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How Russia's invasion of Ukraine is reshaping the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

New clashes are reported this morning between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Fighting yesterday left around 100 dead. In recent decades, the two former Soviet republics have seen numerous confrontations and two full-scale wars. Russia brokered the cease-fire that ended the last conflict in 2020. But Vladimir Putin's Ukraine offensive changes the dynamic, raising concerns as to how much leverage Russia can bring over the Caucasus region. For more insight, we've called on Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He joins us now from Brussels. Paul, what led to the latest flare-up between the two countries?

PAUL STRONSKI: Well, we've seen a uptick in fighting all over the summer. We've actually seen an uptick in fighting between the two countries since Russia launched its intervention and its war in Ukraine. What I think is most interesting is just simply the timing. Russia is Armenia's formal ally. But Russia's stretched. Russia got routed in Ukraine just this week. And the timing of this is interesting because Russia really cannot help Armenia at this very moment. Russia is stretched. Russia has declared that it has launched a cease-fire, but the fighting continues despite this new brokered agreement. So I think the timing, the fact that Russia is preoccupied, certainly led to what looks like an Azerbaijani offensive at this time.

MARTINEZ: Now, historically, the core of the tension has often been the disputed region, Nagorno-Karabakh. Can you remind us why that's contested territory and what's been different about this week's fighting?

STRONSKI: So Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnically Armenian enclave that is officially part of Azerbaijan. It tried to break away from Azerbaijan in the late Soviet era. That led to the first war. Armenia won the first war. It had control over the Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding regions of Azerbaijan. The renewed war last - in 2020 reversed that scenario. Azerbaijan won it. And what we're seeing now is - whereas in the sort of past 30 years, the fighting has been over this disputed territory, now we see the fighting occurring right directly on the state - international state border of Armenia and Azerbaijan. And so the risks of a direct state-to-state conflict are rising. And what we even saw just in the last few days is actually attacks inside and shelling inside cities inside Armenia, not just along the border.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned how, at least for the moment, Russia is stretched thin. But aside from that, how much influence do they still have in the region?

STRONSKI: Well, I think Russia's war in Ukraine has alienated both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is seen as trying to align itself more closely with the West. Europe is deeply interested in Azerbaijani energy. So there's sort of been a decoupling of Russia and Azerbaijan. And just like we've seen threats to Ukrainian sovereignty from prominent Russian propagandists, we've seen those similar threats, doubts about Azerbaijani history, about Azerbaijani sovereignty. And then what we see in Armenia is we've seen just a deterioration of relations. Russia is Armenia's most important ally, but Armenians don't feel that Russia gave it enough support in the last war. And I think also seeing Russia's difficulties in Ukraine, its military difficulties, really raise questions for Armenians about whether Russia is even capable of helping them. And so we've sort of seen that this war has raised threat perceptions for the Armenians and their ability to depend on Russia, and it's also just alienated everyone in the region.

MARTINEZ: Secretary of State Antony Blinken reached out to the leaders of both nations, urging them to reach a peaceful settlement. Are there fears that these clashes could escalate into another war?

STRONSKI: I think there certainly are. We are seeing - Azerbaijan seems to have the upper hand right now. It is wanting to impose a - some sort of a peace deal on Armenia. And I think it's using Russia as distraction. It's using the West distraction as well. We are focused on Ukraine to try to change the facts on the ground and get some sort of a longer term deal, including access to a tiny little bit of Azerbaijani territory that is separated from the country by Armenia. And so I think the stakes and the chances for war are rising. And it's also because the rest of the world is very busy and very preoccupied and not spending a whole lot of attention on this area.

MARTINEZ: And one more thing because I know Azerbaijan is a major energy producer, and they've said that they'll increase some much-needed gas exports to Europe by 30%. Considering how much Europe is trying to wean itself off of Russian energy, how does the current situation complicate that?

STRONSKI: The Caucasus region is one of the few areas for energy exports out of the former Soviet space that does not go through Russia, but it is in a very volatile area. Those pipelines and those routes, they run from Azerbaijan into Georgia and then out to Turkey to the rest of the world and Europe. But we see Georgia is not a very stable place either. Russia has troops on the ground in the breakaway regions there. So it's - you know, Russia has a lot of leverage. Russia does still have the ability to sort of impact this area. Russia certainly doesn't want closer relations between Azerbaijan and the West. And it is, you know, in a very difficult location. And the instability there could impact Europe's desire to get new energy.

MARTINEZ: Paul Stronski is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Paul, thanks.

STRONSKI: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.