The New York Times newspaper has issued an article about the ongoing clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops on the frontline in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and Armenian-Azerbaijani border, SIA reports quoting the AzerTac.
Written by David Herszenhorh the article reads: Overshadowed by the fighting in Ukraine, another armed conflict in the former Soviet Union — between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh — has escalated with deadly ferocity in recent months, killing dozens of soldiers on each side and pushing the countries perilously close to open war.
The month of January was heavily stained by blood, with repeated gun battles and volleys of artillery and rocket fire. Two Armenian soldiers were killed and several wounded in a fierce gunfight on Jan. 23 along the conflict’s northern front. That set off a weekend of violence including grenade and mortar attacks that killed at least three Azerbaijani soldiers.
The most recent clashes prompted an unusually pointed rebuke by international mediators who met on Monday in Krakow, Poland, with the Azerbaijani foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov.
“The rise in violence that began last year must stop,” the mediators, from France, Russia and the United States, said in a joint statement, adding, “We called on Azerbaijan to observe its commitments to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. We also called on Armenia to take all measures to reduce tensions.”
Instead, the violence has continued.
On Thursday, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said it had shot down a drone not far from Agdam, an Azerbaijani city that was once home to more than 40,000 people but has been a ghost town for more than 20 years since its occupation by Armenian forces.
Tensions are expected to grow even further this year as Armenia prepares to commemorate in April the 100th anniversary of the genocide against Armenians in Turkey.
While the fighting here often seems to be an isolated dispute over a mountainous patch of land that no one else wants — roughly midway between the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and the Azerbaijani capital, Baku — the conflict poses an ever-present danger by threatening to draw in bigger powers, including Russia, Turkey and Iran.
It also provides a chilling warning of what could be in store for Ukraine, where many fear Russia is intent on turning the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk into a similar permanent war zone.
The recent flare in fighting has been fueled by a quiet arms race, in which both countries — but especially oil-rich Azerbaijan — have built up arsenals of ever more powerful weapons.
Russia is the main supplier to each side, even as it claims a leadership role in international peace negotiations, known as the Minsk Group process, which it chairs with the United States and France.
In recent weeks, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has upped the ante, demanding that the Minsk Group leaders take steps to force Armenia to withdraw from Azerbaijani lands — nearly one-fifth of Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized territory — that it has occupied since a truce was signed in 1994.
“Measures must be taken,” Mr. Aliyev said in a speech to government ministers in January. “The truth is that the continued occupation of our lands is not just the work of Armenia. Armenia is a powerless and poor country. It is in a helpless state. Of course, if it didn’t have major patrons in various capitals, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would have been resolved fairly long ago.”
In his speech, Mr. Aliyev warned darkly that Azerbaijan, which has an economy seven times larger than Armenia’s, planned this year to spend more than double Armenia’s entire annual budget of $2.7 billion on strengthening its military.
President Serzh Sargsyan has responded with his own threats. “The hotheads should expect surprises,” Mr. Sargsyan said at a recent military ceremony.
The dangerous consequences of the arms buildup were on full display in November as Azerbaijan shot down an Mi-24 attack helicopter as it flew just north of Agdam along the cease-fire line, killing three Armenian soldiers on board.
The wreckage fell in the region near Agdam that has served as a buffer zone since the 1994 truce, and for days the three bodies lay in the open as Armenian forces seeking to recover their fallen comrades were repelled by gunfire.
“This is as bad as it has got since the cease-fire,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, whose book “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” is widely regarded as the most authoritative account of the Karabakh conflict.
“Fifteen years ago it was still bad but it was just a bunch of trenches with a bunch of soldiers leaning over them with some guns,” Mr. de Waal said. “Now, you have this massive heavy weaponry on either side, sometimes only 100 yards from each other, with these drones and so forth.”
He added, “The stakes get higher every year, and the chances of miscalculation get higher as well.”
With tensions mounting, visits to each side of the front line, and interviews with senior government and military officials, as well as conversations with dozens of residents, refugees, war veterans, soldiers, local officials, academics, civic activists and even schoolchildren, found the two sides bracing for war, and neither expecting nor prepared for peace.
“We have a saying,” said Col. Abdulla Qurbani, a senior official in the Azerbaijan Defense Ministry, while on a tour of the Azerbaijan side of the line of contact. “When water mixes with earth, this is mud. When blood mixes with earth, this is motherland.”
Across the line in Shushi, a city whose Azerbaijani residents were forced to flee during the war, an Armenian woman, Anaida Gabrielyan, said: “Our land is soaked in blood. Every millimeter is soaked in grief.”
Since fighting began in the late 1980s, it has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than a million, many of whom have been living as refugees for more than 20 years.
The increased firepower is not the only reason the conflict has grown more dangerous and more intractable.
The fight is rooted in religious hatreds — real and imagined — between Christian Armenia and predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan.
And a new generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, including the soldiers now serving on the front line, cannot remember when their parents and grandparents lived peacefully as neighbors — before Armenians were purged from Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis were forced from the areas now occupied by Armenia.
Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the majority Armenian population declared an independent republic after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are hamstrung by their unrecognized status, which prohibits most international trade.
The republic is largely viewed as a puppet extension of Armenia, with its residents traveling abroad on Armenian passports and many Armenian officials, including President Sargsyan, having been born in Nagorno-Karabakh and having previously held government posts there.
In casual conversations, it was not uncommon for Azerbaijanis to deny that the Armenian genocide occurred, or for Armenians to insist that Azerbaijanis were not a real nation and had no legitimate ties to lands they had lived on for centuries.
“This is our land, our homeland, and we will always protect it,” said Gayane Gevorgyan, an Armenian and the mother of two young children who now lives in Shushi, a city that before the war had a majority Azerbaijani population. “We will do it for our children. We have no place else to go.”
Although the long history of Azerbaijani residents in Shushi is well documented, and the city contains two famous mosques, Ms. Gevorgyan said that Azerbaijanis expelled during the war had no right to return.
“We were part of greater Armenia even before Christ,” she said in an interview at the State Historical Museum, where she works as a guide. “Shushi is not their homeland, so they don’t have any right to come back.”
In Azerbaijan, there is a city government-in-exile with a single-minded focus on reclaiming the city, called Shusha in Azerbaijani. “Our only goal is to come back,” said Bayram A. Safarov, the head of the administration in exile. “I know every stone there.”
The hardened views in the public mind make it even more difficult to broker an accord, despite Presidents Aliyev and Sargsyan’s having met three times last year.
“The reality is after 20 years of inflammatory rhetoric, both presidents will admit to you that the people of the two countries are just not ready,” said one Western official who has met both men, and who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations on sensitive diplomatic issues.
In Azerbaijan, tens of thousands of refugees live in substandard housing. In some cases, families have lived for years in individual college dormitory rooms, sharing a bathroom on the hall.
The region’s capital, called Stepanakert in Armenian and Xankendi in Azerbaijani, has no functioning airport. And officials there do not have a formal role in the peace process.
Irina Khachaturyan, who sells trinkets from a stall in the central market in Stepanakert, is Armenian but said she dreamed of returning to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital where she lived before the war.
“It was my motherland; I was born there, lived there, studied there,” Ms. Khachaturyan said.
Although she lives among fellow Armenians, she said Stepanakert never became home.
“I never found my place,” she said. “These 25 years, I have been living like on needles.”