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Is Moscow Being Tested in Nagorno-Karabakh?

As violence flares again between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia’s faltering status in the region shows.

By , a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
The Armenian, Azerbaijani, and European Council leaders arrive in Brussels for a meeting.
The Armenian, Azerbaijani, and European Council leaders arrive in Brussels for a meeting.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, European Council President Charles Michel, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev arrive for their meeting at the European Council in Brussels on April 6. FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Violence erupts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his first overseas trip since the pandemic began, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers her annual State of the Union speech.

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Violence Erupts Again Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Violence erupts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his first overseas trip since the pandemic began, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers her annual State of the Union speech.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Violence Erupts Again Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated along the border on Tuesday, marking their deadliest exchange since the 2020 war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which ended in a cease-fire agreement brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin. At least 49 Armenian soldiers and 50 Azerbaijani service members were killed in the latest large-scale clash, according to officials on each side.

Armenia and Azerbaijan each blamed the other for the escalation. At issue is Nagorno-Karabakh, which the two sides have fought over for decades: It is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it is mostly populated by Armenians. In 2020, Azerbaijan took over part of the region as well as reclaiming areas it previously held. As part of the cease-fire agreement, around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers have remained in Nagorno-Karabakh—a relatively modest presence. Armenia and Azerbaijan have not reached a formal peace agreement.

Russia’s role in the region may be complicated by its war in Ukraine, where it has lost significant ground in the last week and remains under intensifying pressure from Ukrainian troops. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Putin had appealed for calm. “It is difficult to overestimate the role of the Russian Federation, the role of Putin personally,” Peskov said. “The president is naturally making every effort to help de-escalate tensions at the border.”

The latest violence follows a series of flare-ups in recent months, reflecting the geopolitical ripple effects in the region since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Azerbaijan, which has links to Turkey and received Ankaras military support in 2020, may perceive Russia’s faltering status in the region as an opportunity to make more territorial claims. “As Russia has been drawn more deeply in the conflict in Ukraine, including the losses it’s had over the last couple of weeks, you’re seeing Azerbaijan test what it can do,” said Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“I really see a weakening of Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus … because of the impact of not only the military losses but also the economic losses because of sanctions and other measures that make Russia a much weaker country today and less able to project power than it was pre-Feb. 24,” he added.

Meanwhile, other countries have pushed for a formal agreement—with the European Union taking the lead—beyond the realm of security. Along with Russia, the United States and France both co-chair the Minsk Group, which aims to encourage peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The European Council’s president just hosted a meeting between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Aug. 31.

But as the latest escalation shows, such face-to-face negotiations have so far yielded little. “Russia has played this role where it plays one side off the other without real interest in seeing a resolution,” Katz said. “One has to wonder who has leverage right now—real leverage—to bring these two sides together and find a path forward that doesn’t involve violence.”


What We’re Following Today 

Xi Jinping’s first post-COVID-19 trip. Chinese President Xi Jinping travels to Central Asia today, marking his first overseas trip since January 2020. Besides a visit to Hong Kong in June, he has not left mainland China’s zero-COVID regime for the entirety of the pandemic—raising questions among some analysts about his grip on power. Xi will first stop in Kazakhstan, which shares a border with Xinjiang, China, where China has carried out a repressive campaign against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

Xi will travel on to Uzbekistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand. Russia’s ambassador to China confirmed that the summit will include a face-to-face meeting between Xi and Putin—their second this year as both leaders face rising tensions with the West. “It is a very important signal that China will not give in to the pressure of countries that are trying to make Putin and Russia a pariah country,” Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Associated Press.

U.S. stocks plunge on inflation news. All three U.S. stock market indexes fell sharply on Tuesday, marking their sharpest single-day percentage drops since June 2020. The sell-off came on the heels of a new consumer price index report that showed U.S. prices had increased by 8.3 percent in August compared to a year earlier, undermining optimism that inflation had peaked. Some investors hoped the U.S. Federal Reserve might ease up on its interest rate increases after September; that now seems unlikely.


Keep an Eye On

State of the EU. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered the annual State of the Union address to the European Parliament today. She discussed the commission’s plan to reduce surging energy prices fueled by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Draft measures include a rollback on revenue generated by non-gas power plants, a windfall profit tax, and mandatory targets for reducing electricity consumption.

In Foreign Policy, energy expert Noah Gordon argues that Europe needs aggressive state action to solve its energy crisis—and reach emissions targets.

Hungary’s heartbeat law. A new decree by Hungary’s far-right government will require people seeking an abortion to listen to the fetal heartbeat during an ultrasound before they can terminate the pregnancy. The regulation, which marks the first time Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has touched abortion laws, reflects language used by some U.S. states. (Medical experts widely agree that the sound heard during an ultrasound in early pregnancy is electrical activity, not a heartbeat.)

Hungary’s current laws allow for abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy and at any point in a pregnancy when the fetus is deemed nonviable. The decree is due to come into effect on Thursday.


Tuesday’s Most Read

Putin Has a New Opposition—and It’s Furious at Defeat in Ukraine by Alexey Kovalev

A Ukrainian Victory Would Liberate Eastern Europe by Brian Whitmore

Breaking History for No Good Reason by Steven A. Cook


Odds and Ends

A court in Thailand has ordered that national officials begin rehabilitating Maya Bay—made famous by the 2000 film The Beach starring actor Leonardo DiCaprio—more than 20 years after local authorities filed a civil lawsuit against Thai government agencies, 20th Century Fox (now called 20th Century Studios), and a Thai coordinator over damages caused by the production. Locals said the shoot left a major impact on the vegetation and sand dunes of the bay, located on the island of Ko Phi Phi Le. (The filmmakers denied they did any damage.)

The Beach brought mass tourism to Maya Bay, which was closed between 2018 and the start of this year to recover. Visitor numbers are now capped.

Katie Nodjimbadem contributed to this report.

Correction, Sept. 14, 2022: A previous version misstated when Chinese President Xi Jinping last visited Hong Kong.

Correction, Sept. 14, 2022: The most recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have taken place not directly in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, as stated in the original version of this piece, but rather along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

Audrey Wilson is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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