A forest burns in the mountains after shelling by Azerbaijan's artillery during a military conflict outside Stepanakert, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict stifles critical transport development in the region, analyst says

As tensions flare up again between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Thomas de Wall, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe with a specialty in Eastern Europe, speaks to The World’s host Marco Werman about the regional players invested in the fight and how their interests are influencing the conflict.

The World

Hostilities have flared up between Armenia and Azerbaijan once again over an ongoing border dispute. Seven Azerbaijani troops were killed this week in clashes. And Armenia says one of its soldiers was killed and several dozen were captured or have gone missing.

Related: Nagorno-Karabakh refugees are beginning to return home, but many are still displaced

It is the worst fighting since a six-week war erupted last year, which killed more than 6,000 people.

Related: Armenians mobilize to support troops in Karabakh war, as ceasefires fail

Thomas de Wall, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe with a specialty in Eastern Europe, has been following the developments, and joined The World’s host Marco Werman from London to break them down.

Marco Werman: Thomas, what exactly caused fighting to break out again between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Thomas de Waal: Well, Marco, this has been simmering for some time and specifically now over two issues: the demarcation of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which was never settled at the end of the Soviet Union; and Azerbaijan’s desire, which is written in the ceasefire agreement, to get a road to its exclave of Nakhchivan [Autonomous Republic], across Armenian territory. Nakhchivan is kind of the “Alaska” of Azerbaijan. And to get a road and rail link across Armenia connecting those two parts of Azerbaijan is very controversial and they haven’t been able to agree yet.
Now, Russia is an ally to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It stepped in to get the two sides to sign a ceasefire, another one. How is Russia able to do this?
Well, Russia is the kind of indispensable power broker between these two countries. It’s the mediator and it’s also an actor. So, it’s kind of both indispensable and strong, and also, not completely trusted by either side. So, Russia negotiated the ceasefire last year and in return, it got Russian peacekeepers on the ground in this conflict, something it had never had before. Russia’s also interested in having some control over these new transport routes if and when they got unblocked. And so, it was natural that when the latest fighting flared up this week, it was the Russian defense minister who got on the phone and negotiated this verbal ceasefire — nothing written down, as far as I could see.
So, Russia is an actor and mediator in this conflict. Azerbaijan receives major support from Turkey. Do you see this conflict as a kind of proxy fighting between Russia and Turkey?
Not entirely. Russia and Turkey certainly have their competing ambitions here, but they have some points of convergence here. They’re both interested in road and rail routes opening up between the two countries across Armenia and Azerbaijan, connecting them for the first time, in some ways, in 30 years. And Russia, as you’ve already mentioned, kind of plays it both ways. They have this strong relationship with Armenia, they have a military alliance with the Armenians. But they have a very close relationship with Azerbaijan. Russia’s playing many games here with Azerbaijan, with Armenia and its own game of trying to get troops on the ground, and also, I guess, a game —which it shares with Turkey — which is to, kind of, keep the West, as much as possible, out of this region.
So, there are prisoner-of-war issues, there are minefields, there are border issues. I mean, it seems that, short of a long-term agreement on borders between the two countries, fighting could erupt again. What do you think? Is there the will to reach a long-term agreement?
There isn’t at the moment. And what we’re seeing, at the moment, is Azerbaijan, which emerged victorious from that war last year, showing every sign of wanting to consolidate that victory, and that means squeezing the Armenians. Let’s be clear about what happened here, it’s pretty clear that these Azerbaijani troops were, if only a little, inside the internationally recognized borders of Armenia. The Armenians, obviously, are resisting. They’re in a weaker situation. But, unfortunately, [there’s] no sign, really, that the Russians have more than just put a bandaid over this, and every sign that this violence could erupt again, unfortunately.
Thomas, why, in your opinion, is it a big deal when fighting breaks out in this region? What’s at stake beyond the Caucasus?
Well, I think obviously it’s a tragedy for Caucasus that young lives are still being lost. It drags these two countries back. They spent 30 years, basically, fighting this conflict when they could have been engaged in more peaceful development. Maybe it isn’t such a huge deal for the rest of the world, but the South Caucasus could and should be a major international north-south, east-west transit hub. And it’s failing to do that. There’s a lot of unused potential and development here, which is being held back by this conflict.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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