A long-running border dispute between armenia and azerbaijan has flared up with some of the heaviest fighting in four years.
The fighting underlines the potential for spreading military conflict in a world shaken by economic crisis and coronavirus.
Hundreds of troops have been killed from the two countries, straddling Europe and Asia. Two ceasefire agreements have failed to stop continued fighting. The clashes are over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed area located within Azerbaijan that has been ruled by Armenian separatist forces since 1991.
The fighting between Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-backed Azerbaijan threatens to set off a wider regional war.
The Caucus Mountains region, which is crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines, has become a focus for imperialist rivalries.
Azerbaijani rockets, shells, drones and bombs have pounded Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh. It claims to have captured a number of villages to the south of Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by Armenia since 1994.
Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan said Azerbaijan had “declared war on the entire Armenian people once again”.
He warned that the “situation could go beyond the region’s borders and threaten international peace and stability” in an appeal for international backing from the West and Russia.
The West and Russia have tried to broker a ceasefire, fearing another prolonged war while their forces are focused elsewhere in the world. But the Turkish government—a member of the US-led warmongers’ alliance Nato—is strongly backing Azerbaijan.
Armenian forces claim they are already facing Turkish F-16 warplanes and mercenaries.
Russia and Turkey have been ramping up tensions since July, when skirmishes in border areas killed four Armenian and 12 Azerbaijani soldiers.
Turkey and Azerbaijan carried out joint military exercises after the clashes. And Russia staged its own “surprise combat readiness check” with 150,000 troops, over 26,000 armaments, 414 aircraft and 106 warships nearby.
In the context of growing imperialist rivalries between the West, China, Russia and regional powers, a small clash could set off a deadly conflict.
Oil and gas interests
Oil and gas fuel imperialist rivalry in the Caucus regions. Azerbaijan is a key energy and trade route between the US and Asia.
Its rulers want to export gas, which it has in the Caspian Sea, to European markets through the South Caucus Pipeline Expansion Project.
The pipeline currently runs from Azerbaijan via Georgia to Turkey.
Their sponsor, Turkey, wants to become a chief exporter of oil and gas to the European Union.
Meanwhile, Russia wants to maintain some influence in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, but needs to contain a potential competitor to its gas exports to Europe.
The imperialist rivalries in the region are long-standing. After Russia’s empire broke apart into 15 republics in 1991, its new rulers tried to maintain control over its former lands.
Free market shock therapy caused production to fall through the floor and devastated the military industry.
To build up influence, Russia relied on stirring up ethnic division and separatist conflicts in its “near abroad”. Nagorno-Karabakh is a predominantly Armenian Christian region within the Muslim majority Azerbaijan.
By 1991 Armenian separatists there had declared an independent republic, which isn’t recognised by any state. In 1992 and 1993 Armenian troops—with Russia’s backing—fought for control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
And when the conflict looked like it might destabilise Azerbaijan, Nato member Turkey threatened to bomb the Armenian capital Yerevan.
Meanwhile, US imperialism also sought to bring countries in Russia’s “near abroad” into its orbit to cement its hegemony.
The US found willing partners among sections of the old Stalinist ruling class that was jockeying to keep its wealth and power.
In 2008 the US under President George W. Bush tried to bring Georgia, which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan, further into the US orbit by granting it membership of NATO.
Georgia felt it would have sufficient backing to take military control of the disputed region of South Ossetia. But Russia launched an attack and inflicted a humiliating defeat on it.
After Azerbaijan declared independence, former KGB secret police chief Haydar Aliyev positioned himself as a key power broker and took control in 1993.
The former “communist” bureaucrat became a favoured friend of the West, doing deals with BP and other oil companies.
By Tomáš Tengely-Evans