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Nearly 100 are dead as Azerbaijan and Armenia's territory fight renews

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Azerbaijan and Armenia are both former Soviet republics. They are neighbors, and they are rivals. Today brought reports of more fighting between the two nations, fighting which already has taken nearly 100 lives. It centers around a territorial dispute that emerged out of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

And to talk more about it, we're joined now from Moscow by NPR's Charles Maynes. Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

MCCAMMON: So first off, what is the latest that you're hearing on the ground there?

MAYNES: Well, both Armenia and Azerbaijan reported renewed fighting this morning, with each blaming the other for the violence. That's part of a longstanding pattern here. Another longstanding pattern are the tension centered around an area called Nagorno-Karabakh. This is a majority ethnically Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. I should add that the territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but that the enclave status with its neighbor has never been resolved.

MCCAMMON: As you note, there have been tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Do we know what's triggered this latest uptick in the fighting?

MAYNES: Well, first - just to back up for a second - the two sides fought a brutal war over the enclave in the late '80s and early '90s, with Armenia coming out the winner. Fast-forward to the fall of 2020, and fortunes kind of flipped. Azerbaijan, with backing from its ally, Turkey - in particular, Turkish drones - managed to inflict really heavy damage on Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. A Russian-brokered cease-fire deal brought an end to the heavy fighting, but saw Armenia forced to accept big territorial losses along with Russian peacekeepers in the region. But of course, that was all before the conflict in Ukraine. Now, Russian analyst Arkady Dubnov says that's played a role in what we see happening now.

ARKADY DUBNOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here, Dubnov says that at a moment when Russia's influence over the region appears weakened because of Ukraine, Azerbaijan - again, backed by Turkey - sees this as a chance to take action and test the status quo.

MCCAMMON: Now, Armenia is Russia's ally, right? Does Russia have a responsibility to come to its aid here?

MAYNES: You know, Russia is Armenia's ally, but it's preferred to play the role of mediator rather than intervene on Armenia's side, and, you know, that's really for a couple reasons. You know, for one, Russia has important trade relations with Azerbaijan. But also, now the Kremlin is consumed by Ukraine. It simply can't shift troops to Armenia when Russia's already overstretched in Ukraine, as we've seen with these dramatic, you know, Ukrainian battlefield gains over the past week.

So we see Russia appealing for calm. It's tried and failed to broker a cease-fire deal on Monday. Meanwhile, Armenia says it wants military aid, and now there are reports of a new cease-fire offer - this time from Azerbaijan - on humanitarian grounds. But it's too early to know if - what effect that'll have.

MCCAMMON: And Charles, there was also news today of fighting between two other former Soviet republics in Central Asia. What do we know about what's happening there?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, it's another border dispute dating back to the breakup of the USSR, this time involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Reports say border troops started firing on one another in a dispute over boundary demarcations. This area has its own history of ethnic rivalries. Now, Russia's again calling for calm, but it's China that increasingly plays a role of power broker in Central Asia.

Now, as it happens, the leaders of all these countries we've been talking about will be gathering later this week for a regional summit. President Putin will be there. So will Chinese leader Xi Jinping, so big players. And even though these summits are, you know, conceived to map out the future, it does seem as though they'll have to at least confront part of the past - and by that, I mean these grievances from Russia, from Azerbaijan and others that date to the end of the USSR, as well as the ambitions of countries like China and Turkey trying to capitalize on them.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow - thank you, Charles.

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