Fighting Intensifies in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey Testing Both Russia and US

Armenia and Azerbaijan are accusing each other of targeting civilian populations in a dangerous flare-up over the disputed separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. As the newly reignited conflict intensifies in a second week of fighting diplomats from Moscow to Paris are scrambling to try to persuade the warring sides to agree a ceasefire. But missiles and rockets continue to rain down — despite a call, too, from the United States, for a halt to the fighting. The enclave, which is inside Azerbaijan’s borders but enjoys de facto independence and has an Armenian majority, has not seen such heavy clashes since the early 1990s, when as many as 30,000 people lost their lives before a ceasefire largely brokered by Moscow left the dispute frozen. Black smoke rises near buildings during a military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Stepanakert, Oct, 4, 2020 in this still image taken from video obtained on October 6, 2020.While both sides blame the other for this latest blood-letting in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, Azerbaijan appears to have been preparing an offensive for some time, aiming to reverse the territorial gains made by Armenia in the 1990s. “Baku may have chosen to advance now in the hope of recovering more territory in the face of an inert negotiating process and a distracted international community,” according to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels think tank. “Russia, potentially with European support, probably stands the best chance of brokering a ceasefire,” ICG said in a statement. Moscow has a formal mutual defense pact with Armenia as well as an air base in the country, but it enjoys close ties with Baku, too.TurkeyTurkey has close ethnic, religious and linguistic ties to Azerbaijan. Ankara is suspected of supplying armed drones to Baku and has been accused by Armenia and western Europe governments of recruiting Syrian rebels to fight in Nagorno Karabakh, a charge the Turks have denied. “While, as usual, most countries are calling for de-escalation and a ceasefire, for the first time, a major power and neighbor—Turkey—is openly backing one of the parties to the conflict, Azerbaijan,” according to Thomas de Waal, an analyst with the think tank Carnegie Europe. In the past Turkey has acted as a brake on Azerbaijan, he says. “Those days are now over, and the geopolitical equilibrium that prevailed around the conflict is broken,” de Waal adds. FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a meeting with elected heads of Russian regions via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Sept. 24, 2020.Some Russian analysts suspect  Erdoğan might be close to stepping on a mine. Competing in Syria or Libya is very different from a face-off between Moscow and Ankara in the Caucasus, considered by the Kremlin its own backyard, they say.  Evgeny Primakov, head of a Russian government agency and the grandson of a former Russian prime minister and intelligence chief, noted in a commentary in Russia Today that Moscow is not likely to take kindly to “a very difficult partner, to put it diplomatically,” becoming “embedded and at ease on territory we have always considered our underbelly.’’ That could be one foreign intervention too far for Erdoğan, whose overseas adventurism has also to contend with a weakened Turkish economy and currency.NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, left, and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speak to the media after their talks in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 5, 2020.Once again Armenian-Americans are springing into action lobbying lawmakers and the White House to take a firmer line against Azerbaijan — among them reality TV star Kim Kardashian and her husband Kanye West, vocal supporters of Donald Trump. And there are signs the Trump administration is starting to lose patience with Erdoğan. While urging third parties last week to stay their hand in Nagorno-Karabakh, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aimed some criticism at Turkey for fueling the dispute, expressing concern that Syrian mercenary fighters have been recruited by Ankara to fight. “We (already) saw Syrian fighters taken from the battlefields in Syria to Libya,” he said, adding that it “created more instability, more turbulence, more conflict, more fighting, less peace. I think it would do the same thing in the conflict in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as well. So, I hope that reporting proves inaccurate.”

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