The seeds of the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia were sown by the old Soviet Union. During the messy break-up of the Soviet Union, as Armenia and Azerbaijan struggled for self-determination and Nagorno-Karabakh emerged as a breakaway region. Kidney-shaped Nagorno-Karabakh is an ethnically Armenian enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan, internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory. But the people of Nagorno-Karabakh want to govern themselves or to join Armenia, and they arranged once voted to do. The countries fought a bloody war over the Caucasus region in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A brutal war over this finally ended with a ceasefire in 1994 after the deaths of more than 30,000 people and more than six lakh people displaced. But in the intervening 32 years, little has been done to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and there have been periodic military skirmishes between the two sides.
Since then ceasefire between two former Soviet Union republics in the Caucasus region was asleep. On 27 September, fighting has erupted once more between two old rivals and broken this ceasefire. An attack on civilian settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the regional capital Stepanakert, began on that morning. At least 23 people killed and 100 wounded as the two ex-Soviet republics battled over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenia claimed they shot down two helicopters and three drones, and destroyed three tanks of Azerbaijan during clashes. Azerbaijan’s defense ministry confirmed the loss of one helicopter and reported that 12 Armenian air defense systems had been destroyed.
Next day Armenia’s government declared martial law, a curfew and partial military mobilization, shortly after a similar announcement by the authorities inside Nagorno-Karabakh. Martial law is an emergency measure under which the military takes over the authority and functions of the civilian government. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan accusing Azerbaijan of “planned aggression” and said, “Get ready to defend our sacred homeland”. He urged the international community to unite to prevent any further destabilization after warning that the region was on the brink of a “large-scale war”. In the clashes, the Azerbaijan deployed armored military with heavy tanks, artillery, missile systems and most powerful aircraft near the front of enemy and entered deeper into Nagorno-Karabakh. Since the beginning of the war, more than 500 people have been killed and several thousand injured.
The Story behind the
The Caucasus area is a strategically important mountainous region in south-eastern Europe. For centuries, different powers in the region – both Christian and Muslim – have fight for control there. Landlocked country Armenia is majority Christian while oil-rich Azerbaijan is majority Muslim. Modern-day both countries became part of the Soviet Union when it was formed in the 1920s. Nagorno-Karabakh was an ethnic-majority Armenian region, but the Soviets gave control over the area to Azerbaijan authorities, which was an important conflictual issue. The Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh made several calls to be transferred to Armenian authority control in the previous decades. But after the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional parliament officially voted to become part of Armenia.
Azerbaijan sought to suppress this separatist movement, while Armenia backed it strongly. This led to ethnic clashes and even a full-scale war after Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from Moscow. Tens of thousands died and up to six million were displaced amid reports of ethnic cleansing and massacres committed by both sides. Armenian forces gained control of mostly mountainous and forested region Nagorno-Karabakh before a Russian-brokered ceasefire was declared in 1994. After signed that deal, Nagorno-Karabakh remained part of Azerbaijan, but since then has mostly been governed by a separatist, self-declared republic, run by ethnic Armenians and backed by the Armenian government. It also established the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, separating Armenian and Azerbaijan forces. Peace talks have taken place since then mediated by the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization ‘the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, a body set up in 1992, chaired by France, Russia and the United States. But so far a formal peace treaty has not been signed. Clashes have continued throughout the past more than three decades.
In 2018, Armenia underwent a peaceful revolution by sweeping long-time ruler Serzh Sargysan from power. Protest leader Nikol Pashinyan became the prime minister after fare and free elections that year. Mr Pashinyan agreed with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to de-escalate tensions and set up the first military hotline between two nations. In 2019, both nations issued a statement declaring the need for taking concrete measures for peace and prosperity of the population. But yet nothing has come of those words. The latent mentality of conflict between the two countries has resurfaced. It is unclear which country started the latest violence but tensions have been high for months, since clashes in July left casualties on both sides.
A game of Proxy War
The conflict is further complicated by geopolitics. There is a proxy war game also. NATO member-state Turkey was the first nation to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. Former Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev once described the two as ‘one nation with two states’. Both states share a Turkic culture and populations, but Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged his nation’s support for Azerbaijan. Moreover, Turkey has no official relations with Armenia. In 1993, Turkey shut its land border with Armenia in support of Azerbaijan during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. When the violence first erupted Erdogan tweeted, ‘The Turkish people will support our Azerbaijani brothers with all our means as always,’ adding that Armenia was ‘the biggest threat to regional peace’. Since the fighting started on 27 September, Turkey has declared its unconditional support to Azerbaijan, and appears to be lending Azerbaijani various kinds of military capability. There is little doubt that highly regarded Turkish military drone technology is being deployed supporting for Azerbaijan. Yerevan (Armenian Capital) has also accused Ankara of shooting down an Armenian SU-25 aircraft on 29 September, which Ankara denies.
Turkish support for Azerbaijan carries forward its long-running dispute against Armenia, which accuses Turkey of committing systematic genocide against the Armenian people during and after the World War I. Although Turkey passionately denies the charge, governments and parliaments of 32 countries, including the United States, Russia, and Germany, have recognized the events as genocide. Israel, aware that not only the term ‘genocide’, but also ‘Armenian holocaust’ has been used to describe the Ottoman Turks’ ruthless action, is not among them.
Other hands, Russia plays diverse, often contradictory, roles in the conflict. Through bilateral ties and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Moscow provides Armenia with security guarantees, but these do not extend to the combat zone in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Moscow also supplies weapons to both sides and is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group mediating the conflict. There is a Russian military base in Armenia and President Vladimir Putin also has good relations with Azerbaijan. Russia has played role as a negotiator and called for a ceasefire, but unlike previous large-scale escalations it has yet to convene a meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani political or military leaderships. Moscow has an uneasy relationship with Armenia’s new post-2018 leader Nikol Pashinyan, and Yerevan would undoubtedly prefer to handle the escalation as far as possible on its own. Russia was not able in the 1990s to deploy peacekeeping forces on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenian misgivings that Moscow’s assistance would come with strings attached drives caution in asking for Russian support.
On the contrary, it seems that Israel has established a strategic alliance with Azerbaijan based on their common hostility toward Iran, and that has supplied the Azeris with billions of dollars-worth of advanced weaponry. In recent clashes Azerbaijan has used Israeli-made ‘kamikaze drones’ that can take out Armenian tank and artillery positions dug into Nagorno-Karabakh’s mountainous terrain. The drones – also known as ‘loitering drones’ – can circle a target for hours and then dive down to self-destruct with a payload of explosives. Although Israel maintains diplomatic relations with Armenia, these arms sales have become a contentious issue. Armenia’s spokesperson is recently reported as saying: “Armenia has consistently raised the issue of arm supplies from Israel to Azerbaijan…For sure, the provision of modern weapons by Israel to Azerbaijan is unacceptable for us.”
Other broader disputes are being played out over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. For example Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s President Putin, competing to extend their global influence, are scarcely close allies in either the Syrian or the Libyan conflicts. Their rival interests are echoed here. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan, Russia runs an important military base in Armenia and is believed to favor Armenia in the dispute. Even so, equivocation remains the name of the game, and Putin is also close to Azerbaijan’s rulers.
Russia’s offer to mediate on the issue, in which it has been joined by France, has so far fallen on deaf ears. Turkish influence might have been brought to bear on Azerbaijan. Turkey has been at odds with France recently about a number of issues, and both are carrying their dispute over to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They are on opposite sides in the Libyan power struggle and also over Turkey’s insistence on maintaining its oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean on dubious legal grounds. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens are of Armenian descent, and French President Macron has warned Turkey that France “will not accept” a re-conquest of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan. At the same time he appeared to promise French support to the Armenians.
In short, despite its remote location and its comparative insignificance in the great scheme of things, the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute has become the fulcrum of major global issues, and Nagorno-Karabakh the stage on which world powers seem prepared to act out their differences. Struggles for dominance resolved here will have implications far beyond the narrow confines of the Caucuses.
The writer is an international affairs analyst.