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The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows

The hostility by the Armenian forces at an internationally recognized border speaks volumes about the motive behind it. Even after the 26 years of the ceasefire agreement and the presence of the Minsk group – co-chaired by the US, France, and Russia – and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a group of former soviet states led by Russia – to ensure perpetual peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, another clash has occurred that has reportedly displaced half of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh region and killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians from both sides. 

After the April 2016 skirmishes between the two countries that killed 94 Azerbaijanis with 2 civilians and 84 Armenian soldiers, and the July 2020 flare-up that killed 17 soldiers from both sides, this clash, started on 27 September 2020, has cost more severe causalities.

The independent de facto region both countries are fighting over is a part of Azerbaijan but is forcefully controlled by ethnic Armenians. The mountainous region is strategically important for both countries which are apparent from the fact that the conflict over it has entered the 32nd year. Moreover, the Nagorno-Karabakh region is significant for energy corridors, and trade and transit routes to Europe, the Central Asian States, and Russia.

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Map: Armenia-Azerbaijan Map (Al Jazeera)

The unresolved territorial issue of Nagorno-Karabakh made things worse at the end of the Cold War when the Soviet Union started to crumble, the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh legislature, in 1988, voted to join Armenia. Azerbaijan did not accept that, and a bloody war that lasted for six years broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan which resulted in the displacement of half of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh and almost 30,000 deaths; Azerbaijanis in the region had to flee their homes because of the ethnic cleansing and human rights violations by ethnic Armenians. The six-year bloody war ended in 1994 with a ceasefire agreement: the region remained part of Azerbaijan but the separatist ethnic Armenians have governed it since then.

And Azerbaijan, to suppress dissent of self-determination by ethnic Armenians, has committed human rights violations and ethnic cleansing in the region. The brutality, therefore, was and is mutual. 

The geopolitics has further complicated the conflict as the regional and global powers are trying to enhance influence in the region for economic connectivity and geopolitical ambitions. On one hand, Pakistan, Turkey, and Israel are supporting Azerbaijan despite the hostile relations of Pakistan and Turkey with Israel. On the other hand, Iran and Russia are said to be backing Armenia, however silently, although both countries reserve good bilateral relations with Azerbaijan.

Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan ever since the six-year bloody war. Even now, Turkey, being the historical ally of Azerbaijan and the enemy of Armenia, has stretched “full support” to the former whether it is diplomatically or militarily. In fact, the Armenian authorities, on 29 September 2020, claimed that their combat aircraft, Sukhoi Su-25, was shot down by a Turkish F-16. Turkey, on the contrary, has labeled this accusation as “absolutely untrue.” Nagorno-Karabakh administration accused Turkey as well for sending mercenaries and Syrian fighters to Azerbaijan to fight alongside Azerbaijani soldiers against Armenia.

If we look at Russia, it sells arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia but its tilt is more towards Armenia because of its military bases and economic authority in Armenia. At the same time, the Armenian lobby is pretty strong in Moscow. A professor of International Relations at Istanbul Policy Center-Sabanci University, Bulent Aras, stated that “We can clearly say that Russia is on the side of Armenia against Azerbaijan. Armenia de facto looks like a region of Russia. Almost all of the Armenian economy has been controlled by Russia. Armenia’s defense is also at the hands of Russia.”

In a historical review, it can be well-assessed that Russia has always supported Armenia and the latter looks up to Russia for protection as it is a core state of Orthodox Christianity. The region has always been a flashpoint of Orthodox Christianity versus Islam; in 1915, Russia backed Armenia against the Ottomans, and the Tsarist regime of Russia has fought the Ottoman Empire for centuries in Balkans and Caucasus region. 

Religion and ethnicity are a significant factor in the conflict but when it comes to the geopolitical side, national interest prevails. At this point, states are trying to preserve their national interests regardless of the cultural and religious commonalities. Among the competing states are Turkey, Russia, and Iran that may draw them in a regional conflict if their respective national interests are threatened by their counterparts.

Azerbaijan is a major oil and gas exporter and it has relied on Russia for the pipeline networks. The oil-enriched country has exported oil and gas resources to the western world through the Caspian Sea. But, in November 2019, a gas pipeline was completed that stretched all the way from Azerbaijan to Turkey and then eventually Europe; the project was developed to reduce the Azerbaijani reliance on Russia for import and export.

This pipeline will allow Azerbaijan to access international markets without Russia, and Azerbaijan could become a transit country for energy from Central Asia to Europe in a longer run. Apparently, the network passes through the Nagorno-Karabakh region that is driving Turkey to be aggressive in its stance to support Azerbaijan. Russia, on the other hand, has remained neutral so far but if it sees its national interests threatened by Azerbaijan, it will have solid motives to back Armenia more openly.

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Oil and Gas Pipelines Routes (Wikipedia)

Another reason for Turkey’s full support to Azerbaijan is due to its geopolitical competition with Armenia’s strong ally, Russia, in Central Asia, Middle East, and North Africa where both countries are seen to be at odds. Both countries are fighting a proxy war with each other in Libya and Syria.

A Moscow-based Eurasian political analyst, Esref Yalinkilicli, views the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict rather differently. He argues that this conflict might be an attempt of Russia to stall Turkey from Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and other regions where both countries are tackling for geopolitical influence.

The third major regional player in the conflict is Iran which is secretly backing Armenia. One would expect from Iran that it would support the Shia-majority state in its northern neighbor, Azerbaijan, but the reality is rather odd.

Iran has called for an immediate ceasefire between the two countries but the issues among Iran and Azerbaijan will be a central point in Iran’s foreign policy. The reasons why Iran would support Armenia against Azerbaijan include land disputes between both countries, increasing Azeri-Turkish nationalism in the north of Iran, unresolved issues on the sharing of natural resources in the Caspian Sea, political ambition to overcome Turkey-Azerbaijan influence in the region, and Azerbaijan’s good relations with Iran’s archenemy, Israel.

In the end, it all leads to the national interests of the states. Whatever states do and whoever they support, they do so in pursuit of power, influence, and national interests. The regional powers are prolonging this conflict instead of starting a peace process for perpetual peace and stability. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, however, is expected to stay at constant military skirmishes and flare-ups but the escalating tension could result in a regional conflict.