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War in the South Caucasus?

Russia and Turkey are major outside players in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Art by Annie Gugliotta

The long-simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh erupted over the weekend, with more than 50 killed (so far) in the fiercest fighting in years. Will it escalate into an all-out war that threatens regional stability and drags in major outside players?


What's the background? For years, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds over the rugged highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the dying days of the USSR, the two sides fought a bloody six-year war to control the enclave, which was part of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan but mainly populated by ethnic Armenian Christians.

The conflict ended in 1994 with over 30,000 dead, more than one million displaced, and a fragile truce that left Nagorno-Karabakh as a de facto independent state, supported by Armenia but not recognized by other countries, including Azerbaijan. Low-level clashes have persisted ever since — including deadly skirmishes in 2016 — and both governments often use the conflict to stoke nationalist flames at home.

Although the trigger for the latest violence is still unclear, bilateral tensions have been rising since mid-July, when 16 soldiers died in border clashes. That violence sparked an uproar in Azerbaijan, where thousands of Azeris took to the streets calling for the army to "recapture" Nagorno-Karabakh. Now, both sides are accusing each other of throwing the first punch, and have declared martial law.

A war over the enclave would resonate far beyond the region. The South Caucasus, where Armenia and Azerbaijan are located, has enormous strategic importance because it is crossed by two major energy pipelines that carry Azeri oil and Caspian Sea gas to Turkey and Europe.

Two outside players — Turkey and Russia — are on opposite sides of the conflict. Turkey has close relations with fellow Turkic Azerbaijan, and historically there is little love lost between Ankara and the Armenians. Moreover, Azerbaijan is Turkey's main oil supplier. Turkey has denied reports that it has sent 4,000 Syrians to fight on behalf of the Azeri army, but Turkish President Recep Erdogan's moves here merit close attention.

Russia is the dominant player in the region. But although it sells weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Moscow keeps troops garrisoned in Armenia and is, technically, treaty-bound to defend the country. If things escalate further, Vladimir Putin will have to decide whether to honor that obligation. Doing so could quickly put Ankara and Moscow on opposite sides of another nasty war (they already back different sides of the civil war in Libya.)

Finally, Iran also has a stake. It borders both countries, and Azeris are Iran's largest ethnic minority. Although Tehran has traditionally backed Yerevan, and often bickers with Baku over energy and security in the Caspian Sea, the Iranians offered to mediate when the latest tensions began two months ago. Will they try again now?

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, stretching for more than 2,000 miles, is home to the world's highest mountains. The mountain range is also home to the world's third-largest concentration of snow and ice, earning it the moniker the third pole; only the North and South Poles contain more. The glaciers of the Hindu Kush Himalayas are the main source of fresh water for around two billion people living in the region. However, by the end of this century, two-thirds of that snow and ice could be lost because of climate change. A network of data scientists and environmentalists around the world, and on the ground in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, are working to understand the extent of glacial melting in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, its effects and what can be done to minimize its impact. To read more visit Microsoft on the Issues.

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But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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Angry farmers take Indian fort: In a major and violent escalation of ongoing protests over new agriculture laws, thousands of Indian farmers broke through police barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. At least one protester died in the chaos, while the government shut down internet service in parts of the capital. Farmers and the government are still deadlocked over the new laws, which liberalize agriculture markets in ways that farmers fear will undercut their livelihoods. The government has offered to suspend implementation for 18 months, but the farmers unions are pushing for a complete repeal. Given that some 60 percent of India's population works in agriculture, the standoff has become a major political test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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