Azerbaijani tanks in Karabakh (Photo via)
Since crisis broke out in Kiev, commentators have stayed busy discussing Ukraine’s possible ripple effects on several “frozen conflicts” in areas around Russia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova—all of which have been involved in conflicts at some point throughout the past couple of decades—have had their fair share of attention, so why is nobody talking about Nagorno-Karabakh (besides the fact that it’s difficult to say)?
Today marks 20 years since war ended in Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), an ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that claims independence but, internationally, isn't recognized as independent. From 1988 to 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the terrain in a war that killed up to 30,000 people. A Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed in 1994, but soldiers remain armed along the “line of contact” and people keep dying; dozens are killed each year, and hundreds of thousands are still displaced. Svante E. Cornell, director of the US-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, calls it “The mother of all unresolved conflicts.”
Recently, tension has escalated. In April, Azerbaijan began large-scale military drills near its border with Armenia. There's also the threat that Russia’s annexation of Crimea—hailed in Armenia, which supports an independent NK, and castigated in Azerbaijan, which does not—might tip the balance and, in doing so, kick off a regional war that would draw in big players like Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran. “In general, I would be worried about what this means for the South Caucasus,” said Katherine Leach, British Ambassador to Armenia.
Either way, Russia, which helpfully supplies cash and weapons to both sides of the dispute, looks set to gain from the situation, if only by capitalizing on regional insecurity. Late last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in which he declared: “Russia will never leave this region. On the contrary, we will make our place here even stronger.”
The disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh
In January, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its “Worldwide Threat Assessment," which noted that “Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent territories will remain a potential flashpoint” and that “prospects for peaceful resolution" were dim. This followed the International Crisis Group’s September assessment, which described an accelerating “arms race” in Azerbaijan and a ramping up of “strident rhetoric” in both countries, with the use of “terms like ‘Blitzkrieg,’ ‘preemptive strike,’ and ‘total war,’”
On May 7, James Warlick, co-chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) regional negotiating team, gave a much-anticipated speech on “The Keys to a Settlement” in NK. But the speech—which made elusive calls for “bold steps,” “core principles,” “expression[s] of will,” and “participation of the people”—didn't really bring anything new to the diplomatic table. Just a few weeks earlier, Warlick had taken to Twitter to muse: “What a wonderful Easter! My prayer is for a lasting settlement on #Nagorno-Karabakh.”
But will bloodshed in Ukraine inspire more than just tweets for divine intervention?
Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is a wreck. Ceasefire violations are common, as are muscle-flexing military drills. Soldiers are regularly shot and killed, fueling speculation that the “frozen conflict” is about to “boil.” Civilians die, too, sometimes by stepping on one of the many, many old landmines that remain scattered around the region. A kind of legal no man’s land, NK is a hot-spot for drug smuggling, petty crime, and human trafficking. As you've probably guessed, living conditions suck—hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis are still displaced, with many living in squalid conditions.
And then Ukraine happened. At first, the illegal referendum in Crimea inspired a new push for a resolution in NK; in November, the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia met for the first time in three years—talks that US Secretary of State John Kerry promised “to be engaged in.” But, by January, optimism had faded. The beginning of the year saw a rise in ceasefire breaches, reports of civilian casualties, deaths at the “line of contact,” and the arrest, in Azerbaijan, of an alleged Armenian infiltrator.
When residents of Crimea voted to separate from Ukraine and join Russia, the UN passed a resolution condemning the move. Azerbaijan backed it, but Armenia did not. In the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, authorities reportedly hosted a public celebration in honor of the now-purportedly-free Crimeans.
The flag of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. Things have been deteriorating for some time, but recent years have seen a huge hike in regional military spending. Azerbaijan, in particular, has been acquiring military assets at a staggering rate, and some fear that the newly-endowed Baku might now feel inspired to test out its arsenals, two decades after its conflict with Armenia.
This is where Russia comes in. It’s no secret that Moscow is playing both sides, officially backing Armenia and stationing troops at its base in the country's Gyumri district. In 2012, the Kremlin sent troops from Russia and four other post-Soviet republics to Armenia for the largest military drill to ever take place there. Still, Moscow sells masses of weapons, equipment, and artillery systems to Azerbaijan.
“With Putin back in the Kremlin, I think the main instinct is to preserve the status quo,” says Thomas de Waal, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War. “[Russians] don’t want to do war, which would oblige them to bring in the army on the side of Armenia, but I don’t see any evidence that they want peace either… At the moment, Russia is not in the mood for that kind of creativity. It chooses to lock things down and [maintain] its leverage.”
Each side is vying for Putin’s backing, and it's working—especially in Armenia. Near the end of the NK war, Turkey closed their border to Armenia, leaving the country isolated, and in swooped Russia to help. So it’s no surprise that, last year, Armenia (just like Ukraine) announced that it would join Russia’s new customs union rather than pursue an EU association agreement.
Should it break out, war in Nagorno-Karabakh could expand quickly. Turkey backs Azerbaijan, as does Israel—and the latter has sold tons of weapons and a fleet of drones to Baku, reportedly as a means of keeping neighboring Iran (which supports Armenia) in check. A US diplomatic cable from 2009, released by WikiLeaks, quotes Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev describing his relationship with Israel “as being like an iceberg, nine-tenths of it is below the surface.” Tangled threads of regional alliance come together in NK.
One possibility is that regional diplomatic channels will fall apart. Ongoing OSCE negotiations are being carried out by the so-called “Minsk Group,” chaired by the US, France, and Russia. But some doubt that the group can survive, reliant as it is on US-Russia cooperation. If it did crumble, that would be cause for great concern, says Ambassador Leach, since there is no other “viable alternative” negotiating format.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (center), Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev (left) and their Armenian counterpart Serge Sarkisian (right) speak during their meeting in Krasnaya Polyana near Sochi, Russia on the 23rd of January, 2012. They discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Of course, the switch could always be flicked from inside NK. Azerbaijan and Armenia both have sizeable armies, and the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has its own defense force. Since the Crimea annexation, Republic authorities have been especially keen to make their voice heard and not just let Armenia do the talking. Early this month, the Republic’s representative to the US, Robert Avetisyan, told me, “It is our deep understanding that the NK Republic should be regarded as the principle party of negotiations with Azerbaijan.”
Some believe that the only conceivable solution is an official, internationally-sanctioned referendum on sovereignty in NK. But exactly who would vote in that referendum remains disputed; would the Azerbaijanis who were booted out of the territory get to cast their votes?
Paradoxically, as a result of the situation in Crimea, Azerbaijan must be cautious. Crisis in Ukraine has highlighted Europe’s energy reliance on Russia and accelerated the hunt for non-Russian alternatives. Azerbaijan might be just what the doctor ordered. “The Caspian region, of which Azerbaijan is the linchpin, is the only major alternative to Russia for energy,” George Friedman, head of the policy-risk consultancy Stratfor, recently argued. Already, Europe is working to expand gas pipelines from Azerbaijan through the continent. In December, Baku signed a $45 billion natural gas contract with a BP-led group, making Britain the largest foreign investor in the country.
This budding oil and gas relationship might explain why some European states have looked the other way in the face of recent human rights abuses in Baku—some of them related to NK. Recently, a journalist and a prominent human rights activist were arrested on allegations that they are Armenian spies. “In Azerbaijan, one of the results of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a mania about Armenian spies,” explains Rachel Denber, a regional expert at Human Rights Watch. There have been incidents when the government “has mobilized Azerbaijani nationalism against any remnant of empathy towards Armenians.”
Of course, it's most likely that neither side wants war. But as we learned in 2008, when Georgia and Russia battled it out over the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, unpredictable things can happen when simmering ethnic tension, revanchist land claims, Russian interest, and lots of guns collide.
For now, Ambassador Leach hopes that “in the context of Ukraine and this question of the Soviet Union’s former internal borders… more people will make themselves familiar with the situation” in the oft-forgotten Nagorno-Karabakh.