The winner in this war seemed so obvious – Azerbaijan, the oil-rich nation whose defence spending is much larger than the government budget of its impoverished adversary.
But for three decades and against all odds, cash-strapped Armenia defended its unrecognised satellite, Nagorno-Karabakh, a South Caucasus territory north of Turkey and Iran. Dominated by ethnic Armenians, it violently broke away from Azerbaijan after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Because we’ve been fighting for our own land,” says Gagik, a 47-year-old schoolteacher who lives in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital that is plagued by blackouts and navigable only via seemingly impassable potholed roads.
Gagik withheld his last name because he does not want “the other side” to know it.
He calls his unrecognised, Dubai-sized statelet “Artsakh”, after a medieval Armenian kingdom.
The statelet’s better-known name can explain a lot about the nature of the conflict.
“Nagorno” means “mountainous” in Russian, the language of the last imperial master that conquered all of the South Caucasus two centuries ago and remains Armenia’s closest ally.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin made Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan, surrounded by districts dominated by ethnic Azerbaijanis.
During the perestroika reforms that eventually led to the Soviet collapse, Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum, voting to secede from Azerbaijan and become part of Armenia.
“Karabakh” means “black garden” in Turkish, the language of Azerbaijan’s closest ally that keeps its border with Armenia locked and its economy isolated.
The two nations share historic and linguistic ties, and Turkey has vehemently supported Azerbaijan in years-long peace talks over Nagorno-Karabakh that have become the Gordian knot of post-Soviet politics.
Gagik joined the ethnic Armenian rebels in 1992 in what was the first open war between two ex-Soviet republics.
They expelled ethnic Azerbaijani civilians from seven adjacent districts, turning them into a sparsely-populated no man’s land. The war claimed more than 30,000 lives, displaced hundreds of thousands and ended in 1994 with a shaky, Russia-brokered truce.
But Gagik never laid down his gun. The war kept smouldering, and he spent years between the trenches and teaching.
Annual flareups claimed lives, including those of Gagik’s nephew and two cousins. They would take place in spring or summer and involve shootouts, the capturing and swapping of soldiers, and angry diatribes from Armenia and Azerbaijan accusing each other of breaking the ceasefire.
The four international mediators of the conflict – Russia, Turkey, France and the US, all home to sizeable Armenian diasporas – would issue statements condemning the violence.
The last flareup in mid-July this year left 17 dead on both sides and involved heavy artillery fire and drone attacks.
Armenia kept supporting Nagorno-Karabakh militarily – without ever recognising its independence – while the breakaway region became the crucible of Armenia’s politics.
Two former Armenian presidents and dozens of officials were born in Nagorno-Karabakh and fought in the war, and a sizeable portion of Armenian conscripts go to the breakaway region for military service.
At conscription ceremonies, 18 to 20-year-olds sing and dance to celebrate the beginning of what they called “their patriotic duty.”
On Sunday morning, Gagik left his house and went to the border right after hearing the sound of shelling near Stepanakert and receiving phone calls from rebel commanders.
“This time, it looks serious,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.
Armenia said 16 people had been killed and more than 100 wounded. It declared martial law and a mobilisation.
Azerbaijan said it had started a “counter-offensive” that followed a “provocation” by Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Today, the victorious Azerbaijani army leads a counter-offensive with much success,” Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev, who inherited his position – along with the conflict – from his father Heydar, told security officials on Sunday.
“The settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is our historic duty. I said many times that we have to settle the matter so that the Azerbaijani people are satisfied,” he said.
His officials claimed that the Azerbaijani army killed hundreds of separatist and Armenian soldiers, and destroyed drones, helicopters and tanks.
Turkey was quick to condemn Armenia.
“By adding to its attacks against Azerbaijan, Armenia has shown once again it is the greatest threat to peace and tranquillity in the region,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tweeted on Sunday.
Azerbaycan’a yönelik saldırılarına bir yenisini ekleyen Ermenistan, bölgede barışın ve huzurun önündeki en büyük tehdit olduğunu bir kere daha göstermiştir. Türk Milleti her zaman olduğu gibi bugün de tüm imkanlarıyla Azerbaycanlı kardeşlerinin yanındadır.
— Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (@RTErdogan) September 27, 2020
But he didn’t signal an intention to intervene – apparently awaiting Russia’s response, observers say.
“Ankara will not meddle in the conflict until Russia does. So far, we see a rather restrained response from Moscow,” Emil Mustafayev, a political analyst based in the Azerbaijani capital Baku told the EADaily online magazine.
So far, Russia called on both sides to “immediately halt fire and begin talks to stabilise the situation”.
Will Russia intervene?
Moscow keeps a military base in Armenia, supplies it with hydrocarbons and remains a magnet for migrant workers from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh whose remittances keep their families and homelands afloat.
Many average Armenians see Russia as a saviour that prevented the destruction of their culture and religion by Turkey and Iran.
“If it wasn’t for Russia, there would be no Armenia,” Armen Orbelyan, a 52-year-old businessman who exports fruit and vegetables to Moscow, told this reporter in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in 2017.
His words are a mantra repeated by many Armenian politicians, TV anchors and experts.
But some claim Armenia has become a pawn in the Kremlin’s geopolitical games. Russia convinced Armenia to limit ties to the European Union and join the Eurasian Union, a Moscow-led free-trade bloc widely seen as a Russian attempt to recreate the Soviet Union.
There is “a justified Armenian perception of questionable and unreliable backing from Russia in the event the current fighting expands”, said Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center, a think-tank in Yerevan.
‘Much more serious’
Azerbaijan seems to have spent years preparing for the offensive.
“The current order of battle includes much more serious offensive weapons systems, with much greater willingness on the Azerbaijani side to deploy and engage their improved arsenal of weapons,” Giragosian said.
Baku apparently hopes the war will be fast and triumphant.
“This is a blitzkrieg, of course,” researcher Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera.
He said that Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia are usually quick to mobilise reservists and volunteers, but that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a major obstacle.
“Many work in Russia or the US and can’t return promptly because of the pandemic. And that’s the main problem,” he said.