A Frozen Conflict Melts: Nagorno-Karabakh and War in the South Caucasus

Empires can prove rather loose in dividing up territory. The Soviet Union, in leaving Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan in 1923, was setting the scene for future violent squabbles, not least because the initial decision in 1921 had favoured Armenia. The former autonomous oblast comprises the north-eastern flank of the Karabakh Range of the Lesser Caucasus, extending to include the margin of the Kura River lowland at its base.

The border situation before the 2020 conflict.

The grounds for future bloodletting had already been laid by the respective claims of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, drawn from texts that have been given a false contemporary resonance. Ancient texts by the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman Plinius the Second are relied upon by Armenian propagandists in staking an immemorial claim to the territory; the Azerbaijanis point to the city of Shusha in the Karabakh khanate, a cultural-political centre founded by Panah Ali Khan in the 1750s. Such lines of division are also fortified by religious considerations: Christianity for Armenia; Islam for the Azerbaijanis.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the firm stitching kept in place by communism was undone; sectarian, ethnic and religious impulses were unleashed. Despite being recognised in international law as part of Azerbaijan, the Armenian majority in the province begged to differ. Upheavals commenced in 1988 with the voicing of secessionist claims by Armenian leaders wishing to bring Nagorno-Karabakh into the realm of Yerevan’s control. In 1991, Armenian forces occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, constituting some 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory. A ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan was signed in 1994, but this did not stop the area becoming a self-proclaimed independent republic. The conflict led to the slaying of 30,000 people on both sides, producing half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Azerbaijan.

Since then, the region has become a thorn-filled entanglement of interests local and international, marked by occasional skirmishes such as that of April 2016, which left dozens dead. Negotiations for a normalisation of peace between the states, and of the territory, are marred by sparring power blocs. Azerbaijan counts on Turkey’s support in pushing territorial claims; Armenia banks on Russia and other powers for much the same reason, reminding them of the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Not to be outdone in the history wars, Azerbaijanis accuse Armenian forces of atrocities such as the Khojaly massacre in 1992, which claimed the lives of 613 civilians. Adding further confusion to this political potpourri is the large ethnic Azeri (Iranian Azerbaijani) minority, numbering 20 million people within the Islamic republic’s borders, which keeps Tehran interested.

Alongside the politics of patriotic real estate and genocide come the considerations of energy. Azerbaijan produces 800,000 barrels of oil per day and is a substantial oil and gas supplier to much of Central Asia and Europe.

On 27 September, conflict broke out once more. But to alert observers, this flash of violence was different. On 16 September, Azerbaijan’s Minister of Defence Zakir Hasanov, in a meeting with deputy commanders and military units, proclaimed his army’s readiness ‘to fulfil its sacred duty to liberate our lands [in Nagorno-Karabakh]’. But what made this note more than rhetorical guff was its urgency. Baku had been marked by demonstrations after July’s border clashes with Armenia left eleven Azerbaijani soldiers, including Major General Polad Hashimov, dead. A full-scale war against Armenia, and the resignation of the armed forces’ chief of staff, was demanded.

In August, Azerbaijani forces could be seen training with Turkish troops. In thanking participating personnel, Hasanov praised Turkey for having ‘one of the most powerful militaries in the world’, presenting his country with ‘our chance’. Azerbaijan’s armed forces would ‘implement its sacred duty with the support of the Turkish Armed Forces’.

In the course of the conflict, thousands died; 130,000 people were displaced. Numerous ceasefires were brokered with the assistance of Russia, France and the United States. All failed. The 10 November ceasefire between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia has been universally regarded as a defeat for Armenia, despite Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s observation that ‘there is no defeat until you recognise yourself a loser’. The latter has agreed to part with territory around Nagorno-Karabakh, which it has held for a quarter of a century; 2000 Russian peacekeeping troops will be deployed to the region, with a special interest in protecting the capital, Stepanakert, and the second-largest town, Shusha. While Azerbaijanis celebrated, indignant Armenians stormed the parliament. Fleeing Armenians, not wishing their possessions to fall into the hands of returning Azerbaijanis, are despoiling property as they leave.

What made this conflict particularly concerning was its drawing power, suggesting the dangers posed by what are termed, in the parlance of international relations, ‘frozen conflicts’. While the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk group, comprising Russia, the United States and France, has been a mediator between Baku and Yerevan, Turkey has put forth a powerful claim to be involved in producing a decisive result. Its incessantly belligerent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, openly supported Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev during the conflict.

Despite official denials, an already untidy conflict was complicated by Turkey’s use of Syrian mercenaries already associated with armed groups accused of human rights abuses in the Syrian War. (Again, as if to return the favour, Azerbaijan accused Armenia of doing the very same thing.) Turkish drones, along with those purchased from Israel, also proved decisive for the Azerbaijani armed forces, enabling them to route Armenian troop formations lacking sensors and countermeasures against fleets of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).  Can Kasapoğlu, a defence analyst from the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) went so far as to claim that Turkey transferred ‘a complete robotic warfare doctrine and concept of operations’ to the Azerbaijani military.

On 7 November the Turkish president was jubilant, taking credit for Azerbaijani successes. ‘We are getting close to victory’, he told members of a provincial congress of the ruling AKP in southern Turkey. Aliyev, in turn, showed his gratitude by urging Turkey’s addition to the peace negotiations. A self-important Erdoğan thought this suggestion only natural. ‘I believe that here if Russia thinks about being included in the solution for peace, then Turkey has as much right to be included for peace as Russia.’

While Turkey was absent in inking the final negotiations, it has made a military mark on the South Caucasus, not least by its introduction of Syrian mercenaries. A blow has been struck against Armenia and any secessionist claims in Nagorno-Karabakh by the Armenian majority. Its military has been crippled, having lost 40 per cent of its equipment. Russia has proven distant, insisting that Armenia’s membership of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) did not extend to protecting Nagorno-Karabakh, which is officially part of Azerbaijan.

Other members of the OSCE Minsk Group are also unsatisfied. In the view of Carey Cavanaugh, retired US ambassador and co-chair of the group between 1999 and 2001, the agreement was ‘what was required to stop the fighting’. It could hardly be seen as ‘a sustainable comprehensive peace agreement’, the sort that could only be reached at the negotiating table rather than at the end of a gun. Most glaring is the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh, ever unresolved, and awaiting the next military resolution. A bruised Pashinyan is pessimistic and unequivocal in his assessment: ‘Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s control means Karabakh without Armenians’.

When betrayal dresses up as patriotism

Ali Kazak 20 Aug 2020

The US, Israeli and Emirati tripartite declaration of normalisation of relations … has nothing to do with solving the Palestine question or helping to promote peace in the Middle East, and everything to do … with supporting US president Donald Trump’s campaign to win a second term in office as well as boosting Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on power…

About the author

Binoy Kampmark

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

More articles by Binoy Kampmark

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