On Wednesday, Azerbaijani authorities said at least 21 civilians were killed and dozens more injured after rockets fired by Armenian forces using a Russian-made Smerch missile system hit the Azerbaijani town of Barda, which is some 20 miles away from the front lines of the conflict. Reporters visited clinics whose floors were slick with the blood of the wounded. Amnesty International confirmed that those rockets had unleashed cluster munitions, which are designed to inflict indiscriminate damage and banned under international convention.
“The firing of cluster munitions into civilian areas is cruel and reckless, and causes untold death, injury and misery,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in a statement. “As this conflict continues to escalate, Armenian, Armenian-backed and Azerbaijani forces have all been guilty of using of banned weapons that have endangered the lives of civilians caught in the middle.”
Armenian officials have accused Azerbaijan of hitting civilian sites in its steady bombardment of Armenian positions in the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both sides have repeatedly denied targeting civilian areas and blame their adversary for unchecked aggression. The Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers are scheduled to meet Friday in Geneva, but there’s little optimism for progress. Three cease-fires have already collapsed since hostilities flared at the end of last month. In both countries, nationalist sentiment is at fever pitch.
“The conflict may soon reach an irreversible point where it will not stop without a dramatic expansion of fighting and increased loss of life,” wrote Carey Cavanaugh, a professor at the University of Kentucky who helped lead internationally mediated negotiations between the sides in 2001.
At the conflict’s heart is Nagorno-Karabakh. A legacy of Soviet mapmaking, the region was bitterly fought over after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders, Karabakh and seven adjacent districts remained controlled by ethnic Armenian forces after a Russian-negotiated truce ended the bloody battles of the early 1990s. Close to a million Azerbaijanis were displaced from their towns and villages by the fighting then.
But a stop-and-start peace process in the years since — punctuated by periodic skirmishes — has failed to resolve the stalemate. “The two sides became so entrenched in their positions that a finely spun diplomatic solution found no takers,” wrote Thomas de Waal, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “Back in 2006, French, Russian, and U.S. mediators drafted a plan to thread the needle of the conflict, finesse the sovereignty dispute, and restore the rights of as many Armenians and Azerbaijanis as possible. But their Basic Principles document has never gotten serious traction among the region’s elites or its broader societies.”
Authorities in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, pin the failure of negotiations that led to the outbreak of the conflict on the Armenian government’s provocative nationalism, including a “victory” speech by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan delivered this spring in the Karabakh city of Shusha. Azerbaijan now wants to see an Armenian withdrawal to internationally recognized borders, as laid out by earlier U.N. Security Council resolutions and agreements that were never implemented.
“The final nail in the coffin of the negotiation process was when he said that Nagorno-Karabakh was Armenian,” Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to the Azerbaijani president, told the New York Times.
On the ground, Azerbaijan appears to be winning. Its superior military, enhanced by Israeli- and Turkish-made drones purchased with Baku’s considerable oil wealth, has been able to wrest control of a number of the districts abutting Nagorno-Karabakh that had been in Armenian hands. It’s clear the past month’s battles have shifted the status quo in Baku’s favor more decisively than years of intermittent talks and skirmishes.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Armenian civilians fled the advance; tens of thousands more Azerbaijanis may contemplate returning to lands they once inhabited. Thousands of soldiers have reportedly died on both sides. Through the fog of war, reports suggest Azerbaijani forces may be about to seize a rugged, strategic land corridor that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.
The Armenians see the Azerbaijani offensive now as an existential threat to the people of Karabakh. “Because of Azerbaijan’s maximalist expectations and approaches, we ended up with a war,” Varuzhan Nersesyan, Armenia’s ambassador in Washington, told Today’s WorldView. He said Azerbaijan unleashed “a blitzkrieg” on Armenian forces and that Turkey’s substantive support of Baku has tipped the scales of the conflict.
Nersesyan blamed Turkish “neo-Ottomanism” for “undermining regional peace and security.” He accused the Turkish government of wanting to “finish the job” of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and cast Azerbaijan as a willing accomplice in an unreconciled historical atrocity.
Such rhetoric infuriates Azerbaijani officials. “Armenia is not fighting Turkey. Armenia is fighting Azerbaijan,” Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador in Washington, told Today’s WorldView. “I know it’s difficult for them to understand Azerbaijan is a much stronger country.”
Suleymanov argued that the Armenians want the conflict to escalate to a point where Russia, which maintains a military base in Armenia and closer ties with Yerevan, may send in peacekeepers. He rejected the narrative of “civilizational war” coming from Armenian officials and blamed the political impasse on Armenian unwillingness to negotiate in good faith. Nersesyan made the same claim about his Azerbaijani counterparts.
“The only countries that can prevent a war without end or a latter-day Russian-Turkish great-power deal — while reaching a fair settlement — are Armenia and Azerbaijan themselves,” de Waal wrote. “But doing that would require them to conclude that resolving their conflict is more in their common interest than persisting with military force or allowing others to resolve it for them.”
So far, little mutual understanding appears on show. “For years, we have talked about the need for populations to prepare for peace,” said Suleymanov, referring to the prospect of Karabakh’s Armenians living side-by-side with Azerbaijanis. “We have a diverse country and we want them to be part of it.”
Nersesyan, though, argued that Azerbaijan was deluding itself if it believed it can secure unilateral concessions from the Armenians. “These advances are temporary,” he said.