Post-Soviet Tensions in the South Caucasus: Armenian-Azerbaijani Dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh

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Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post,  ISSN: 2628-6998, https://worldmediation.org/conflict-insight 

The latest flare-up of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan in September 2022 has raised concerns about Nagorno-Karabakh, a region over which claim both countries hold a decades-long dispute. International worries about the escalation of the longest post-soviet South Caucasus conflict seem to be related to Russia’s apparent backtracking at war with Ukraine and the crucial role that Azerbaijan could acquire as an oil provider; particularly to European countries, in light of the possible oil crises that the war in Ukraine could be leading to. This paper aims to explain the background of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the main concerns it currently raises. 

KEYWORDS

Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, post-Soviet conflicts, and the war in Ukraine. 

INTRODUCTION

The establishment of borders, regardless of the ethnonational features of regions, has not only been applied during colonization but also in the territorial consolidation of USSR republics under Soviet rule. It is true that the USSR advocated for protecting the individual identity of the republics that confirmed it and that a division of USSR territories taking into consideration the ethical disposition in its regions was very difficult because of the nomadic nature of most ethnic communities living in them (particularly in the Caucasus); however, some sources confirm that the division of ethnic groups through the establishment of borders, separating them into different soviet republics, was one of the main USSR strategies to avoid strong ethnonationalist sentiments to arise, and secure a common self-recognition throughout the whole soviet union while still fomenting the consolidation of each republic’s identity (a somewhat ‘divide and conquer’ logistic to secure sovereignty over its territory). 

Problems arose once the Soviet Unión started to decay; former soviet republics disputed regions on ethnonationalist v. territorial grounds, which many times led to the formation of de facto states (that is, a self-administered territory that works as a State but lacks sufficient international recognition to be considered one). The main long-lasting example of this post-soviet issue is the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. 

CONFLICT BACKGROUND

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region historically inhabited by a majority of ethnic Armenians. It is located in the South Caucasus, a largely disputed geographical site until, during the 19th century, it fell under the rule of the Russian empire. After the 1917 October revolution and the outbreak of the Russian civil war, the Russian empire began to dismember, and several republics emerged from that process of dissolution, one of them being the Transcaucasian Federal Democratic Republic, consisting of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, and which included the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. This union did not last long, as around 1918, the three regions declared their independence, and tensions arose between Armenia and Azerbaijan when both states claimed sovereignty over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

Given the danger that their tensions seemed to be posing in the area, the final status of the region was to be determined after WWI, but plans were overturned when Azerbaijan surrendered to Soviet forces and joined the USSR in 1920. A year after that, in 1921, Georgia and Armenia followed, becoming part of the Soviet Union too. As Armenia and Azerbaijan were under Soviet rule from that moment onwards, the responsibility to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute corresponded then to the Soviet mandate. Given the ethnic disposition of the region, composed of 95% of the Armenian population (most of them Orthodox Christians), it was expected that jurisdiction over the area would be granted to the Soviet Republic of Armenia; surprisingly, Nagorno-Karabakh was established as an autonomous province inside Azerbaijan, a Soviet republic which population was, in its majority, Azeri (and predominantly Muslim). 

Many scholars point out that, as surprising as the decision to keep Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijani territory may be, the division of ethnic groups by using Soviet republics’ borders to split them was actually a common USSR strategy to avoid strong ethnonationalist groups to arise while enhancing the self-identity of each Soviet republic (a sort of ‘divide and conquer logistic). Even though the cession of territory to Azerbaijan did not precisely solve the problem, clashes were kept at bay, at least during the Soviet mandate; it was around the 1980s when the USSR started to decay, and turmoil over the region rose again, being so that in 1988 the legislative of Nagorno-Karabakh passed a resolution to join Armenia, outbreaking tensions that culminated when, in 1991, Azerbaijan abolished Nagorno-Karabakh’s autonomy. This led the region to declare its independence as the Republic of Artsakh, and war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia for control over Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Despite Azerbaijani apparent military superiority, by 1993, Armenia had succeeded not only in gaining control over Nagorno-Karabakh, but also over 20% of the surrounding Azerbaijani territory. Even though Russia handled to broker a ceasefire by 1994, Armenian support of the Republic of Artsakh (a de facto state, given its limited international recognition), and especially its control over the surrounding Azerbaijani territory, has made it impossible for tensions to ease in the 1994-2022 period, with the skirmishes and clashes outbreaking from time to time. Confrontations were particularly violent in 2016, 2020, and, more recently, in 2022, in violation of several ceasefire agreements negotiated primarily under the wing of the Minsk Group, a mediation effort established by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and co-chaired by France, Russia, and the US, and which main goal is to facilitate negotiation over a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Despite the primordial role of the Minsk Group in helping the parties to establish the principles that would guide the solution to the dispute, brokering ceasefires during the peaks of tension, and facilitating peace talks among sides on a possible settlement, the results of all these measures struggle to show, and the conflict continues as troublesome as ever, to the point that the deploy of Russian peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been necessary to avoid the conflict to reach unprecedented scales of violence. 

MAIN CONCERNS AND FUTURE SCENARIOS

The complicated geopolitical features of the South Caucasus area have always led some sources to see the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute as the post-soviet frozen war most likely to become an all-out war; however, the current war in Ukraine has raised new concerns about the possible scenarios that this conflict may derive into. For some analysts, the backtracking of Russia in the Ukraine war and its struggle to defend its position against some Ukrainian counteroffensives weakens the power’s position as the source of peacekeeping personnel that is thought to be avoiding (to a certain extent, at least) the escalation of tensions in the area. 

Many believe that Azerbaijan military operations have, in previous escalations of the dispute (in 2016 and, especially, in 2020), constituted a call for attention towards the international arena regarding the inefficiency of peace talks up to that moment, the frozenness of the conflict and, therefore, the fact that part of Azerbaijani land (apart from the Nagorno-Karabakh area) continued to be occupied by Armenian forces. Given its military superiority (when compared to Armenia), deploys of forces have sometimes been interpreted as a warning that, in case of inefficiency of mediation efforts, Azerbaijan would not hesitate in trying to obtain back the Nagorno-Karabakh region and its occupied land by military means. In this 2022 escalation of tensions, analysts don’t stray far from previous interpretations; many believe that Azerbaijan may be perceiving Russia’s apparent struggle on the Ukrainian front as an opportunity to take by military means what it seems unable to achieve through peace talks, given that it seems unlikely that Russia could make (or could afford to make) any military difference right now on the Armenian-Azerbaijani front. 

Other concerns on the current status of the dispute are closely related not only to the arms capacity of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has continued to increase at unprecedented speed in recent decades (particularly concerning the acquisition of ballistic missiles and drones), but also with the alliance system that a massive escalation of the conflict could trigger, and the chances that that triggering ends up leading to an all-out war. It is true that countries near and in the Caucasus region are intertwined in seemingly complicated alliances; however, the states whose intervention would become the most worrying in the case of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict would be Turkey (Azerbaijan’s ally) and Russia (Armenia’s ally). Already in 2020, turmoil in Nagorno-Karabakh triggered tensions between Moscow and Ankara, but in this 2022 escalation, the position that Russia currently holds in the Ukraine war affects the possibility of an intervention by reducing it. As we have mentioned before, Russia seems to be unable to afford more conflicting fronts other than the Ukrainian one; in fact, an agreement on holding peaceful talks before intervening in the dispute has already been reached by Russian and Turkish mandates. 

Moreover, the possibility of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute leading to a big-scale conflict in the Caucasus and the Middle East is an important concern for actors like the EU, which is starting to build agreements with Azerbaijan given that its oil resources make it a very promising gas exporter as an alternative to Russia. A big-scale outbreak of conflict in the region would make oil agreements with Azerbaijan impossible to take into action, especially since pipelines that would connect Azerbaijan with Europe would go not only through Georgia, a state that could be drawn into the dispute as well, but also through Turkey, whose potential implication with the conflicting parties has already been explained. 

CONCLUSION

Although it is true that the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute was already an issue before the Soviet Union came into the equation, what could have been a somewhat peaceful agreement on the future of the region after WWI ended up transforming into growing tensions overcomplicated by the USSR border-building strategies. The current status of the conflict leaves worrying prospects; despite the efforts of other international actors to facilitate an approach between the conflicting parties, peace talks have appeared to leave no ground for an applicable solution up to now. 

Even though the role of the Minsk Group has been of great value in the peacemaking process and in preventing tensions from escalating, the conflict will only find a lasting solution if both Armenia and Azerbaijan show an actual willingness to set aside violent means and the circumstances that surround this new 2022 escalation seem to be providing contradictory conditions for that to happen. On the one hand, Russia’s apparent struggle in the war in Ukraine seems to be both a complicating and facilitating actor at the same time, as on the one hand, it weakens Russia’s peacekeeping potential, while on the other, it is expected to prevent growing tensions between Moscow and Ankara (and, thus, an escalation of the dispute that would lead to an all-out war involving the whole Caucasus and Middle East regions), given the high risks that Russia would face in opening another conflicting front in the international arena. Also, the role that Azerbaijan could acquire as an oil exporter for Europe is not only a source of worry, especially in the EU arena, but it is also expected that prospects of an oil agreement with the EU will refrain Azerbaijan from taking extreme military actions. In short, it seems rather unlikely that an all-out war will outbreak in the region, but there are still efforts to make to try and approach both Azerbaijani and Armenian parties to avoid major devastation between them and in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. 

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