Sunday

24th Jan 2021

South Caucasus death toll much worse than feared

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin (Photo: kremlin.ru)

The recent fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been much deadlier than previously feared, with Russia estimating that it claimed 5,000 lives.

"There are a lot of casualties from both sides ... According to our data, the number of deaths on both sides is almost 2,000, that is, the total number of deaths is already nearing 5,000," Vladimir Putin said on Thursday (23 October) in a TV discussion of the Valdai think-tank.

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Previous estimates had said about 1,000 people had been killed over the past five weeks, but there are no international monitors on the ground to verify claims.

The fighting over the Armenia-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan is the worst since full-scale warfare killed 30,000 people in the 1990s.

Turkey has been accused of enflaming the situation by supplying drones and Syrian mercenaries to its ally Azerbaijan, while Russia is meant to defend Armenia under a post-Soviet military pact.

Putin said he was on the phone with all regional leaders on a daily basis.

And he declined to criticise Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, saying "[Erdoğan] might seem tough, but [he] is a flexible politician, and a reliable partner for Russia".

France is leading EU diplomacy on the conflict via its co-presidency in the so-called Minsk Group, a club of international mediators.

But Putin indicated that Germany was the only EU power capable of projecting its interests overseas these days.

"In terms of its economic weight and political influence, China is moving quickly towards superpower status and Germany is moving in the same direction. Germany has become an important player in international cooperation," he said.

"At the same time, the roles of Great Britain and France in international affairs have undergone significant changes," Putin added.

"[And] the United States, which, at one point, absolutely dominated the international stage, can hardly claim exceptionality any longer," the Russian leader also said.

For their part, Nato defence ministers voiced "deep concern" over the mounting civilian casualties in the South Caucasus following video-talks the same day.

Turkey "should use its considerable influence in the region to reduce tension," Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told press afterward.

Turkey is a Nato member and Armenian president Armen Sarkissian had earlier urged Stoltenberg to exert pressure on Ankara.

But the Nato chief said the alliance bore no responsibility for Erdoğan's actions in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Nato's not part of the conflict and I stated that very clearly to the Armenian president when I met him yesterday," Stoltenberg said.

He underlined Nato's neutrality by offering to meet with Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev in Brussels as well.

"Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are valued partners of Nato," Stoltenberg said.

Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey has also locked horns with fellow Nato member and EU country Greece over petro-drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

And Stoltenberg urged Athens and Ankara to use a new "24/7" Nato hotline, set up three weeks ago, to avoid accidental clashes, so that the "heavy responsibility" of "avoiding loss of life at sea and in the air" was not placed "solely on the shoulders of the captains of our ships or the pilots of our jets".

The hotline was "for us, a technical military issue", Stoltenberg noted.

But he voiced hope it might help Greece and Turkey start a political dialogue.

And the fact Greek and Turkish defence officials were meeting "on a daily basis here at the Nato headquarters" also created a "platform" for talks, he said.

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