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A video made available on the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry website on Sept. 28 purports to show an Azeri artillery strike toward the positions of Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijani Defence Ministry/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

For more than a quarter-century, the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh has been listed as the site of one of the world’s “frozen conflicts,” a place where the warring parties, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have largely stopped fighting – even though the grievances never went away.

The problem with a frozen conflict is that either side can heat it up on a moment’s notice, as happened Sunday when something close to full-scale war erupted again in the South Caucasus region, leaving dozens dead and hundreds injured over the first day and a half of combat. The fighting risks becoming a third front – after Syria and Libya – in a proxy war between Turkey, which supports Azerbaijan, and Russia, which is treaty-bound to defend Armenia.

On Monday, Azerbaijani state television showed the country’s troops using heavy artillery to target hills in the distance, while Armenia’s Ministry of Defence posted a video on its Twitter account of what appear to be Azerbaijani tanks being hit by missiles as they attempt to advance. Each side has accused the other of intentionally targeting civilians.

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An Armenian Defence Ministry photo purports to show Azeri armoured vehicles being fired destroyed by Armenian forces.

Defence Ministry of Armenia/Handout via REUTERS/Reuters

While the fighting Sunday and Monday was confined to Nagorno-Karabakh itself – which has its own military and is ruled by a local government that claims to be independent (but is effectively an arm of the Armenian state) – there were worries it could turn into a direct conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tensions rose even higher Monday when Armenia accused Turkey of having a “direct presence on the ground” in the form of Turkish military advisers fighting alongside Azerbaijani troops.

“We are definitely one step away from large-scale war in the region,” said Olesya Vartanyan, a senior South Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group. She said that while flare-ups in the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh were not uncommon, this round appeared to be of a different magnitude. “We have been seeing pictures, videos, of Azerbaijani heavy weapons – artillery, tanks, helicopters – on all the front line, which is 200 kilometres long. This is definitely not happening because of one small, localized trigger.”

Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clash

over disputed region

RUSSIA

IRAN

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Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics that have long disputed ownership of the region.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clash

over disputed region

RUSSIA

IRAN

LIBYA

EGYPT

0

800

KM

GEORGIA

Caspian

Sea

RUSSIA

Tibilisi

ARMENIA

AZERBAIJAN

Yerevan

Baku

Nakhchivan

55

0

KM

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics that have long disputed ownership of the region.z

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clash over disputed region

GEORGIA

RUSSIA

Tibilisi

Caspian Sea

ARMENIA

Baku

AZERBAIJAN

Yerevan

TURKEY

Nakhchivan

RUSSIA

NAGORNO-KARABAKH

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are former Soviet republics that have long disputed ownership of the region.

55

0

KM

IRAN

LIBYA

EGYPT

0

800

IRAN

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

Both sides have accused each other of instigating the latest round of fighting, but it’s Azerbaijan that has an interest in changing the status quo. Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian region that was given to Azerbaijan while both countries were part of the Soviet Union, has been under the control of ethnic Armenian separatists since a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1994. That agreement ended a three-year war that had killed more than 30,000 people.

Since then, Azerbaijan has been made rich by oil revenues and has spent more than US$20-billion building up its military over the past decade, roughly quadruple Armenia’s military expenditures over the same period. Azerbaijan has also gained a new ally in the conflict, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately declaring Sunday that Armenia was “the biggest threat to peace in the region” and that Turkey – a member of NATO – would support its “brothers” in Azerbaijan.

Ms. Vartanyan said that while Azerbaijan’s military is more modern, Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh had the advantage of mountaintop positions and would be difficult to dislodge.

On Sunday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared a general mobilization and called up the country’s reserves. “We promise ourselves that we won’t retreat a single millimetre from defending our people and [Nagorno-Karabakh],” he wrote on his Twitter account.

Azerbaijan declared a partial mobilization Monday.

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People attend a military recruitment meeting in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, on Sept. 27 after the prime minister ordered a general mobilizaiton.

Melik Baghdasaryan/Photolure via REUTERS/Reuters

Azeri youths in Turkey shout at a protest in Istanbul on July 19. Azerbaijan has partly mobilized its military in response to the Nagorno-Karabakh situation.

Murad Sezer/Reuters/Reuters

The Turkish intervention puts Russian President Vladimir Putin – who has used frozen conflicts to maintain Russian influence over several other former Soviet states, including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – in a delicate position. While Armenia is part of a six-country military alliance headed by Moscow, Mr. Putin has also sought to maintain good ties with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

In a remark that appeared aimed at Mr. Erdogan’s government, Russia’s deputy foreign affairs minister, Andrey Rudenko, said Monday that “all actors, both external and internal,” needed to show restraint and halt military activities.

There are already suggestions that the various fronts in the proxy war between Ankara and Moscow are blurring together. On Monday, Armenia accused Turkey of flying 4,000 Syrian mercenaries into Azerbaijan to join the offensive. A spokesman for the Azerbaijani government dismissed the accusation as “complete nonsense,” but Reuters reported that it had spoken with two Syrian fighters who said they had deployed to Azerbaijan in co-ordination with Turkey. The two men, who were not named, said they had been promised US$1,500 a month – a sizable wage in impoverished Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with his Azeri counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, in Azerbaijan's capital of Baku this past February.

Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS/Reuters

Turkey has used mercenaries in Libya, where it flew in more than 3,500 Syrian fighters to aid government forces battling a Moscow-backed warlord, General Khalifa Haftar. In Syria, Russian troops are on the ground supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad against Turkish-backed rebels. On Monday, videos posted on social media appeared to show Russian warplanes flying over Turkish positions in rebel-held Idlib province, where Turkey has military observation posts.

Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan’s stated intention of recapturing all of Nagorno-Karabakh could force Russia to more clearly take Armenia’s side. One video posted on social media Monday appeared to show three Russian MiG-29 fighter jets in the sky over the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Russia has about 3,000 troops stationed at a base just north of the city.

Vardan Toganyan, Armenia’s ambassador to Moscow, said his country would ask Russia for military assistance “should the need arise” but that Armenia did not yet need Moscow’s help.

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