As bitter fighting between bitter rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia for a breakaway region continues, fears of a regional war that could affect Russia and Turkey grow.
The two former Soviet republics have reported that dozens of fighters have been killed and hundreds injured since hostilities broke out on Sunday.
On Tuesday, both accused each other of shooting at each other’s territory just outside the conflict zone as civilian deaths rose and fighting raged for a third day.
As the violence escalates, NBC News is investigating key players and the background to the recent fighting.
What is Nagorno-Karabakh?
At the center of the conflict is Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountain region that is slightly larger than Rhode Island. It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but has been under de facto Armenian control since the early 1990s.
Allocation to Azerbaijan during the Soviet era was contested by the ethnic Armenian majority. This led to a war after the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s and Nagorno-Karabakh tried to declare independence.
Around 30,000 people died in the conflict, which also displaced around 1 million people in 1994 before a ceasefire in 1994. Since then Nagorno-Karabakh has remained a breakaway region in Azerbaijan.
There is a local guide in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the area, home to around 150,000 people, relies on Armenia for financial support.
Little progress has been made in the longstanding negotiations between Russia, the US and France, and clashes have occurred regularly at the region’s borders.
Why is fighting now?
Tensions between the two sides eased in the summer and led to deadly clashes in July that led to the hostilities on Sunday.
The July escalation was seen as a setback for Azerbaijan, which reportedly lost a high-profile general in the fighting, said Kevork Oskanian, a political science research fellow at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
Sunday’s clashes may have been an attempt by Azerbaijan to save the face, Oskanian said.
While the final fighting began over the weekend, the roots of the conflict go back centuries.
The Armenians see Nagorno-Karabakh as the Artsakh province of their old kingdom, Oskanian said.
The area is now of central cultural importance for Azeris, who Shusha in what is now Nagorno-Karabakh trace back to the Karabakh Khanate of the 18th century.
While religion is used for propaganda purposes by both sides, Oskanian said that in predominantly Christian Armenia and mainly Muslim Azerbaijan it is almost entirely about competing secular nationalism on both sides.
“On the Armenian side one often hears the argument that this is a struggle for life and death. If their side were lost, it would mean the annihilation of the Karabakh Armenians and perhaps Armenia itself,” he wrote in an email. “On the Azerbaijani side, people are talking about the importance of Karabakh for their sense of what it means to be Azerbaijani.”
What role does Turkey play?
Turkey has cultural, economic, and political ties with Azerbaijan, and the two nations also conducted major military exercises in July and August.
The strong Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that his country would “hold together all its resources and heart with fraternal Azerbaijan”.
Turkey is trying to bolster domestic legitimacy by supporting Turkish compatriot Azerbaijan, Laurence Broers, associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London think tank Chatham House, said in an email.
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“It has recent combat experience in several regional theaters and it also has a defense industry that is looking to new markets,” Broers said.
Pashinyan, Armenia’s Prime Minister, has asked the international community to do so stop any possible interference by Turkey, This will destabilize the region.
In a potentially greater escalation of violence on Tuesday, Armenia alleged that one of its fighter jets was shot down by a Turkish fighter jet, killing the pilot, but Ankara has denied any involvement.
Armenian officials have also accused Turkey, a NATO member, of supplying Azerbaijan with fighters from Syria and arms. Both Azerbaijan and Turkey deny this.
Turkey was in a bitter dispute with Armenia over the mass murders of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, which at the beginning of the 20th century was centered on what is now Turkey and is viewed by Armenia as genocide. The Turkish government has loudly denied that the murders were genocide.
Who else is involved?
Russia has remained the most active international actor in the conflict and the main mediator.
Moscow is trying to maintain good relations with both sides of the conflict and to deepen its influence in the region, Oskanian said. The Kremlin also doesn’t want tensions to spiral out of control and involve outside powers – Turkey in particular, he added.
While the US remains one of the mediators of the conflict, Nagorno-Karabakh has not been prioritized by Washington since 2001, Broers said.
However, the recent flare-up caught US attention when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged both sides to stop the violence on Tuesday.
Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, who has Armenian roots, has also commented, calling for “diplomatic measures to prevent unnecessary escalation and tragedy”. in a series of tweets On Sunday he called on Azerbaijan to “stop any offensive use of force”.
The worst-case scenario is an all-out war between Russia and Turkey, say experts, including Broers.
The conflict could destabilize the South Caucasus region – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – which serves as a corridor for pipelines that transport oil and gas to world markets.
But Broers and Oskanian said pipelines are not the main consideration, although it could be if the conflict worsens.
“Oil and gas pipelines are pretty close to the current front line. A few tens of kilometers, actually, ”said Oskanian.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.