The NGO International Crisis Group warns of the ten main hotspots of tension in the world in the new year 2023, including Iran, Yemen, the Sahel and Ethiopia

Armenia-Azerbaijan: the second major conflict of 2023?

REUTERS/AZIZ KARIMOV - Azeri army armoured vehicle with mounted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) drives during parade to mark victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Baku, Azerbaijan 10 December 2020

On 24 February 2022, the famous Russian "special military operation" over Ukraine put an end to what - until then - had been considered the longest peaceful international order since the Second World War. At least, if one looked no further than Europe's borders. Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo are powers that, many months before the Ukrainian territory, were already embroiled in conflicts openly referred to as "wars". And so they continue to this day. 

Now, the independent international non-profit organisation International Crisis Group (ICG), in its latest report "Ten conflicts to watch in 2023", lists a dozen hotspots of tension that - either because they already represent open clashes, or because they may turn into clashes in the coming months - should be analysed and monitored over the coming year. 

In this regard, the complicated relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan in West Asia have made their long-standing border tensions the second most worrying conflict of 2023. Two years after their last war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region," the paper notes, referring to the territories also known as the 'Republic of Artsakh', internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan and, in practice, inhabited by an Armenian majority, "Armenia and Azerbaijan now appear to be heading for a new confrontation". 


According to the Efe news agency, the report also argues that "a new war would be shorter, but no less dramatic than the six-week conflict of 2020" in which more than 7,000 soldiers from both sides lost their lives. As the International Crisis Group explains, "the impact of the war in Ukraine has spilled over into crises around the world [...], and is particularly palpable in the South Caucasus region". The international confrontation between Ukraine's invading Russia - and its dwindling allies - and Western countries has also spilled over into the Armenian-Azeri conflict in terms of interests and influence.

After being considered the victor of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War between 27 September and 10 November 2020, Azerbaijan has continued to strengthen militarily, economically and geopolitically. "Its army is several times larger than Armenia's army, much better equipped and backed by Turkey," the report explains. In addition, growing demand for Azeri gas - from Europe - following Russian supply cuts "also appears to have emboldened Baku". Meanwhile, the Armenian side, the other side of the coin, appears to be progressively losing its military potential due to disruptions in arms supplies from Moscow (much closer to Yerevan). 


Internationally, Russian mediation attempts are perceived by the EU as a strategy to defend its interests in the region. The reverse is also true. "Two drafts of a [peace] agreement are circulating: one prepared by Russia, and another that Armenia and Azerbaijan have developed with Western backing," the text explains, stressing that some sections of the two documents are completely at odds with each other. However, both drafts focus on trade and the border situation, leaving aside the future of the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

In 2020, the Nagorno-Karabakh border conflict came to an end following a peace agreement adopted by Yerevan, Baku and Moscow - the only international actor that at the time seemed capable of mediating between the parties - and despite establishing the presence of Russian troops in the region to prevent further clashes, it has not been fully defused. "In March and August [2021] Azerbaijani troops captured more territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, including strategic positions in the mountains," the document stated.


Something similar happened this past year 2022, with new clashes in August and September, when the clashes left two Armenian servicemen dead and 14 wounded, and, respectively in September, another Armenian soldier killed by the Azeri army. 

"Now, the war in Ukraine has also cast a shadow over the peace talks," ICG noted, "neither the Russian-sponsored nor the Western-sponsored talks have succeeded in bringing the parties closer to a sustainable settlement. The failure of these talks [last April in Brussels] could well result in renewed war. 


The report 'Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2023' by the International Crisis Group (an independent organisation established almost 30 years ago) also points to conflicts and hotspots in Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Taiwan, Ethiopia, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sahel, as well as Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh.