Why fears of another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan are growing

 Map of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Map of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Fears are growing that Azerbaijan could follow its seizure of the Nagorno-Karabakh region with fresh assaults on Armenian territory, drawing Turkey, Iran and Russia into the conflict.

Azerbaijan has "kicked off major military exercises" in the region, reported Politico, with Azerbaijani troops training alongside Turkish troops on the border with Iran.

France, the country with Europe's largest Armenian community, has announced that it will sell military equipment to Armenia. Paris "started stepping up defence cooperation with Yerevan", Armenia's capital, last September, but Azerbaijan's recent "lightning military offensive" has "accelerated France's willingness to deepen military ties", said the website.

The US is reportedly "tracking the possibility of a full-blown invasion of Armenia", said Politico – although Azerbaijan has denied such plans. But another move by Azerbaijani forces "could inflame a broader conflict in the Southern Caucasus", where Turkey, Russia and Iran "all have core strategic interests".

And with the world's eyes on the Israel-Hamas conflict, "experts believe that sovereign Armenia is the next Turkish-Azerbaijani target", said Time, with the "conspicuous arrival" of Turkish F-16 fighter jets in Azerbaijan. Last time such a military exercise took place in 2020, it "preceded the 44-day war against Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh, preparing ground for last month's 'final solution'".

What is the context?

The Armenian and Azerbaijani governments have been "locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for decades", said RadioFreeEurope. Armenian-backed separatists "seized the mainly ethnic-Armenian-populated region" from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s.

For decades, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev "united the country around the trauma" of losing the secession war to ethnic Armenians, said the Financial Times. Aliyev "built his personal legitimacy around the battle to retake Karabakh", reported the FT's Polina Ivanova from the capital, Baku.

The two sides fought another war in 2020 (the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War) for six weeks, before a Russian-brokered ceasefire, and then a peace agreement in 2022, when Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accepted some of the Karabakh region as Azerbaijani territory.

But Azerbaijan began to blockade the area in December last year, "effectively cutting ethnic Armenians off from the outside world", said Al Jazeera. In recent years, Aliyev began to refer to Armenia as "western Azerbaijan", and has been calling for the creation of the "Zangezur Corridor", a highway linking Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan, running along Armenia's border with Iran.

What's the latest?

Last month Azerbaijan "dealt a crushing blow to its long-time enemy", said the FT's Ivanova, taking control over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in a "blitz offensive". But rather than "heralding a new era of peace", Azerbaijan's rhetoric "has neighbouring Armenia fearful that its ambitions may be bigger, and the conflict not over yet".

Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers met with their Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts in Tehran this month, discussing how to avoid further conflict between the two countries.

But Armenia is "the lowest-hanging fruit for Turkey's leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is desperate for a show of power", said Simon Maghakyan for Time. A successful invasion of Armenia "would realise the Armenian Genocide-era goal of connecting Azerbaijan and Turkey continuously".

Russia's Vladimir Putin also "stands to gain from an invasion". Putin has made it clear that "the democratically elected Armenian government must be punished for its pro-Western flings", including the recent move to finalise its International Criminal Court membership. This month, "a top Russian official referred to Armenia as the next Ukraine."

What next?

"The fact Armenia is investing so much of the budget into defence and defence procurement shows how seriously it's taking the threats," a defence analyst with Armenia's Applied Policy Research Institute told Politico. "Over a year, it has virtually doubled."

Aliyev accused France of intending to "inflate a new conflict" by providing weapons to Armenia, said the news site. He also skipped EU-mediated peace talks at the last minute. But French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu pointed out that the weapons systems being sold to Armenia "can only be deployed in the event of aggression on Armenian territory".

A government adviser insists Azerbaijan has no "military goals on the territory of Armenia", said the FT. With Karabakh returned, he said, "Azerbaijan is complete." However, said the paper, "such promises to respect Armenia's territorial integrity have been made in the past, only to be undermined".

"If there are no further military aims," a Western diplomat asked, "why are we having such difficulties getting the leaders together?… If you're saying you're committed to peace, please sign on the dotted line."