MOSCOW—The fighting in a mountain enclave in the Caucasus escalated Tuesday when Turkish-backed forces shelled five villages including the capital of Stepanakert, according to Armenian officials.
Skirmishes broke out on the border of Azerbaijan and Armenia over the weekend and the official death toll is over 100 as a decades-old dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh or the Republic of Artsakh erupted into violence.
Artsakh is an ethnic Armenian pocket that was once part of Azerbaijan’s territory but now hews closely to Armenia against the wishes of Turkey, which has lucrative oil and gas deals with Azerbaijan and a long-standing enmity with Armenia.
“We fight not only with Azerbaijan, with Turkey and thousands of its mercenary soldiers from the Middle East,” Masis Mailyan, foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Tuesday. “This morning the attackers shelled an Armenian town of Vardenis. This is the continuation of the Turkish genocide against Armenian people. The genocide, that the U.S. Congress officially recognized in a resolution last year, affirming that the Turkey exterminated 1.5 million Armenians.”
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fueled the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but he blames mediators for failing to solve the territorial dispute since a ceasefire in 1994. “The United States, Russia and France have not been able to resolve the conflict for almost 30 years. On the contrary, they are doing everything they can to prolong the problem,” Erdogan said in half an hour speech on Tuesday. “Azerbaijan has already listened to you for 30 years! But whose lands are occupied? Azerbaijan’s!”
Civilians, including women and children, were reported killed on both sides. Tanks burned, armed drones and helicopters were shot out of the sky. The Armenian defense ministry reported that a Turkish warplane took off from Ganja airbase in Azerbaijan and shot down an Armenian jet aircraft Su-25 on Tuesday.
“Turkey has never expressed any regret for the massacre in 1915,” Mailyan said. “Ankara criticized the Western countries for recognizing the Armenian Genocide.”
The foreign minister said there was a chance that major powers would be drawn into the growing conflict. “Azerbaijan and Turkey have a program called ‘Great Turan’: Erdogan aims to take control over the South Caucasus, which will weaken Russia’s geopolitical positions,” he said.
While it’s already bad, the worry is the conflict could easily escalate. The fighting threatens to involve Turkey, a NATO country, on the side of Azerbaijan while Russia’s forces back Armenia. “If Armenia officially asks Russia for help, the Kremlin would have to deploy the army, in accordance with the Collective Security Treaty between the two countries,” Mailyan told The Daily Beast, suggesting that even those consumed by domestic politics in the U.S. need to focus to prevent an even more disastrous war.
The nation of Armenia with 2.9 million at home and millions in a diaspora in the United States, France, Russia, and elsewhere, feels very much united. In the first hours of the war, Kim Kardashian Tweeted her support for breakaway Artsakh: “We are praying for brave men and women risking their lives to protect Artsakh and Armenia. The news is misleading, these are not ‘clashes,’” Kardashian, whose family fell victim to the Armenian genocide, warned.
The breakaway region is roughly the size of Connecticut. It is backed by Armenia and its diaspora in the West: at least ten American states, including California, Michigan and Massachusetts, have passed bills recognizing the independence of Artsakh, the Armenian name for the region.
Both Azerbaijan and Armenia declared states of emergency on Sunday, for the first time after an escalation four years ago. Erdogan accused Armenia of being “the biggest threat to regional peace,” demanding its capital Yerevan give Nagorno-Karabakh territories back to Azerbaijan.
Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, discussed the conflict with his ally in Armenia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. While Turkey has almost brotherly relations with Azerbaijan, Orthodox Russia feels very close to Christian Armenia. There are Russian military bases on Armenian territory close to the borders with Turkey and Iran.
While Turkey has an almost pathological hatred of one side in this dispute, Russia has tried to maintain good relations with both sides. It has strong business and political ties with Azerbaijan, a country that borders the often unstable Russian region of Dagestan. To keep Azerbaijan happy, Moscow sold weapons to Azerbaijan for $4 billion in 2016, a move that was widely criticized in Armenia.
Last week Armenia joined Russia, China, Iran, and several other Kremlin allies taking part in military exercises called Caucasus 2020, which featured up to 80,000 soldiers.
The violence which erupted over the weekend has been brewing for an age. Azeri opposition activists have been talking about the coming war for months.
“Families, kids woke up to a real war on Sunday. We have thousands of refugees displaced from their homes, hiding in shelters,” Anahit Musheghyan, who lives in Yerevan, told The Daily Beast.
None of the compromises Russia has suggested over the past two decades has worked. And peace talks failed in the midst of the pandemic, in July, after several clashes on the Armenia-Azerbaijani border that killed 15 people.
More than 100,000 Azeri activists joined the pro-war rallies in Baku, pushing Aliyev to take action. “There is something important to understand about this war: every single Azeri person, without any exclusion, agrees the war is necessary–the war is the only point President Ilham Aliyev gets right: we all want back the territories occupied by Armenians in 1994,” Azeri journalist, Khadija Ismailova, explained to The Daily Beast.
Ismailova, a fearless critic of Aliyev’s authoritarian regime, has spent a year in prison on unjust charges, but when it comes to this attack, she sounds supportive. “I am not militaristic, but it is clear to me that we need to fight,” she said. “The only concern we have is that Vladimir Putin might call Aliyev and tell him to stop advancing. If our forces occupy just a few villages and stop, that would be a huge disappointment. Putin must be talking with Erdogan a lot at the moment, negotiating their issues in Syria,” Ismayilova suggested.
The feeling in Yerevan is equally passionate. “Our country has mobilized 10,000 volunteer soldiers,” photographer Karen Mirzoyan told The Daily Beast on Monday. “As soon as our people heard about Azeri shells killing a grandmother with her granddaughter, many men in reserve joined the forces.”
Armenians have controlled what is internationally regarded as Azerbaijani territory since 1994, so why did Azerbaijan choose this month to advance? Thomas De Waal, the author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, said he thought Aliyev was trying to take advantage of election season in Washington. “Azerbaijan thinks that currently the U.S. is preoccupied with the presidential elections,” he said.