Nagorno-Karabakh: The Powder Keg among Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Iran

On the 27th of September 2020, international newspapers reported renewed fighting in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh region – a headline easily lost amid the glut of Coronavirus-related news items and as easily forgotten due to the relative obscurity of the region.

Figure 1: The Disputed Region

Slightly smaller than the total area of Kyoto and roughly the size of 13 Malta’s, Nagorno-Karabakh is officially an Azerbaijani province lying to the Southwest of that country. The region has controversially expanded further West to meet the Armenian border and those parts are currently under ethnic Armenian control. Geographically, Armenia carves Azerbaijan in two so that the Southern borders of Armenia, the Armenian-controlled parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan are contiguous with Iran, while Turkey and Georgia lie to Armenia’s West and North, respectively, and Russia straddles Azerbaijan in the Northeast. This has been the geopolitical status quo since late 1993 when, after a three-year war between ethnic Armenians supported by the Armenian state and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh, the former Azerbaijani enclave declared itself the Republic of Artsakh. By this point, it had acquired the 7 Azerbaijani provinces of Aghdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Zangelan, Lachin, Kalbajar, and Qubadli, that lay between it, Armenia, and Iran.

Figure 2: The 7 Ethnic Armenian-controlled Provinces annexed in 1993

The United Nations Security Council reflected Azerbaijan’s opinion that these actions contravened international law, passing a total of four resolutions between April and November 1993 (UNSCRs 822, 853, 874, 884). All of them trace and denounce Armenia’s move to occupy those 7 provinces. Another feature that the resolutions have in common is that they call for immediate cessation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan without invoking Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Two things are significant about that, not least because they continue to frame the international community’s handling of the conflict in 2020: first, nowhere is the Republic of Artsakh mentioned as constituting an actor in the hostilities because there is no UN member state (not even Armenia) that recognises the Republic of Artsakh’s claim to sovereign statehood. Second, the non-invocation of Chapter VII implies that the UNSC will not avail itself of its powers by the Charter to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace” and will refrain from taking military action to restore that peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

These attitudes in turn speak to the fraught history and manifold causes of this long conflict as well as to the complicated web of national interests that seek to rectify or retrench power asymmetries in the region. On September 27th, they all came bubbling back to the surface. Armenia claims that on that morning, Azerbaijan launched air and artillery attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh, while Azerbaijan firmly maintains that it was conducting a counter-offensive in response to the military provocations of previous weeks. Tensions had indeed been mounting with brief border skirmishes in July, Armenia’s joint air defence system exercises with Russia where supposedly unscheduled analysis of Azerbaijan’s skirmishing patterns took place, the centenary of the Armenian Genocide on the 10th August, and 10 days of military exercises that Azerbaijan conducted with Turkish involvement in early August. By the 2nd of September, the authorities of the Artsakh Republic declared that the peace agreement which the warring parties have been moving towards in fits and starts for the past 11 years (i.e., the Madrid Principles) had effectively been superseded by events. At the time of writing, some 158 fighters and 13 civilians are reported dead on the Armenian side and on the other side, 200 Azerbaijani fighters and 19 civilian deaths. 427 dwellings have been shelled in Ganja, Azerbaijan and between 70,000 to 75,000 people making up 50% of the Karabakh’s population have been displaced.

Figure 3: Elderly woman defends herself in Stepanakert

Understanding the reason for the renewed escalation of violence necessitates the identification of the type of conflict this represents for each of the parties concerned. For Azerbaijan, this is and has always been perceived as an interstate conflict with the Karabakh Armenians who are systematically damaging Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity with the help of the Armenian opponent across the border.

For Armenia, this is simultaneously a conflict waged for territorial gains in the Nagorno-Karabakh region as well as a long-awaited opportunity to finally unify all ethnic Armenians within a Greater Armenia. Ever since the end of World War I, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Turkish Republic – or to be precise, since the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres on the 10th August 1920 – Armenia has been promised a “home” for the divided Armenian peoples. Articles 88-93 of the Treaty of Sèvres promised the return of territories occupied by ethnic Armenians to the newly independent state of Armenia as well as justice for the Armenian Genocide of 1914-1917 in the form of trials for the Ottoman Turks responsible for the atrocities. Although the Ottoman delegates signed the punitive document at Sèvres, the Turkish Grand National Assembly never ratified it and in fact legislated against retroactively ratifying treaties signed by Ottoman Imperial officials. To add insult to injury, a number of backdoor agreements between the European statesmen responsible for carving out a new post-Great War world order led to the gradual erosion of the promises made to Armenia until, three years later, the Treaty of Lausanne superseded the Treaty of Sèvres and made absolutely no provision concerning the correction of Armenia’s postwar borders to include all ethnic Armenians nor, indeed, about pursuing justice for the genocide.

For the 144,683 Armenians in a total of 145,053 people living in Nagorno-Karabakh (as of the 2015 census), this is a conflict for ethnic unification that can only be pursued by seceding from the Azerbaijani populations that encircle the region. However, in spite of Armenia’s aspirations to territorial expansion, the Karabakh-Armenians have no desire to achieve ethnic unification under any state except the Republic of Artsakh which has been de facto independent, holding regular elections and even a constitutional referendum, since the ceasefire of 1994. In other words, for Stepanakert this is purely a conflict for self-determination, with deep roots in the decolonisation of the Soviet satellite states, among them Azerbaijan, and apt to flare up at any moment in a regional context where borders have historically failed to coincide with the boundaries of ethnicity.   

Recent developments within the broader regional context have the potential to internationalise the conflict, turning events in Nagorno-Karabakh into a playground for proxy wars between Azerbaijan and Turkey against Armenia and Iran, with Russia looking on as the ultimate beneficiary of any outcome. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu fanned the latest fire with remarks timed to coincide with the centenary of the Armenian Genocide that represent Baku as “the side of those who are right” while Yerevan is the “occupier” in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh. Although Turkey sealed its border with Armenia in 1993 over the same conflict – the border remains shut to this day as the two countries have no diplomatic relations with each other – the international community was nonetheless appalled by Turkey’s withdrawal of 1,200 fighters from Northern Syria to redeploy them to the Line of Contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces just South of the Murovdag mountains. In early October, Presidents Putin and Macron also received intelligence reports of 300 Jihadist fighters from the Hamza Division of the Syrian National Army having been granted passage through Turkey into Azerbaijan. International relations experts have put this enthusiastic support of Azerbaijan down to Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy and more specifically, to overlaps in Turko-Azeri policy vis-à-vis: securing energy independence in the building and exploitation of gas pipelines that bypass Russia, and eliminating the narrow wedge of Armenian territory that separates them in order to, quite literally, bring their two countries closer together. But while Turkey has publicly come out for Azerbaijan, Armenia can, to some extent, count on a traditional ally: Iran. President Hassan Rouhani fears a full-scale regional conflict, having got a taste of the destruction that could spill over into Iranian borders when shells strayed from their targets in Jabrail and Fisuli and landed in Northern Iran at the start of October. So, without making any assurances that it will step in for Armenia, Iran has offered to help the OSCE Minsk Group – co-chaired by France, Russia, and the USA – to restart talks between the two sides and resuscitate constructive attempts to complete conflict resolution according to the Madrid Principles.

Figure 4: The Line of Contact (red) with the Murovdag Mountains to the North (black)

Meanwhile, Russia has found itself walking a diplomatic tightrope between: Armenia and Azerbaijan on the one hand, and on the other, its immediate regional interests and its image in the West as one of the three well-respected Minsk Group mediators. While Russia and Armenia share strategic, military and economic visions within the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (the CSTO is nicknamed the “Russian NATO”), Russia finds itself selling arms to both Armenia (at nominal price) and Azerbaijan (at full price). Yet, Baku still views Moscow as a desired mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Perhaps this is because Russia has in this case foregone its characteristic strategy of proposing a revision of the interstate borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In full awareness that other CSTO players’ sympathies – namely Belarus’s and Kazakhstan’s – tend towards Azerbaijan, Russia has also indefinitely postponed the CSTO’s treaty obligation to intervene to protect Armenia – also one of its own. This extraordinary playing to both sides undoubtedly owes to Russia’s reluctance to repeat the loss of influence it suffered in Georgia after it recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in 2008. Given that unfreezing the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and facilitating the final triumph of one over the other would be counter-productive to it, Russia is well-placed within the Minsk Group to ensure that the two countries make halting progress towards achieving the Minsk Principles, which would allow the Karabakh-Armenians a plebiscite to decide the status of the region. For the West, however, Russia’s behaviour in this conflict has been exemplary; a welcome contrast to its warmongering stances over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and Donbass in Ukraine. It is this ostensibly peaceable behaviour that has allowed Russia to put aside its differences with co-chairs France and the United States and focus on securing another precarious ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh later in the year. For the moment it seems that only the Karabakh-Armenians, seeking a lasting peace in a country of their own, really stand to lose 2020’s game of Realpolitik in the Caucasus.       

Figure 5: Karabakh boys play in Shushi next to buildings shelled 25 years ago


Written by: Clara Chetcuti


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