A conflict, frozen for two decades, escalated to a violent territorial dispute on September 27, 2020. The two former Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan returned to the battlefield. According to Le Monde, the number of casualties has already surpassed 100 civilians on each side.
A not-so-frozen conflict
By all accounts, this is the most violent escalation of events since 2016, although sporadic outbreaks of violence took place several times between 2008 and 2018. In 2016, the war lasted for three days and resulted in over 200 casualties.
The heart of this geopolitical conflict is the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, (4400 square kilometers). It is a mountainous region in the South-Caucasus that has been contested by both Armenia and Azerbaijan since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Both sides to the conflict have taken pride in the escalation.
The Armenian-backed Upper Karabakh separatists claim to have attacked “49 drones, 4 helicopters, 80 tanks, a military airplane and 82 Azeri military vehicles,” while Baku claims to have destroyed “an Armenian defense column and an artillery unit.”
In the aftermath of the Soviet civil war, the Nagorno-Karabakh region (“Upper Karabakh“) was incorporated to Azerbaijan. The majority of the population were Christian Armenians, living now in a Shia-Turkish Muslim Majority Republic.
In the aftermath of Gobachev’s Perestroika (1985) and while the USSR was heading towards its dissolution, an Armenian autonomous movement emerged in 1988 calling for union with Armenia. Following a bloody civil war, the enclave declared its independence in 1991; a regime that has yet to be recognised by any country other than Armenia.
From then on, the conflict has been recurring. From 1992 to 1994 there were over 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. In order to manage the conflict, the OSCE spearheaded the Minsk group in 1992. The initiative involves France, Russia and the United States but has failed to yield concrete results, despite hopes for a breakthrough in 2000.
State of Play
The recent resumption of this confrontation is presumed to have started with an Azeri offensive, a fact denied by Baku. Subsequently, the Minsk group has reconvened seeking conflict management alternatives.
The South Caucasus is often regarded strategic due to its role as an oil and gas conduit from the Caspian to Turkey, South-East, and Western Europe. The flow is a goldmine for energy corporate stakeholders from Russia, France and the United States.
Geopolitically, the region is usually regarded as Russia’s “Near Abroad,” a part of Europe in which Russia aspires to be the sole guarantor of collective security. Indeed, Russia is a close military and economic ally of Armenia. Armenia is a member of both the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty of Organisation) and the Eurasian Economic Union. Azerbaijan remains uncommitted to either of these Russia-led organisations or the EU and NATO. However, Russia remains Baku’s main arms dealer.
“Russia is seen as playing on two boards, maintaining a balance of powers between Armenia and Azerbaijan, maintaining the status quo instead of pursuing conflict resolution,” argues Samuel Carcanague. Furthermore, no one else is allowed to take conflict resolution initiatives in Russia’s near abroad in the South Caucasus.
Finally, there is the significance of the French position over the conflict. The French President Emmanuel Macron has openly sided with Armenia in the South Caucasus and seeks to play a role in brokering a ceasefire.
Turkey has a more “hands-on” engagement in the conflict, sending both troops and weapons in support of its traditional Turkic ally in the South Caucasus. Given a broader context of the confrontation between Paris and Ankara – in Syria, Libya, the East Mediterranean – the conflict is but the latest confrontation. At the latest European council, President Macron demanded hands-on intervention in securing a ceasefire, while Baku and, indirectly Ankara, seek to move to establish a fait-accompli before any negotiation takes place. The issue is now whether this confrontation in the South Caucasus could culminate in an irreparable rift between France and Turkey in NATO.
 Samuel Carcanague : « Le conflit du Haut-Karabakh entre l’Arménie et l’Azerbaïdjan risque-t-il de dégénérer ? » 23/06/2017, Analyses. https://www.iris-france.org/96565-le-conflit-du-haut-karabakh-entre-larmenie-et-lazerbaidjan-risque-t-il-de-degenerer/
 Le Monde : « Dans le Haut-Karabakh, les combats meurtriers continuent entre l’Azerbaïdjan et l’Arménie » 29/09/2020, International, Europe, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2020/09/29/dans-le-haut-karabakh-les-combats-meurtriers-continuent-entre-bakou-et-erevan_6054054_3210.html
 Le Monde : « Pourquoi l’Arménie et l’Azerbaïdjan s’affrontent dans le Haut-Karabakh » 28/09/2020, International, Europe. https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2020/09/28/pourquoi-l-armenie-et-l-azerbaidjan-s-affrontent-dans-le-haut-karabakh_6053936_3210.html
 Le Figaro : « Haut-Karabakh, Poutine, Macron et Trump appellent ensemble à un cessez-le-feu immédiat » 1/10/2020, Actualité, https://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/haut-karabakh-poutine-macron-et-trump-appellent-ensemble-a-un-cessez-le-feu-immediat-20201001
 Cnews, interview de Dimitri Pavlenko : « Haut-Karabakh, les dessous du conflit » 1/10/2020, Cnews, Face à l’info, https://www.cnews.fr/emission/2020-10-01/face-linfo-du-01102020-1003998
 Le Figaro : « l’Azerbaïdjan va combattre jusqu’au retrait total des Arméniens du Karabakh » 30/10/2020, Actualités, https://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/l-azerbaidjan-va-combattre-jusqu-au-retrait-total-des-armeniens-du-karabakh-20200930
Le Figaro : « Macron préoccupé par des messages guerriers de la Turquie sur le Karabakh » 30/10/2020, Actualité, https://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/macron-preoccupe-par-des-messages-guerriers-de-la-turquie-sur-le-karabakh-20200930