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Deadly war in country that doesn’t exist

Two global military goliaths are being drawn into a war over a country that, officially speaking, doesn’t exist. Despite the Republic of Artsakh producing its own currency, sporting a capital city and a government, it appears on few maps. You won’t find it on Google Maps.But the at least 100 people that have died in…

Two global military goliaths are being drawn into a war over a country that, officially speaking, doesn’t exist.

Despite the Republic of Artsakh producing its own currency, sporting a capital city and a government, it appears on few maps. You won’t find it on Google Maps.

But the at least 100 people that have died in recent days are very real – and there are fears the already bloody clash could get even more deadly.

Turkey and Russia are lining up on opposite sides of a decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan which, this week, burst back into battle.

On Tuesday, Armenia said a Turkish F-16 had shot down one of its fighter jets. Ankara denied the claim but Turkey is an ally of Azerbaijan which has no F-16s of its own.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said it “stands by its Azerbaijani brothers with all its capabilities”.

Meanwhile, Russia is now being sucked in. Moscow has not picked sides but it has deeper ties with Armenia, including a military base in the country.

“We are a step away from a large-scale war,” said Olesya Vartanyan of NGO the International Crisis Group.

At the centre of the battle is the messy and disputed border between Armenia and Azerbaijan and in particular the region of Nagorno-Karabakh that both nations claim.

The two countries lie in the southern Caucuses region between the Black and Caspian seas and surrounded by the regional superpowers of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

It’s a crossroads for trade, peoples and religions with Armenia majority Christian and Azerbaijan majority Muslim.

For more than 100 years Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought – sometimes around negotiating tables, sometimes with guns – over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The countries were absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1922. Eventually, Nagorno-Karabakh – the name is literally translated as the mountainous black gardens – was put under the local control of Azerbaijan. While people of both backgrounds lived in the area, ethnic Armenians were in the majority.

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DISAGREEMENT TURNED DEADLY

A lid was mostly kept on the region during the Soviet era. However in the early 1990s, when the USSR was collapsing, the conflict resumed as to whether Nagorno-Karabakh would remain as part of an independent Azerbaijan or be merged into Armenia.

It’s thought as many as 30,000 people died until a ceasefire in 1994. That saw most of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well some other areas of Azerbaijan, become part of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh.

Artsakh is recognised by no other nation, not even Armenia. But it relies heavily on Armenia to function. Globally, Nagorno-Karabakh is generally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan given that was its status under Soviet rule.

For years, attempts have been made to settle the squabble. Then, last weekend, the disagreement turned deadly.

In just three days, 100 people have died and both sides have declared martial law. Armenia said Azerbaijan had fired missiles into the disputed region including at the de facto Artsakh capital of Stepanakert.

TURKEY BACKS AZERBAIJAN

Ankara has said the claim that a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian jet as “absolutely untrue”.

But there is no doubt what side Turkey is on.

“As always, the Turkish nation stands by its Azerbaijani brothers with all its capabilities,” President Erdogan said earlier this week reported Reuters.

“The region will once again see peace after Armenia immediately withdraws from the Azeri lands it is occupying.”

Turkey has been in fighting mood recently and has clashed with Greece over its maritime frontier.

In an opinion piece this week for Turkish news website TRT World Hamdi Rifai said Armenia was at fault.

“Armenia has put together a coalition of the isolated and rogue (and) seems determined to turn what has been a land dispute between ethnic rivals into a holy war.”

Mr Rifai provocatively accused Armenia of “genocide” during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. In the context of Armenia-Turkey relations no one uses the word “genocide” without knowing the harm and near it will cause.

The early 20th century Armenian genocide is said to have resulted in the deaths of up to 1.5 million people at the hands of Turks. Yet, Turkey has consistently denied the genocide ever took place.

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ARMENIAN “STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL”

Kevork Oskanian from the UK’s Birmingham University, said Armenians look at the current conflict through the prism of that genocide.

“In Armenia, this is seen as nothing less than a struggle for survival. A recurring theme has been the possible extermination of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Links are made with the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire, especially in light of Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan,” he wrote on website The Conversation.

“In Azerbaijan, on the other hand, the war has been presented as an opportunity to right the wrongs of (the war) by bringing the territory back under Azerbaijani control, allowing hundreds of thousands of displaced people to return home.”

Mr Oskanian said the fuse for the current outbreak of hostilities was border skirmishes in June with Armenia which led to anti-government protests in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku.

That put Azerbaijan’s authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev under pressure to push back against Armenia.

In recent days, Mr Aliyev has said Azerbaijan was merely responding to Armenian attacks.

“I am confident that our successful counteroffensive operation will put an end to the occupation, to the injustice, to the 30-year-long occupation,” he said.

Armenia’s democratically elected Prime Minister Nikol Pashinya said the conflict was a “war declared on the Armenian people”.

“We all perceive this as an existential threat to our nation (and) and our people are now simply forced to use the right for self-defence.”

He has tweeted that the people of Artsakh “have the right of self-determination” and the battle is a “war against democracy”.

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MOSCOW’S MOVE

All eyes are now on Moscow which has historical, economic and military ties with both countries. The weapons now being used to kill and maim by both sides are likely Russian.

We call on all sides in the conflict to show maximum restraint, to reject military methods and refuse any steps that might provoke an undesired escalation of the situation that is de facto already a military conflict,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday. The US and UN have also called for calm.

But in a sign that Russia is more inclined towards Armenia, it was revealed that President Vladimir Putin had discussed the situation with Armenia’s PM Pashinya – but had yet to speak to the Azerbaijani president.

If Russia were to side with Armenia, and Turkey remains with Azerbaijan, it would bring formidable firepower to each side.

It could mean a conflict about a country that officially doesn’t exist could become a much wider – and bloodier brawl – between two global heavyweights.

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