[Analytics] Trench warfare, drones and cowering civilians: On the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh

A building destroyed by shelling in Stepanakert. Photo: Achilleas Zavallis, The Guardian. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

The battle over Nagorno-Karabakh, waged on and off for a century, has flared anew and civilians once again suffer the consequences. Bethan McKernan specially for The Guardian.

Over the road from the 8-metre-deep crater left by a medium-range missile, Sergei Hovhnnesyan and three of his neighbours are hunkering down in the basement storage space of their local grocery shop in Stepanakert, a mountain town in the heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Whenever there is a gap in the airstrikes and shelling, their elderly legs make the trip up the stairs to bring down enough provisions to survive what could turn into a siege as the two ex-Soviet neighbours go to war once again.

About 70,000 Armenians in Nagarno-Karabakh have fled the poorly aimed Azerbaijani rockets and drones, which appear to have hit civilian neighbourhoods more often than infrastructure and military bases. Those who stay – many of them from older generations like Sergei and his friends – say they would rather die than abandon their homes to Azerbaijan.

Rubble in cathedral

A woman cries after witnessing the destruction inside the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour in the town of Shusha after it was targeted with missiles.

Updates on the fighting arrive via the chime of WhatsApp messages and news bulletins on the radio, while the Diocese still holds mass for people who dare to go to church to pray and light candles.

When the air raid siren sounds to warn that an Azerbaijani jet has crossed into Armenian-controlled airspace, residents have approximately three minutes to find cover. Sometimes, when the Russian-made missile defence systems don’t work, there is no warning at all.

Armenia’s vast diaspora has mobilised to help the tiny country in the battle against Azerbaijan, with volunteers from France, the US and Lebanon arriving by the planeload. In the 1990s, they were joined by Russian, Ossetian and Slavic mercenaries, while Baku was assisted by Turkish far-right group, the Grey Wolves, as well as men from Chechnya and Afghanistan.

The two men and one woman – a retired nurse – in the basement of the grocery store have already done their part to defend what they call Artsakh, the Armenian name for the de facto Armenian republic inside Azerbaijan’s borders, in earlier chapters of their lives.

“I remember the first time I saw the mujahideen when I was fighting Azerbaijan in the 90s war,” Hovhnnesyan said, toasting bread on a space heater and alternating sips from a cup of tea and a glass of local cognac. “I’d never seen anything like them before. They wore flowing white clothes and headscarves. I think they were from Afghanistan. Now they are sending Syrians, so I guess some things don’t change.”

The battle over Nagorno-Karabakh has been waged on and off for a century, but escalated into a bloody three-year war when the Soviet Union disintegrated. A 1994 ceasefire resulted in an Armenian victory, but both sides still harbour deep-seated and legitimate grievances.

Armenia, scarred by the ethnic cleansing carried out by Azerbaijanis in the 1980s – as well as Turkey a century ago – has over the years refused to give up the seven other Azerbaijani provinces it occupies, leaving 700,000 Azeris unable to return to the homes they fled.

The fighting that broke out two weeks ago is a mix of the old and the new. Conscripts armed with AK-47s face off in first world war-style trenches, in some places so close the two sides can actually talk to each other, while state-of-the-art drones and long-range missiles soar through the sky above.

Then, as now, soldiers of fortune are jumping into the fray against the backdrop of a changing world order. But as Turkish-backed Syrian fighters arrive on the Azerbaijani side of the frontline and foreign-made drones pick off targets from the air, Nagorno-Karabakh, after Syria and Libya, is the latest theatre in which Moscow and Ankara have become enmeshed in a battle for geopolitical superiority. In a sense, this new conflict is history repeating itself. In another, it points to what the future of warfare could look like.

Man repairs windows

A man on leave from the frontline tapes a plastic sheet over the broken windows of his apartment in Stepanakert.

“It’s awful here. They lied to us: they said we were coming to guard oil and gas facilities,” said Mohammed al-Hamza, a 26-year-old from the Aleppo countryside, reached by phone in hospital 30 miles away on the other side of the frontline. He was injured by Armenian shelling just two days after his deployment to the Azerbaijani support line. “I did a tour in Libya and some of that was dangerous, but nothing like this. Around 250 of us have asked to go home.”

The fighting is already the worst outbreak of hostilities in the Caucasus since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was triggered by what was almost certainly a surprise offensive by Baku, which has grown frustrated with the impotent peace process and provocative comments from Armenia’s new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, elected after the country’s 2018 peaceful revolution.

Oil wealth has given Azerbaijan a definitive military advantage over Armenia’s rusting Soviet-era hardware, and for the first time Baku has the outright support of Turkey, with which it shares close cultural and economic ties.

Ankara’s assertive stance has not yet been matched by Moscow, which sells arms to both sides and appears wary of honouring its military pact with Yerevan should the fighting extend outside Nagarno-Karabakh into mainland Armenia.

The cost of the war is already unsustainably steep, although neither country will admit the true extent of their casualties. Despite fierce rhetoric from Yerevan officials about freedom or death, Armenia is taking the heavier losses thanks to Azerbaijan’s Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and Israel’s kamikaze Harop drones.

In Goris, the last town in Armenia before the mountain corridor that connects the country to Nagorno-Karabakh, a soldier pulled up in a pickup truck that was drenched in congealing blood. It had been used to carry a soldier hit by artillery to hospital; both his legs were later amputated.

Three exhausted volunteers back from a 12-day stint at the frontline near the village of Martuni said little to each other while waiting for a ride back to Yerevan.

One of them, a slight 23-year-old, said he had been posted to a position in the forest just 60 metres away from Azerbaijani forces, where the two sides exchanged fire day and night, attempting to ambush each other among the trees. More Armenians were dying than Azerbaijanis, he said, estimating the number of Armenian dead at 4,000. The official toll is about 550. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

If official figures are to be believed, more civilians have died in Azerbaijan than Armenia as Yerevan retaliates by striking urban centres far from Nagorno-Karabakh. In Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, Ganja, at least 10 civilians were killed over the weekend in a single attack which decimated a residential area containing no obvious miltary targets.

Baku may be headed by a corrupt and repressive government, but its people want this war. Each loss increases the popular demand for justice – and retribution.

Khadija Ismayil, an Azerbaijani investigative journalist who has been harassed and imprisoned in the past by the president, Ilham Aliyev, for her reporting, finds herself in the strange position of agreeing with the government’s actions for once.

“Our government is dictatorial but this is about more than the current regime,” she said. “This is about ordinary people who have been suffering for the last 30 years as victims of occupation and the hardships of refugee life. For us, the war never stopped.”

Neither side appears able to understand the other. News reports and social media in the two countries might as well reflect parallel universes; vitriol and disinformation have infected all discourse.

Armenia’s official Twitter account has posted a picture of a priest wielding a crucifix and an automatic rifle, warrior monk style, while the Azerbaijani defence ministry has released a heavy metal song called ‘Fire’ starring musicians dressed in fatigues performing in front of tanks.

Officials in Baku and Yerevan accuse each other of lies and spreading fake news, while guilty of the same charges themselves.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Arek Keshishan, an architect who has not yet gone to join the fighting because of a broken arm. “When information has lost all value, how are you supposed to know what to believe?”

After the failure of a weekend ceasefire brokered by Moscow, the fighting shows no sign of stopping soon. The coming winter may stall the Azerbaijani offensive, but Baku is unlikely to quit until it feels it has clawed back enough territory to gain the upper hand in talks. The traditional peace process sponsors – Russia, France and the US – will probably now need to sit down directly with Turkey to make any progress. And the growing international dimensions of this simmering hyperlocal conflict may have ramifications elsewhere.

Iran, which has a sizeable Azeri population, is watching its warring neighbours keenly from the sidelines. The status quo in Libya and Syria may be next to change as Moscow and Ankara move their chess pieces.

Hovig Samra carries a bowl of soup inside the kitchen of his restaurant in Stepanakert. He and his wife decided to stay despite the heavy bombardment. They prepare free food for soldiers and civilians as a way to assist in the war effort.

“It’s funny and sad that somehow war follows Syrians everywhere. Somehow it’s always about us,” said Hovig Samra, an Armenian-Syrian who emigrated to Nagarno-Karabakh and opened a restaurant after the civil war started in 2011. He is busy preparing free food for the war effort despite the fact the electricty is out.

“But I feel like this war was always going to happen. If you want to know the future you have to read the past.”

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