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The deadly clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, explained

Soldiers carry coffins during funerals at a military cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, on March 2, 2021, for fighters killed during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aris Messinis
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AFP via Getty Images
Soldiers carry coffins during funerals at a military cemetery in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, on March 2, 2021, for fighters killed during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Fighting has flared up again between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics and traditional adversaries sandwiched between Russia, Georgia and the Middle East in a region known as the South Caucasus.

The two bordering countries are bitter rivals and have been clashing over territorial claims since the late 1980s, with periodic bouts of violence occasionally erupting into outright war.

Hostilities began anew between Armenia and Azerbaijan this month in the deadliest spate of violence since 2020, with at least 100 people killed, officials said. A cease-fire reached last Wednesday put a temporary stop to the bloodshed.

Here's what you need to know about the conflict and what's ahead:

Tracing the bad blood between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan were well underway when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

Tensions have largely centered on an area called Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave located inside Azerbaijan. Even though Armenia claims the territory, the area is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

A war in the mountainous region in the early 1990s, which killed an estimated 30,000 people and displaced 1 million, resulted in Armenia gaining control of Nagorno-Karabakh and several surrounding districts.

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Fortunes flipped in 2020 when the two countries went to war again, this time with Azerbaijan — aided militarily by its ally Turkey — retaking large portions of Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby territories, according to the Crisis Group. A deal to end hostilities was later brokered by Russia, which sent a peacekeeping force to patrol the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh, though it is still governed by local pro-Armenian authorities.

A picture taken on Nov. 30, 2020, shows what is said to be destroyed Armenian military hardware in the countryside outside the towns of Hadrut and Khojavend.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A picture taken on Nov. 30, 2020, shows what is said to be destroyed Armenian military hardware in the countryside outside the towns of Hadrut and Khojavend.

Both sides have blamed the other for the most recent round of fighting, which has occurred not only around Nagorno-Karabakh but also along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border and even within Armenia, a notable escalation in the conflict.

According to the United Nations, Armenia reported 105 service members killed and six civilians wounded before the Wednesday cease-fire, while Azerbaijan said 71 of its service members died and two civilians were hurt.

The cease-fire continued to hold as of Saturday as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other U.S. lawmakers arrived in Armenia. Pelosi blamed Azerbaijan for "illegal attacks" on Armenia — prompting an angry rebuke from Azerbaijan, which called her remarks "Armenian propaganda" that could re-escalate the conflict.

Russia has held sway in the region, but its influence is waning

Though Russia is a military ally of Armenia under a regional security pact, it brokered the 2020 peace deal between both countries and has traditionally tried to play a peacekeeping role in this part of the Caucasus.

This time, however, Russia's role has been further tested by the conflict in Ukraine, where the Kremlin's military campaign has faced significant setbacks amid a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.

"The timing of this is interesting because Russia really cannot help Armenia at this very moment," Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told NPR. "The timing, the fact that Russia is preoccupied, certainly led to what looks like an Azerbaijani offensive at this time."

The most recent fighting has also gone beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and is now occurring along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which increases the risk of a "direct state-to-state conflict," Stronski said.

Complicating the situation further, Russia is a major arms exporter to Azerbaijan — as is NATO member Turkey.

In turn, Azerbaijan is a major exporter of oil and gas to Europe, where many countries are struggling with supply disruptions due to the war in Ukraine and are trying to reduce their reliance on Russian energy.

World leaders are pushing for peace in the region

Last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and urged him to "cease hostilities" after reports of shelling inside Armenia.

Blinken also spoke with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. On Thursday, Blinken spoke with Pashinyan again and expressed his condolences for the fatalities his country sustained during the recent fighting.

Margarita Khanaghyan, 81, walks past Russian peacekeeping forces in the town of Lachin on Nov. 26, 2020.
Karen Minasyan / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Margarita Khanaghyan, 81, walks past Russian peacekeeping forces in the town of Lachin on Nov. 26, 2020.

"The Secretary reiterated our commitment to helping Armenia and Azerbaijan resolve issues peacefully," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement. "He said that diplomacy was the only way forward and noted he would remain personally engaged."

Miroslav Jenča, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for Europe, Central Asia and Americas, said the U.N. was "deeply concerned" about the renewed hostilities and warned that the fighting has the potential to destabilize the entire region.

Meanwhile, Russia suggested it will maintain its role as mediator — despite entreaties from Armenia to join the conflict on its behalf.

At a recent Eurasian forum that included the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russian President Vladimir Putin called "the latest incident" unfortunate.

"Most importantly, under Russian influence, the conflict was localized," Putin said.

"We hope it will continue that way."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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