dates back to a 1914 convention signed between British India and Tibet that establishes a border only accepted by India. Since the late 1940s, the two nations have battled over several territories, the largest being Aksai Chin, administered by China mostly as part of Xinjiang but claimed by India as part of the union territory Ladakh. The most recent clashes in June 2020 escalated to dozens of deaths.

South China Sea: In 1958, China officially declared sovereignty over the South China Sea and its hundreds of mostly small uninhabited archipelagos. But since the 1970s, multiple competing claims have emerged from Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, leading to both conflicts and international resolutions. In 2016, a United Nations-appointed tribunal ruled that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights over the sea — a ruling both China and Taiwan rejected

  • Outlook: In response to China's increasing militarization over the waterway, the United States has conducted freedom of navigation operations since 2015 and bolstered support for Southeast Asian partners. With tensions increasingly rising in both military and diplomatic spheres, observers warn that the South China Sea may be the spark for military action between the two global powers.

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