Nagorno-Karabakh: The Bigger Picture

27 October 2016

It has been over six months since the dramatic flare up in hostilities between Azeri and Karabakhi Armenian forces last April. In spite of a ceasefire being agreed to in a matter of days, little progress remains to be achieved in the Minsk peace process and the conflict continues to fly largely under the radar of the international press. In truth, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and politics of the Southern Caucasus region remain somewhat of a mystery that many have little appetite to engage with. This, coupled with the indifference from the wider international community towards brokering peace, is perplexing when considering the heightening and potential ramifications of this particular conflict in addition to the powerful players involved on the peripheries of it.

The Washington Times
The Washington Times

Often coverage of the conflict is boiled down to the hostilities between the two principal actors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the domestic press from both sides often spinning their own arguably unbalanced and partisan narratives. Such coverage not only creates difficulty in identifying the truth from the sensationalised, but also mistakenly underplays the other forces at play that ensure this conflict remains in limbo between negotiated peace and war. For example, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been significantly armed by Russia, with the latter receiving 85% of its arms imports from Russia according to a 2015 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Report.  This is somewhat in juxtaposition with Russia’s historic and continued role as chief ceasefire mediator between the two countries (brokering both the 1994 ceasefire as well as the most recent last April) and of course raises numerous eyebrows as to what the Kremlin’s true motives are with regard to this conflict. Russia brokered the April ceasefire agreement in a trilateral meeting before the Minsk group had even met, demonstrating the country’s continued willingness to play chief mediator for a war that was probably fought primarily with weapons it exported. This of course suggests the likelihood that Moscow might not favour war, but equally does not favour the progress and ultimate success of the peace negotiations. Additionally this suggests Russia prefers a more direct approach when dealing with the conflict, rather than mediating through its role as a co-chair of the Minsk Group.

The irony of these two roles played by Russia (the weapons and ceasefire facilitator) has not been lost on all Armenians, with hundreds of young activists protesting outside the Russian embassy in Yerevan last April shortly after the ceasefire. Such activity is a reminder that those in Armenia (and in all likelihood also in Azerbaijan) are growingly frustrated with the stagnated progress toward a resolution of the conflict. Numerous Armenian critics of the Russian arms dealings with Azerbaijan also argued that Azerbaijan was probably emboldened by these deals to launch the military operations that resulted in the deaths of dozens of people. Although such rhetoric perhaps negates Armenia’s culpability in the spike in hostilities, such views do insinuate a growing frustration with Russia as well as the persistent and ever growing suspicion of their involvement.

Indeed, the general atmosphere and attitudes in both Baku and Yerevan after the conflict were not said to be based upon peace and reconciliation, instead it was widely reported that the patience of the respective populations was beginning to wane. In Armenia shortly after the hostilities numerous individuals spoke of their growing frustration, with student theatre worker Zhanna Krikorova stating: “For 20 years I’ve been involved in peace-building activities. I used to teach my students that those people who left their homes as a result of the 1990s war have the right to return, but today I denounce my own words”. Similarly in Azerbaijan after a perceived victory the population were said to be experiencing ‘nationalist euphoria’, with some being egged on by these moderate militarily successes. Neither of these attitudes bode well for a peace process that the success of which depends on compromises from both sides. Instead both sentiments seem to bolster International Crisis Group’s claim that the public of each respective country appears more ready for military solutions than any other time over the last two decades. 


Putin hosts trilateral talks between the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders. Vestnik Kavkaza
Putin hosts trilateral talks between the Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders. Vestnik Kavkaza

This strained support for a peaceful resolution, coupled with the dubious role played by Russia is all the more worrying when considering the overlooked strategic importance of the enclave. Currently, Russia and Turkey are experiencing their worst diplomatic relations for decades after Turkey’s firing down of a Russian warplane in November last year, making strong relations with other countries in the Southern Caucasus more important than ever for both sides. As highlighted by Samual Ramani, Russia’s military presence in Ukraine, Syria and Armenia means in theory that it could swiftly strike Turkey if Ankara acts aggressively again. This means that for Russia appeasing Azerbaijan and preventing war is all the more important in order to maintain hegemony over Turkey. Equally however, it is in Turkey’s interest to support Azerbaijan to ensure it is not entirely faced with countries in the South Caucasus sympathetic and loyal to the Kremlin. This of course all leaves Azerbaijan in a comfortable position in negotiations and inhibits their necessity to compromise. More importantly however, this sets the stage for the conflict to potentially span into a proxy one between Turkey and Russia. Throw a geographically close Iran into the mix – which has long held rivalries with Azerbaijan over energy and security in the Caspian Sea – and a frightening picture emerges of how the geopolitical dominoes could rapidly fall and this conflict could become an ever more complex and bloody one.

With the risk of such a large potential fallout, ambivalence toward the peace process could not come at a worse time. It is therefore of vital importance that those involved in the Minsk Process, specifically America and France, do more to encourage confidence in the process. Perhaps a small but highly positive step could be the introduction of permanent impartial international observers in Nagorno-Karabakh, and eventually for talks to be strictly between Azerbaijan and official representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh.  The major geopolitical players may view it in their interests to keep the conflict at a simmering point to not unbalance the status quo, but it is unlikely the Azeri and Armenian public will accept this forever. Every added day that progress is not made is a day that increases the dangerous likelihood of a calamitous war.


Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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