Friday, October 2, 2020

Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) Control Map & Timeline - October 2, 2020

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Nagorno-Karabakh control map, showing territorial claims and control in the new Azerbaijan-Armenia war, including the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. Updated to October 2, 2020, showing claimed Azerbaijani advances around the edges of the disputed territory. Colorblind accessible.
Map by Evan Centanni and Djordje Djukic, starting from this map by Bourrichon and Lesqual. License: CC BY-SA
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Article by Djordje Djukic and Evan Centanni

Armenia and Azerbaijan Go to War

One of the former Soviet Union's "frozen conflicts" has suddenly lurched towards meltdown. The dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Caucasus - involving Azerbaijan and Armenia plus the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh - has been simmering for decades, with regular border clashes since a full-scale war ended in 1994. But last weekend it launched into its biggest flare-up yet.

A new war has the potential to reshape both the territory and status of Artsakh, one of the world's few credible cases of what political scientists call a "de facto state" - a claimed country that isn't accepted by most of the world but does have control over its territory. The conflict also has the potential to draw in other countries, since Russia is closely allied with Armenia and Turkey is an unrelenting supporter of Azerbaijan.

What is Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh?

The status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region is disputed. The UN and its member countries generally consider it part of Azerbaijan, but separatists there declared independence during the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the area has been ruled separately from Azerbaijan for over 25 years now.

Originally calling itself the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, the region's self-proclaimed government now officially prefers the name Republic of Artsakh - "Artsakh" being an Armenian-language alternate name for the area. Founded by culturally-Armenian locals who didn't want to be part of Azerbaijan, self-ruled Artsakh is heavily integrated with neighboring Armenia as far as military defense and day-to-day administration. But it still technically considers itself an independent country, and Armenia maintains a formal separation, neither recognizing Artsakh's independence nor officially making it part of Armenia.

The only formal recognition of Artsakh's independence comes from three other unrecognized, self-proclaimed countries - Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria - plus a long list of local governments, mostly in the US, who have made symbolic declarations of support.

Flag of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) Claimed Country Name:  
• Artsakh (English, Armenian)
Alternate Short Name:
• Nagorno-Karabakh (English)
• Lerrnayin Gharabagh (Armenian)
Full Declared Name:
• Republic of Artsakh (English)
• Artsakhi Hanrapetut’yun (Armenian)
Alternate Full Name:
• Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (English)
• Lernayin Gharabaghi Hanrapetut'yun (Armenian)
Capital: Stepanakert
Status According to Azerbaijan: Armenia-occupied area of Azerbaijan

Timeline: History of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict 1988- 2020

The following is a timeline of armed conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, summarizing its history then following recent events in more detail. Further events will be chronicled in subsequent updates to this map report. 

Note: Although Armenia's and Artsakh's militaries are organizationally separate forces, they have a history of working closely together in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. News sources rarely distinguish between the two organizations, with the term "Armenian forces" referring to either or both of them interchangeably.

The current conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region goes back to at least February 1988, after culturally-Armenian residents demanded that the region be transferred from Azerbaijan to Armenia, both of which were then parts of the Soviet Union (USSR). The core of the area now controlled by the self-proclaimed Republic of Arstakh was then governed as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), a self-ruled area within Azerbaijan, whose government officially requested to join Armenia but was rejected.

Amid a political stalemate and violent pogroms targeting Karabakh Armenians, some turned to guerilla warfare, in what eventually led to the "ethnic cleansing" of the region as people of other cultures were driven out. The NKAO soon declared that it was joining Armenia by its own will, but Azerbaijan again rejected this.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in late 1991, when Armenia and Azerbaijan each declared their own independence, the NKAO government and a neighboring county to the north voted to secede from Azerbaijan, claiming to form an independent "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" (NKR). The government of newly-independent Azerbaijan responded by abolishing the NKAO's self-rule and announcing that the area would be fully integrated into the rest of the country.

In early 1992, the stand-off escalated into a full-scale war, with Armenia and the self-proclaimed NKR on one side and Azerbaijan on the other. The war continued until 1994, ending with the Armenians in control of most of the former NKAO plus several areas surrounding it, including the entire strip of land separating the NKAO from Armenia proper.

The additional areas captured by Armenian/NKR forces would be incorporated into the NKR, even though they weren't included in its original declaration of independence, while the county to the north that had voted to join the NKR remained under Azerbaijani control. By the end of the fighting, some 30,000 people had been killed.

Between May 1994 and August 2009, 3,000 people were killed in repeated border skirmishes between the two sides. Sporadic fighting continued in the following years, with dozens of dead on both sides yearly, in what was described as a war of attrition.

April 2016
In early April of 2016, a four-day large-scale conflict erupted that would later be called the Four-Day War or the April War. The US State Department afterwards estimated that the war had left 350 combatants and civilians dead on both sides. Armenian and Azerbaijani sources reported 91 Armenian and 94 Azerbaijani soldiers killed, as well as 9 Armenian and 6 Azerbaijani civilians. Two Azerbaijani soldiers were also left missing.

Azerbaijan claimed that its forces captured 2,000 hectares of territory, while Nagorno-Karabakh confirmed the loss of 800 hectares - in either case much less than 1% of the territory under dispute, but significant for being the the first change to the line of control since 1994. Azerbaijani forces had captured "two strategic heights": one above Talish village and another on a hill known as Lalatapa. Talish itself had been overrun by Azerbaijan for several days during the conflict, but its forces were eventually pushed back again.

Sporadic border clashes continued throughout the next several years, during which the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic changed its primary official name to the Republic of Artsakh.

July 12-16, 2020
Another major flare-up took place between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a four-day period, this time outside the Nagorno-Karabakh region along the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia proper. The fighting began between Movses and Aghdam, and spread to several other areas of the border, including the edges of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, a self-governed exclave of Azerbaijan. A total of 12 Azerbaijani and 4 Armenian soldiers were killed, as well as one Azerbaijani civilian.

September 27-28, 2020
A new large-scale conflict erupted along the "line of contact" between Azerbaijan-held territory and Artsakh/Armenia-held territory. According to to the Republic of Artsakh government, the clashes started after Azerbaijan launched artillery and air strikes against civilian settlements at 08:03 in the morning on September 27 "along the entire length of the [Nagorno-Karabakh] front". In contrast, Azerbaijan reported that the conflict began at 06:00 that morning when Armenian forces started shelling Azerbaijani forces and civilian settlements, including Artsakh's proclaimed capital city Stepanakert.

By the following day, Azerbaijan claimed its forces had captured seven villages along the frontline running from the Fuzuli area south to the Iranian border, as well as strategic heights on the way to Aghdara (Martakert) and on the Murovdagh ridge, where it said it had cut off a military supply line connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. Reporting from the Islamic World News media outlet corroborated reports that Armenian forces had lost the seven villages, and that Azerbaijani troops had managed to temporarily penetrate the city of Fuzuli before being pushed out of the town in a counterattack.

The Republic of Artsakh acknowledged that it had lost some territory, but said it had recovered some as well, while reporting that Azerbaijan had "started a major attack towards" Talish and Mataghis. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's government claimed it had broken through Armenian lines in the heights above Talish.

By this point, the clashes were already widely recognized as the worst fighting in the region since 1994.

September 29-30, 2020
On September 29, Armenia accused a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jet of shooting down one of its SU-25 jets in Armenian airspace and killing the pilot. Turkey denied the claim. Meanwhile, the Artsakh government claimed to have recaptured all or most of the positions it had lost along the frontline, though Azerbaijan denied this. At this point, both Armenia and Azerbaijan refused any suggestion of peace talks.

During the fighting, it was reported by multiple sources that Turkey was deploying members its ally the rebel "Syrian National Army" to support Azerbaijan against the Armenian forces. Turkey is a close ally of Azerbaijan, and has also transported Syrian rebels to fight in Libya. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 850 Syrian fighters had already arrived in Azerbaijan by the end of September. Armenia also accused Turkey of providing direct military support in the form of military advisors present in combat roles on the frontline. According to Armenia, Turkish weapons, including drones and warplanes, were being used by Azerbaijan as well.

Meanwhile, the SOHR reported that Syrian Armenians had also been transported to Armenia to fight against Azerbaijan, without specifying by whom. Additionally, the report said that the Syrians fighting on Azerbaijan's side were mostly Syrian "Turkmen", or culturally Turkish people from Syria, while Arab Syrians had refused to go. Azerbaijan's majority culture is closely tied to Turkey's, with many average Azerbaijanis even calling themselves culturally Turkish.

Amid the conflict, the prime minister of Armenia said his government was considering formally recognizing the Republic of Artsakh as an independent country. However, analysts believed this was still unlikely to happen, saying Armenia generally has more to lose than to gain in international politics if it officially endorses Nagorno-Karabakh's permanent separation from Azerbaijan.

October 1-2, 2020
On October 1, two French journalists working for Le Monde newspaper were injured by Azerbaijani shelling of Armenian territory. On October 2, Azerbaijan claimed its forces captured some strategic hills near Mataghis, while Armenia reported shooting down four Azerbaijani drones near its own capital city of Yerevan. The same day, Azerbaijani troops reportedly reached the village of Mataghis and claimed to have captured it. However, Islamic World News asserted that the village was still under Armenian control.

By October 2, 151 Artsakh soldiers, 13 Armenian civilians and one Armenian military pilot had been killed in the fighting. Azerbaijan confirmed that 19 of its civilians had died, but did not reveal its military casualties, though Islamic World News reported at least 30 Azerbaijani soldiers dead. Citing Azerbaijani social networking users, Armenian media published the names of 82 Azerbaijani soldiers allegedly killed during the conflict. Sources within Syria also reported that either 28 or 30 Syrian fighters had been killed in the fighting, while 62 were injured or missing.

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Graphic of the flag of the Republic of Artsakh is in the public domain (source).