The Simmering Karabakh Conflict starts to boil over

In this report, Eamon Driscoll explains the ongoing escalating tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh, setting the current flashpoint against the historical context of the long-running conflict, and offering analysis on why the situation is deteriorated at present and what we can expect to see in the near future.

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In a press conference on 19th August 2020, former Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan spoke about events in the Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh. He drew attention to the skirmishes that had been taking place there, and made comparisons to the 2016 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, stating plainly that the threat of war was “extremely huge”. In the months following, there has not been a lessening of that threat, but rather its constancy remains very much a clear and present danger to the stability of the region. The governments in Yerevan and Baku toss the blame back and forth like a hot potato, each accusing the other of actions to undermine what tenuous stability still exists.

A few words about words. Karabakh refers to the geographic region between the Lesser Caucasus Mountains in the west and the steppes between the Kura and Aras rivers in the east, with the disputed territory in the middle of the region as a whole. “Nagorno” derives from the Russian adjective for “highland”, thus “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” could be translated into English as “Republic of the Upper Karabakh”. However, the separatist republic changed its name to reflect history, and now calls itself the Republic of Artsakh, referring to historical Artsakh on the same territory, which was once a province of the Kingdom of Armenia in the early first millennium and an independent kingdom in its own right in the early second millennium prior to the arrival of the Turks. For its part, within Azerbaijan the region is known as Yukhari Garabakh, literally Upper Karabakh. Thus the very name of the breakaway republic is a source of tension, and there is presently no neutral term to use in describing the territory.

Whilst the most recent round of significant fighting erupted in April 2016, the conflict first emerged in 1918 in the vacuum of power left behind when the Russian Empire collapsed. The issue was shelved when the Soviets reestablished Russian rule, and the area was placed under Azeri administration as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous SSR. The matter was on the back burner until 1991 when a referendum in the region was held without the consent of the Azeri government. Boycotted by the Azeris, who constituted 20% of the region’s population, the referendum passed with 99.8% in favour, though its illegitimacy under international law means that the result, and therefore, the republic, are recognized only by Armenia.

This summer’s fighting began again miles from the Karabakh border, surprisingly, but demonstrates an animosity between the two sides that goes beyond a local struggle for recognition. In July, border conflicts and tensions between Armenians and Azeris even reached the level of causing violence in Moscow, forcing the FSB to step in and separate the two feuding sides. The violence was temporarily halted by Russia and Turkey, the two main supporters of Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively. Vladimir Putin sought a means to preclude any actions that could further escalate the tensions, and with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s support, the conflict seemed to deescalate. Despite these efforts, one month later former president Sargsyan made his statement that war was extremely likely, and so the peacekeeping endeavours of the major benefactors failed.

In September, the conflict increased considerably. This is still an on-going situation, and naturally it is possible for cooler heads to step forward and allow mediators to seek a peaceful resolution, again. Nevertheless, the situation has deterioriated, leading Armenia and Azerbaijan down the path of open warfare. In this environment, propaganda is being used on both sides to stir up blame and energy. There are reports of former Free Syrian Army fighters now being paid by the Turks and flown to Azerbaijan via Turkey to support the Azeri side of the conflict, in the latest development of the saga of Turkey’s foreign legions recently detailed by Encyclopedia Geopolitica. Whilst Azerbaijan naturally denies this, Turkey has quickly abandoned its position as peacemaker, and is now blaming Armenia for the resumption of hostilities, and has sided fully with Azerbaijan. Russia has been sending arms to Armenia, though Russian Defense Minister Shoigu has claimed that the arms and equipment were for a Russian military base in Gyumri. Armenia is a full Russian ally, and the risk is that this regional conflict could draw in Russian and Turkish forces in a proxy war or worse – and potentially force the hand of NATO were the situation to spiral far out of control.

That moment may come sooner than we think, as the conflict is spiralling, even as this article is being written. Early in the morning of September 27th, Azeri forces made a major attack on Stepanakert, capital of Artsakh. This was ostensibly made to prevent Armenian forces from establishing a strong position, and resulted in Armenia immediately instituting martial law and mobilising its armed forces. Azerbaijan followed shortly thereafter. Both sides are accusing each other of instigating the violence, and there are civilian and military casualties reported. It is nearly impossible at this point to definitively point to one side as the instigator, though Armenia did violate the ceasefire numerous times in the week preceding the Azeri attack.

Politico reported that Azerbaijan’s military is superior to that of Armenia, and Azerbaijan with its oil resources is wealthier than Armenia, though in the past Armenia has largely avoided defeat due to Azerbaijan’s interest in avoiding a conflict with Russia. Azerbaijan had sought out better relations with Russia, largely as a means of finding a solution to the conflict through Russian, rather than Western, mediation. However, that window has closed shut. Interestingly, the Armenian government had been seeking a way to reduce their dependence on Russia, but given their position now, trapped between Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia will likely fall even further into Russia’s sphere out of necessity.

Though events on the ground are ongoing and subject to change at any time, the result is likely a continuation of the status quo ante bellum: animosity between the two sides, both of which will claim some sort of victory while the real victory will quietly belong to Russia and Turkey. Both nations will be able to expand their influence in the region. Putin will have the opportunity to solidify Armenia within the Russian sphere of influence, while Erdoğan can further his neo-Ottoman project through expanding links between Ankara and Baku. Armenians and Azeris are pawns in the greater game being played by Russians and Turks, now just as it used to be in the days of empire. While both are now on a war footing, after a few weeks of jingoistic chest-beating and twitter videos of downed helicopters and burning tanks the conflict will likely return to its simmering state until the next time tensions overflow.

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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Illinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encyclopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Cover Image: Vitaly Kuzmin, T-72B3 Tank, Azerbaijan