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Fighting Breaks Out In Disputed Territory Of Nagorno-Karabakh

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to take a few minutes now to look at a conflict in another part of the world that could blow up into an all-out war. It involves two former Soviet republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The intensity of the fighting really escalated this week. Reports say dozens of people on both sides were killed, and the clashes are threatening to draw in neighbors Russia and Turkey. We're joined now by NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow and NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Good morning to you both. Lucian, I want to start with you because this is an important story. But to understand it, you really need to have some historical context. Help us out.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Sure. This is playing out on Russia's southern border in the Caucasus Mountains, a very strategic region where Russia has historically competed with Turkey and Iran. Now, the conflict we're talking about goes back to the dying days of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.

At that time, lots of nationalities and ethnic groups inside the Soviet Union were demanding independence. And that included the ethnic Armenians living in Azerbaijan in a region called Nagorno-Karabakh. And that conflict exploded into a very bloody war that ended in a cease-fire in 1994 with the Armenians having the upper hand. There has been sporadic fighting in the past. We don't know exactly what caused this recent flare-up. Both sides are blaming each other, but Azerbaijan has vowed to take back Nagorno-Karabakh. And this time, it's getting the support from Turkey.

MARTIN: OK. So, Peter, this is where you come into this conversation. You're there in Istanbul. You've covered Turkey for a long time. Can you explain Turkey's motivation here?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, Turkey and Azerbaijan have been allies for a long time. They're neighbors. There's connections in language, culture, religion. They're economically linked by an oil pipeline. As why now, as Lucian mentioned, that's not entirely clear. Some analysts speculate that Azerbaijan thought it might be an opportune moment with the world focused on COVID-19 and other news. In any event, Turkey has stepped in on behalf of its ally.

MARTIN: In what way? I mean, what does the help look like?

KENYON: Well, that is still slowly emerging. After days of saying nothing in the face of Armenian accusations, Turkey's defense ministry today came out and denied that Turkish aircraft or drones were being used against Armenia. But Armenia also said Turkish military advisers are on the ground directing the operation. It's not clear how much communication is really going on. There's a lot of animosity here between Turkey and Armenia. For instance, each year, Armenia marks the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians by Turks, an event known as the Armenian genocide.

MARTIN: So, I mean, as we've noted, these two countries are former Soviet republics. So Russia has an interest in all of this. Lucian, what's the Russian government saying?

KIM: Well, it's really interesting. Russia is taking a very neutral stance here. Technically, it's an ally of Armenia and has a military base there. But on the other hand, the Kremlin also has very close ties to Azerbaijan. The Kremlin is calling for an immediate cease-fire and says this is no time to be pointing fingers. Russia has been the dominant power in this region for 200 years and wants to maintain the status quo. It does not want to see a war spiraling out of control there.

MARTIN: But, I mean, as this goes on, Peter, what are the chances that Russia and Turkey are drawn into the actual conflict, a conflict with each other even?

KENYON: Well, that is one big worry down the road. And there are already some international efforts that we're seeing trying to get the two sides to declare a cease-fire and start diplomatic talks. I think it's fair to say those are aimed at forestalling this, developing into, you know, more hostilities down the road. Unfortunately, so far, the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan say they're not interested. They don't see the right conditions for talks at the moment.

And what we're seeing here is another case of Turkey and Russia's proxy allies winding up on opposing sides in a conflict. It's the same thing that happened in Syria, the same thing that happened in Libya. It's quite hard to say that Turkey and Russia are actually allies despite the sale of Russian missiles to Turkey, which raised alarm bells in Washington. And really, the main point is that past direct conflicts between Turkey and Russia have not ended well for Turkey. So Ankara may want to help Azerbaijan, but they do not want to get into a shooting war with Russia.

MARTIN: Lucian, just a couple seconds. I'll give you the last word.

KIM: Yeah. Well, despite these conflicting interests in Syria or Libya and despite the fact that Turkey is a NATO member, Russia still says Turkey is a partner. The Kremlin has been selling these advanced weapons, as Peter said, to Turkey and trying to use this relationship to chip away at the NATO alliance. It's really a very delicate balancing act for Russia.

MARTIN: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow and Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, thanks to both of you. We appreciate it.

KIM: Thank you.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.