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The mounting death toll in and around Nagorno-Karabakh will make it harder for outside powers to persuade Armenia and Azerbaijan to stand down and return to the negotiating table, fear diplomats and analysts.
Up to 1,000 people, including more than 60 civilians, are thought to have been killed so far in renewed fighting over the breakaway enclave, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians. A ceasefire brokered Saturday by Moscow between the warring sides is only being partly observed, with both sides accusing the other of breaches.
The heaviest fighting Monday appeared to be around Hadrut, just south of Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's capital. But shelling has also been reported in other areas. Azerbaijan said a missile Saturday struck apartment buildings in the city of Ganja, killing nine people, just hours after the truce went into effect. Armenia denied responsibility for the barrage.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called the attack on the city "a war crime" and a "gross" violation of the ceasefire, promising "a befitting retaliation." Nagorno-Karabakh's military officials counter-charge that Azerbaijani forces shelled Stepanakert and other towns on Monday in violation of the truce.
"These deaths radicalize societies and make a stand-down even more politically challenging," says Laurence Broers of Britain's Chatham House. "Under sustained bombardment, civilians among both the Armenian population of Nagorn0-Karabakh and the Azerbaijani settlements around the 'Line of Contact' are enduring a humanitarian disaster," he said. "Across the divide a new descent into bitterness and toxic cynicism has taken hold," he adds.
The mountainous enclave, which lies 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 and backed by the U.S. and France left the dispute frozen.
The decades-long conflict has seen periodic flare-ups and episodic skirmishes followed by resentful truces. This time, though, Azerbaijan's president appears determined to secure a breakthrough either by force of arms or at the negotiating table. Azeri frustration has deepened with the lack of diplomatic progress and what they see as neglect of their grievances, say analysts.
The renewal of intense fighting has approached for months, say observers, but, distracted by the coronavirus pandemic and other emergencies, world powers overlooked the telltale signs that should have forewarned them.
Long-running talks overseen by France, the U.S. and Russia as co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, Minsk Group have languished for years, building up frustration in Baku.
Patience Wears Thin
Azerbaijanis say they have been patient and that the lack of progress has impacted them far more than Armenia. The 1994 ceasefire has in effect locked Armenia's hold not only on Nagorno-Karabakh but on seven other Azerbaijani areas bordering the enclave seized by Armenian forces in the 1990s. In all about 20% of Azerbaijan's internationally recognized land is occupied by Armenia.
They complain that U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring Armenian troops to leave all occupied territories have been ignored by officials in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
"Azerbaijan was patient for over a generation," says Robert Cutler of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a research institute based in Calgary and Ottawa. "Azerbaijan warned over the years that the use of force would be a last resort if the peace process were exhausted," Cutler noted in a commentary for Canada's Hill Times news outlet.
The final straw for Baku, he says, appears to have been the public rejection, little noticed outside the region, by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of the basic principles underlining the Minsk peace process to which both sides had agreed.
In a speech on August 5 last year, Pashinyan announced "Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia, and that is all." Cutler dubs that a "verbal annexation," one driven by Pashinyan's domestic need to assuage nationalist opinion in his country.
"No Armenian politician had said that since the war in the early 1990s, first because it was political dynamite-since the territory was internationally recognized to be part of Azerbaijan-and second because Armenia sought to maintain the fig leaf of independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic from Armenia proper," Cutler says.
In July, Pashinyan also rejected any role in final peace talks for around 800,000 ethnic Azeris who fled the enclave in the 1990s as it was seized by ethnic Armenians and another 200,000 people from Armenia proper. He said the negotiations should only include ethnic Armenian representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh alongside the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan appears now to have the edge militarily, thanks largely to the backing it has from Turkey.
Azerbaijan has been modernizing its army since 2016, buying $10 billion worth of arms from overseas in the past few years.
Touring the Azeri frontlines, Zaur Shiriyev, a South Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, says army morale is high.
"More significant advances than those achieved in the last major outbreak of fighting in April 2016 have been made possible by aerial attrition of Armenian land forces using Turkish and Israeli drones," says Chatham House's Laurence Broers. "While the situation remains fluid, Azerbaijani forces appear to have succeeded in breaking through the fortified Line of Contact, particularly along the southern flank," he adds.
The advances will likely make it harder for Azerbaijan's president to settle for a return to the status quo before his offensive. He has now raised the expectations of the million Azeris who fled the enclave and surrounding areas. Aliyev last week said his country will reclaim its lost territory "either via peace or by war."
Zaur Shiriyev says that on his tour he has found among the Azeri soldiers a "sense of determination to fight on," and among civilians a "very visible lack of support" for the notion of going back to peace talks.