The Geopolitical Risk of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Geostrategic consequences and Impacts on stakeholders

Niranjan Jose is a third-year law student pursuing BBA LLB from National Law University Odisha (NLUO), India. He is a national level debater with a keen interest in International Relations. At law school, Jose hopes to further his understanding of foreign policy, as well as the intersection of public policy and politics.

Introduction

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has endured over the past three decades, with no possible end in sight, despite various attempts at third-party mediation. The dispute is intrinsically linked to the early history of the 20th century. The shift of power resulting from the loss of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and the collapse of the Russian Empire with the subsequent territorial delineations, in the formative days of the Soviet Union and its break-up created borders that did not appease all sides of the local populations. Nagorno-Karabakh has an ethnic Armenian majority, but political maneuvering in the 1920s handed its jurisdiction, and thus international recognition, to Azerbaijan[i].

After a dangerous China-India border clash, this is further evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified geopolitical conflicts all over the world. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of having violated the ceasefire between their countries. The BBC reported that the border clashes came “just days after Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev criticized international mediators conducting peace negotiations with Armenia, describing the process as ‘meaningless’.” Clashes and artillery fire began on July 12th on the border between the Tovuz region in Azerbaijan and the Tavush province in Armenia. Significantly, these clashes have taken place not in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, but along an internationally-recognised border between the two countries. [ii]

The location of the battles is noteworthy. In contrast to most of the previous Armenian-Azerbaijani military clashes, the current battles are not taking place at the meeting point (“line of contact”) between Azerbaijan’s forces and the Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and other occupied territories of Azerbaijan. Rather, they are taking place over 300 kilometers north on their international border. This is adjacent to the major energy and transport corridor and is highly unlikely to be incidental. This flare-up is taking place precisely as a new link in the corridor is being completed – the Southern Gas Corridor, which will bring new natural gas volumes to Europe.[iii]

The seriousness of the conflict was underlined with the declaration by Azerbaijan that its missile technology enables it to strike at the Soviet-era nuclear power plant in Armenia sparked concern and uncertainty that the conflict might spiral out of control. This Soviet-built nuclear plant is about 35 kilometers from Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and close to the eastern border with Turkey as well. A missile attack on this plant would inevitably lead to a horrific nuclear disaster affecting the entire region. The Armenian Foreign Ministry called this threat an “explicit demonstration of state terrorism and genocidal intent,” adding: “We strongly condemn the nuclear threats voiced by Azerbaijan, which demonstrate an absolute absence of responsibility and sound judgment from this particular member of the international community.” [iv]

Consequences and Roles of Foreign Stakeholders

International voices have all chimed in and called for restraint by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Negotiation and mediation efforts, primarily led by the Minsk Group, have failed to produce a permanent solution to the conflict. [v] The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) established the Minsk Group in the early 1990s, a special mediation structure co-chaired by diplomats from Russia, the U.S., and France. While task-forces such as the OSCE have been tasked to help Armenia and Azerbaijan find a political end to the conflict, in recent years the conflict has remained frozen despite surges in violence from time to time. [vi] But tensions have remained high since a breakdown in talks that followed an upsurge in cross-border violence in April 2016, with repeated ceasefire violations ensuing.

The U.S. stated that it is “deeply concerned” and encouraged the two nations, to sort things out. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan also has important implications for neighboring Iran. [vii] Ethnic Azerbaijanis comprise one-third of Iran’s population. Tehran has close relations with Armenia, and many Iranian Azerbaijanis are expressing their discontent with Iran’s support for Armenia and showing their solidarity with neighboring Azerbaijan. The South Caucasus is a busy neighborhood, geopolitically speaking. In that case when the situation escalates and interests are at risk, one could expect greater involvement from Russia and Turkey.[viii] A drastic escalation beyond the imminent count on the field risks unraveling the strained alliance between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin. Russia and Turkey have recently been at odds in several conflicts across the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia — from Syria to Libya — now recently Azerbaijan. This has pit the two leaders against each other, challenging their ability to preserve a complex alliance based on a combination of a mutual distrust of the West and close economic relations.

An all-out war between the two South Caucasian states is a real danger. Such a war could easily erupt into a conflict between Russia, a close backer of Armenia, and Turkey, a traditional ally of Azerbaijan and a member of NATO. Post-Soviet Russia’s political foundations are broadly based on a synthesis of Slavism and Orthodox Christianity. Hence she has always seen itself as the protector state of Slavic nations and Orthodox Christians like Armenia. Turkey, on the other hand, is a key ally of Azerbaijan.[ix] When the Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out, Turkey supplied Azerbaijan with weapons and closed its border with Armenia. Turkey has also helped in the development of oil pipelines and railways connecting the two countries.[x] This alliance is largely a consequence of animosity between Turkey and Armenia as a result of the former’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. Turkey tried to obliterate Armenians aggressively because of its perceived loyalty to Russia. A huge number of Armenians were murdered, imprisoned, tortured and hundreds of thousands more perished when commuting to prison camps in Syria.  The precise death toll remains uncertain, but academic estimates range from 750,000 to 1.5 million — as many as half of all Armenians.[xi]

To this day, Turkey and Armenia have severe political problems, ranging from Yerevan’s covert relations to the PKK and other previous Armenian terror groups like Asala, which had assassinated many Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s. The borders stay closed, so there are no official international ties. [xii]After the escalation of fighting in the Caucasus in mid-July, Turkey has expressed firm solidarity in the dispute for its Muslim ally Azerbaijan, with which it enjoys ethnic and linguistic associations, offering advanced weaponry for Baku. Erdoğan vowed to “stand against any attack” on Azerbaijan which supplies cheap natural gas to Turkey. While Armenia is a source-scarce and surrounded by land, Azerbaijan boasts of large oil and gas deposits in the Caspian Sea, placing the nation with the highest GDP in the region. In 2010 Erdoğan terminated a US-brokered plan to restore Turkish cooperation under pressure from Azerbaijan.[xiii]

The resurgence of unrest in the Caucasus is the product of changing allegiances in other conflict centers. Last month, Erdoğan suggested Ankara may turn a new page in its partnership with the U.S. because its positions in both Libya and Syria become increasingly aligned. [xiv]This development was not welcomed in Moscow, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has mediated a succession of ceasefires with Turkey, the last of which effectively quelled the conflict in the last stronghold of the rebellion in March. In Libya, rebellion leader Khalifa Haftar is backed by Russian troops — along with France and the United Arab Emirates— have backed rebel commander Khalifa Haftar, whose advance was thwarted when Turkey entered into the civil war in January, turning the tide in favor of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.[xv]

Turkey’s strong stance in the Caucasus is also part of Erdoğan’s growing aggressive foreign policy, striving to reorient Turkey into a region-wide geopolitical force.  Azerbaijan is richer and strategically superior to Armenians, has avoided expanding the confrontation in past years because it knows that Armenia receives implicit backing from Russia, which retains a military base in the landlocked nation. Turkey’s strategic partnership with Azerbaijan will be in danger of pushing Armenia further into increasing reliance on Moscow. [xvi]It may also allow Russia to deploy security forces in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Now Azerbaijan is trying to bolster ties with Russia, hoping it will help settle the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, where the West has disappointed. The geopolitical and strategic importance of Azerbaijan pulls Russia’s attention to the country. In order to keep its former republic in its orbit, Russia appears to chasten Azerbaijan with Armenia.[xvii]

Conclusion

The international community has continued to push for dialogue and peace negotiations, but there are no diplomatic ties between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in a decades-long confrontation it has become impossible to inject energy into the peace talks. Amid dangerous proxy wars between Turkey and Russia in Syria and Libya, the Turkish ruling elite’s full support for Azerbaijan and Moscow’s massive military expansion constitutes a warning that escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia could rapidly spiral out of control and provoke a broader conflict including Russia, Turkey, and NATO.[xviii]

Turkey consistently assists Azerbaijan but is unlikely to fully commit itself to another neighborhood crisis. Azerbaijan supplies oil and increasing quantities of gas from its Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea to Turkey, and is a major partner in modern Turkey. [xix]Once a very active mediator, the US has significantly reduced its involvement over the past decade, especially under the Trump Administration. So far, many chances have been wasted to find a realistic and permanent solution to the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and to establish sustainable peace in the region. The interests of the sides remain diametrically opposite and nothing has improved since the beginning of the conflict.

Image Source- https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/nagorno-karabakh-conflict


[i] BBC News. 2016. “Nagorno-Karabakh Profile,” April 6, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18270325.

[ii] BBC News. 2020. “Azerbaijan General among Troops Killed in Armenia Border Clash,” July 14, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53402476. ‌

[iii] Reuters Editorial. 2020. “Fighting Breaks out on Azerbaijan-Armenia Border, Several Dead.” U.S. Reuters. July 13, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-azerbaijan-armenia-conflict/fighting-breaks-out-on-azerbaijan-armenia-border-several-dead-idUSKCN24E12B

[iv] Heil, Andy, and RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. 2020. “Idle Threat? Azerbaijan’s Hint At Missile Strike On Armenian Nuclear Plant Increases Tensions.” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. July 17, 2020. https://www.rferl.org/a/idle-threat-azerbaijani-hint-at-missile-strike-on-armenian-nuclear-plant-increases-tensions/30733672.html.

[v] Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères. 2020. “Armenia/Azerbaijan – Border Clashes between the Two Countries (15 Jul. 2020).” France Diplomacy – Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. France Diplomacy. 2020. https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/armenia/news/article/armenia-azerbaijan-border-clashes-between-the-two-countries-15-jul-2020.

[vi] “OSCE | Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe.” 2017. Osce.Org. 2017. https://www.osce.org/whatistheosce.

[vii] “Violence Along the Armenia-Azerbaijan International Border – United States Department of State.” 2020. United States Department of State. July 16, 2020. https://www.state.gov/violence-along-the-armenia-azerbaijan-international-border/. ‌

[viii] “Armenia and Azerbaijan: Thinking a Way Out of Karabakh | Middle East Policy Council.” 2020. Mepc.Org. 2020. https://mepc.org/journal/armenia-and-azerbaijan-thinking-way-out-karabakh.

[ix] TRTWorld. 2020. “Why Russia Supports Armenia against Azerbaijan in the Caucasus Conflict.” Why Russia Supports Armenia against Azerbaijan in the Caucasus Conflict. TRT World. July 22, 2020. https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/why-russia-supports-armenia-against-azerbaijan-in-the-caucasus-conflict-38321

[x] in. 2020. “New Old Dynamics at Play in the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict.” Middle East Institute. 2020. https://www.mei.edu/publications/new-old-dynamics-play-armenia-azerbaijan-conflict

[xi] The New York Times. 2015. “A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens,” April 16, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/17/world/europe/turkeys-century-of-denial-about-an-armenian-genocide.html.

[xii] Turkey remembers victims of ASALA terror attacks. 2018. “Turkey Remembers Victims of ASALA Terror Attacks.” Aa.Com.Tr. 2018. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/turkey-remembers-victims-of-asala-terror-attacks/1218356.

[xiii]“TURKEY-AZERBAIJAN: THE HONEYMOON IS OVER.” n.d. http://turkishpolicy.com/images/stories/2005-04-neighbors/TPQ2005-4-ismailzade.pdf

[xiv] Stronski, Paul. 2020. “Behind the Flare-Up Along Armenia-Azerbaijan Border.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. July 22, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/07/22/behind-flare-up-along-armenia-azerbaijan-border-pub-82345

[xv] 24, FRANCE. 2019. “LIBYA: Nations Divides over Support for Rebel Commander Haftar.” FRANCE 24. FRANCE 24. July 24, 2019. https://graphics.france24.com/haftar-libya-international-support/

[xvi] Schumacher, Tobias. n.d. “Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Why the ‘black Garden’ Will Not Blossom Any Time Soon THE NAGORNO-KARABAKH CONFLICT AS A SOURCE OF IDENTITY AND LEGITIMACY.” Accessed August 7, 2020. http://aei.pitt.edu/85989/1/PB71.pdf ‌

[xvii] Kolyandr, Alexander. 2014. “Putin Mediates Talks Between Armenia, Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.” WSJ. The Wall Street Journal. August 10, 2014. https://www.wsj.com/articles/putin-mediates-talks-between-armenia-azerbaijan-on-nagorno-karabakh-conflict-1407686523

[xviii] “Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict | Global Conflict Tracker.” 2020. Global Conflict Tracker. 2020. https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/nagorno-karabakh-conflict

[xix] 2016. Eia.Gov. 2016. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=38352

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