The unfreezing of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

The unfreezing of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Fighting over the Azerbaijani-recognised, Armenian-held territory is the fiercest in decades.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

The fiercest fighting in over 25 years has erupted in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory and frozen conflict in the South Caucasus.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Unlike prior outbreaks of violence, Armenian forces have targeted densely populated areas outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is now playing an active role
– As a uniquely regional conflict, there is likely to be little direct security risk to the EU or US, and they are unlikely to present a united front
– The key powerbrokers are Russia and Turkey; both are keen to resurrect elements of their former empires and have clashing interests in the South Caucasus

The frozen conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory and ethnic Armenian enclave within the territorial boundaries of Azerbaijan, has heated up again. The current outbreak is the fiercest fighting since the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, when a ceasefire was reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan without a territorial settlement. Shelling and missile attacks have affected Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, as well as a critical oil pipeline in the region and a historic Armenian cathedral. Unlike prior outbreaks, densely populated, civilian areas have been targeted by both Armenian and Azeri forces, and external actors like Turkey are keen to play a larger role and rival Russia for influence in the region. Armenia and Azerbaijan have opened talks for a limited ceasefire, but the risks for further escalation are high. A protracted battle is likely to continue not just for Nagorno-Karabakh, but for regional influence in the South Caucasus.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH AND REGIONAL INFLUENCE

Photo: hanming_huang/Flickr

Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the many disputed regions and frozen conflicts to emerge in the post-Soviet space after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. From 1988 to 1994, both Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in protracted mountain warfare over Nagorno-Karabakh, and devastating pogroms targeted villages with large ethnic Armenian populations in Azerbaijan. Since 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh has been controlled by ethnic Armenians backed by the Armenian government, although the region is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed upon a line of control and cessation of hostilities in 1994 that has largely kept the peace for over 25 years.

The wild card that makes the current fighting more unpredictable is Turkish involvement and the targeting of oil and energy infrastructure. Russia retains close links to both former Soviet republics, and Moscow has pledged to be a neutral arbiter in this most recent outbreak of violence. Turkey has pledged support for Azerbaijan, a fellow Muslim-majority nation with close cultural links and one with great strategic significance for Ankara in the development of its regional energy ambitions. Economics and oil are intertwined with the conflict, as Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of attacking the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan to Turkey. The pipeline is a critical piece of regional infrastructure and is managed by a company whose largest shareholder is BP PLC. Other oil majors have a stake in ensuring the integrity and full production of the pipeline as well, which is likely to be a flashpoint for control.

In contrast to its warm relationship with Azerbaijan, Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia and has made the establishment of diplomatic relations conditional on Armenia’s withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is clear about which side it favours in the conflict, and any rapprochement with Armenia risks being set back decades as a result of its support for Azerbaijan. In response to Turkey’s involvement, Armenia has requested assistance from the US, which has called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The US has strong relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and is much more strategically aligned with NATO member Turkey than Russia. As Turkey becomes more assertive in the region, Nagorno-Karabakh is likely to take on more strategic significance to NATO, and by extension the US.

However, Turkey and the US are currently at odds over the use of the S-400 missile defence system that is incompatible with NATO standards, as well as Turkey’s relations with Greece over maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has caused tension within the NATO alliance previously, with its regional ambitions and security interests often clashing with those of NATO’s more Atlanticist members. These tensions will complicate efforts to secure a diplomatic resolution.

NEW IMPERIAL AMBITIONS

Photo: The Kremlin

Azerbaijan has the upper hand in terms of its military strength as well as the support it can draw from regional powers (namely Tukey), and the risks for escalation are high given threats to Azerbaijan’s territory and population centres. The apparent shelling of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, as well as a historic Armenian cathedral, are likely violations of ceasefire and territorial agreements signed by both sides.

Turkey is committed to playing a more active role in the South Caucasus, which has historically been part of Russia’s sphere of influence. This could result in a deterioration of Russia-Turkey relations, which reached a low point in 2015 after a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkish forces over northern Syria. Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both nationalist leaders with a desire to resurrect elements of the former empires and power structures of the Ottoman and Soviet eras. As a result of COVID-19 and broader structural deficiencies, both countries have weakened economies with little prospect for growth. Military adventurism or active measures campaigns in service of their respective geopolitical interests may be a welcome political diversion for both leaders.

While Russia and Turkey are likely to play active roles, the EU is unlikely to present a united front. Given sclerotic EU action, the ongoing pandemic and economic fallout, and other critical events in the EU’s neighbourhood, Russia is likely to be the principal mediator. This is a natural role for Russia owing to its unique history in the South Caucasus with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russia’s security guarantee with Armenia. However, Russia’s role also risks forcing the EU and the US into backseat positions. Brussels and Washington may have little choice but to sign off on any Russian-mediated proposal for the conflict, which risks ignoring their unique strategic interests as well.

Despite the West’s poor relations with Erdogan, Turkey is one of the largest NATO member states and a key military and security partner of the US and Western European nations. Russian interests of neutrality and mutual recognition for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and Armenia will likely go against any Turkish proposals, which would likely favour Azerbaijan and decrease the rights and security guarantees towards ethnic Armenians in both Nagorno-Karabakh and beyond its borders. This by extension could affect the NATO alliance and involve NATO consultation should events deteriorate, particularly in the unlikely situation that Turkey feels emboldened to step in against Armenian forces, possibly tipping Russia’s hand to defend its ally.

With the fragile ceasefire in jeopardy, the latest round of fighting risks may have only added more external actors with competing interests to an increasingly volatile situation.