THE NAGORNO-KARABAKH DISPUTE: THEN AND NOW – STRATFOR
12:20 * 15.07.14
Below is Stratfor’s latest report regarding the land dispute over
There has been a burst of diplomatic activity in recent months over
the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have
disputed for decades. Russia, the strongest power in the Caucasus,
has become more engaged in the issue in light of Azerbaijan’s growing
leverage in the region, raising the possibility of a shift in this
conflict. It is the changing positions of larger regional players such
as Russia,Turkey, Iran and the United States, more so than Azerbaijan
and Armenia themselves, that will drive the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
in the months and years to come.
As Russia and the West continue their confrontation over Ukraine,
there is a subtler yet potentially equally significant competition
occurring in the Caucasus. While Georgia attempts to move closer
to the West andArmenia strengthens ties with Russia, Azerbaijan has
attempted to maintain a careful balance between the two sides.
Azerbaijan thus serves as the pivot of the Caucasus, and the dispute
over Nagorno-Karabakh is a crucial aspect in shaping Baku’s role.
The Historical Backdrop for the Conflict
Nagorno-Karabakh is a small yet strategic piece of territory located
in the center of the South Caucasus region. Despite its small size
(4,400 square kilometers, or about 1,700 square miles) and population
(fewer than 150,000 people), Nagorno-Karabakh historically has been
an ethnically and religiously mixed region because of its mountainous
terrain and location at a crossroads between continents, although
the population now is over 95 percent Armenian.
Nagorno-Karabakh, along with much of the rest of the Caucasus, was
contested by the Ottoman Turks and Persians for hundreds of years. The
emergence of the Russian Empire as a major player in the Caucasus
during the 18th century culminated in Russia’s annexation of the
region, including Nagorno-Karabakh, in the early 19th century. The
Russian Empire would be the dominant power in the region until the
Russian Revolution of 1905 weakened the empire and the subsequent
revolution of 1917 brought about its collapse.
Both of these periods marked significant turbulence in the Caucasus
culminating in a war over control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the
wider region in the midst of a vacuum created by Russian weakness
and distraction. By 1921, the Bolsheviks had taken over the entire
region, and the Caucasus was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the
Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic in 1922. The Soviet
republic was then reorganized in 1923 into three separate republics:
Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh was placed under
the jurisdiction of the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic by then-Soviet
Nationalities Commissioner Josef Stalin. This redrawing of borders and
territorial lines, which were designed to create territorial disputes
among the republics in order to keep them weak, set in motion the
conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
With the introduction of the glasnost and perestroika movements in the
late Soviet period and the easing of public discourse and political
participation, Nagorno-Karabakh became one of the first and highest
profile issues to come under dispute. Starting in February 1988,
numerous public demonstrations were held in the Armenian capital
of Yerevan supporting the incorporation of the majority-Armenian
Nagorno-Karabakh into the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Next, the
Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast Committee of the Communist Party held an
unprecedented unofficial referendum to rejoin Armenia. Azerbaijan
appealed to Moscow to condemn such actions, but when Moscow’s response
was slow and not to Baku’s liking, ethnic violence erupted against
Armenians in Azerbaijan and against Azerbaijanis in Armenia.
This violence quickly spread into a full-scale military confrontation
in which all Azerbaijanis were expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh, leading
to the territory’s current Armenian-dominated ethnic balance. Armenian
forces decisively defeated Azerbaijan in the conflict, leading to
the de facto independence of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian control
of several provinces abutting Nagorno-Karabakh as a corridor into the
region. After mediation by numerous external players including Russia,
Turkey and Iran, a cease-fire was reached to end the conflict in 1994.
Geopolitical Alignments and the Elusiveness of Peace
With an end to the war, a formal peace process was launched by the
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1994, with
Russia, the United States and France serving as co-chairs along with
Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, 20 years and countless meetings
and summits later, there has been no substantial progress made on
a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There are
fundamental geopolitical drivers for why this is the case.
First and foremost is the participation and influence of regional
power players in the conflict. Russia, Turkey and Iran have competed
in the Caucasus for centuries, and this continues to be the case. The
participation of these countries, with their entrenched and often
competing strategic interests, has been a significant component to
the protracted dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.
During the war in the 1980s, each country played complicated and
sometimes contradictory roles. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan employed
mercenaries during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, with fighters from Russia
(including Chechnya), Turkey and Iran participating on both sides of
the conflict. These countries also become involved in a more official
capacity, with Turkey and Iran supplying personnel for training the
Azerbaijani military, while Russia provided weapons, supplies and
training for both sides. Notably, the war began while the Soviet Union
was still nominally intact, putting Moscow in a very complex position.
Soviet leaders initially responded to the conflict between Armenia
and Azerbaijan in a law enforcement capacity as a means of restoring
order, but the Soviet Union’s internal weaknesses and divisions
prevented definitive action from being taken to ameliorate tensions
or overwhelmingly support either side.
The result was sporadic Soviet assistance to both sides, whether
weapons for Armenia or tactical training for Azerbaijani soldiers.
However, Moscow’s support of Armenia grew once the Soviet Union had
officially ceased to exist and the Russian Federation emerged.
Moscow’s support of Yerevan intensified further as the Armenian side
gained the upper hand in the conflict. In the meantime, Turkey and
Iran increased their assistance to Azerbaijan. Turkey closed its
border with Armenia, and Iran created a protection zone within its
borders for tens of thousands of displaced Azerbaijanis. Once Armenia
captured Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding provinces, Yerevan came
under increasing pressure from Turkey and Iran. Russia helped negotiate
the cease-fire in 1994, but by then Armenia had decisively won the war.
Since then, the conflict has shifted to the diplomatic realm, with the
Organization for Security and Co-operation’s Minsk Group providing the
official framework for political negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh
between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The United States became involved
in the negotiations, and the best chance for a settlement emerged
in the early post-Soviet period, when Russia was still weak and
ties between Moscow and Washington were relatively warm. Indeed,
Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian endorsed the Organization for
Security and Co-operation talks, which advocated a phased approach
to the settlement, including staged land swaps for political and
economic concessions, in 1997. However, this was an unpopular move
within Armenia and eventually led to Ter-Petrosian’s resignation
in an illustration of the degree of political polarization over
Nagorno-Karabakh. Since then, attitudes within Armenia and Azerbaijan
have only grown stronger. Armenia’s last two presidents hailed from
Nagorno-Karabakh and participated in the war.
For the next 12 years, negotiations continued over Nagorno-Karabakh,
but very little progress was made. Sporadic attacks continued on the
line of contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the two sides could
not agree on even basic conditions for fruitful talks. However, the
regional climate changed in 2009, whenTurkey attempted to normalize
ties with Armenia in exchange for an agreement between Yerevan and
Baku over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. But because Turkey did not seek
to establish an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan before talks
on opening the Turkish-Armenian border began, Turkey’s move strained
ties between Ankara and Baku. This benefited Russia, whose position
improved as a result of the increased tensions between Azerbaijan and
Turkey and because Armenia strengthened its ties with Moscow once the
Turkish rapprochement failed. Meanwhile, Iran saw tensions rise with
Azerbaijan due to Baku’s growing relationship with Israel. Iran has
maintained a working relationship with Armenia, though Tehran has
been relegated to a background role in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue
because its primary interests are in the Middle Eastern theater.
Despite Moscow’s leading role in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks,
it has long been in Russia’s interest to maintain the status quo
of hostilities between the two countries. Since the war concluded,
Russia has been in a strategic alignment with Armenia, including
the presence of 5,000 Russian troops in Armenian territory. Russia
also has a military presence in neighboring Georgia in the breakaway
territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The one country in the
Caucasus that has remained outside Russia’s orbit has been Azerbaijan,
which has been able to use its sizable energy resources and diplomatic
maneuvering within the region to create a balance-of-power strategy.
But Russia’s support of Armenia, including its de facto support of
Yerevan’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh, has kept Azerbaijan in check.
Despite Azerbaijan’s claims of being able to forcibly retake
Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku’s security buildup in this regard, Azerbaijan
does not have the capability to confront Russia militarily over
The Future of the Dispute
This is not to say that the current state of the dispute
over Nagorno-Karabakh will last forever. As history has shown,
Nagorno-Karabakh has tended to flare up at times of major upheaval
in the wider region, particularly during periods of Russian weakness.
This aspect is worth considering, especially as Russia is again
experiencing major challenges in the former Soviet periphery, as can be
seen in the crisis in Ukraine. Though Russia is on the defensive when
it comes to Ukraine, this by no means marks an impending collapse
of the Russian Federation. Moscow retains significant economic,
political and energy leverage over Ukraine — and the same can be
said for other former Soviet countries being contested by the West,
including Moldova and Georgia. Russia also still boasts a network
of loyal allies within the former Soviet space, including Belarus,
Kazakhstan and Armenia.
However, Russia does face serious long-term challenges to retaining its
powerful position in the former Soviet Union, particularly compared
to its period of re-emergence as a regional power over the past few
years. One country that could pose a particularly substantial challenge
for Russia is Azerbaijan, which has positioned itself as a significant
alternative energy provider to Europe via the strategic Southern
Corridor route. Azerbaijan has also expanded political and security
ties with the likes of Turkey, Israel and (still in a nascent form) the
United States, increasing Baku’s leverage in its dealings with Russia.
It is in this context that Russia has become more engaged on the
Nagorno-Karabakh issue than it has in years, with Russian officials
holding numerous meetings with officials from Azerbaijan and
Armenia on the issue in recent months, indicating a possible shift
in Moscow’s position. But in order for Moscow to truly change its
stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia would need to weaken considerably,
or Azerbaijan would need to become so vital to Russian interests that
Moscow would change allegiances and confront Armenia, an unlikely
prospect at this point.
However, the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh does not solely depend
on Russia. Turkey’s role is also important, especially as Ankara
continues to court Baku into an informal alliance while continuing
efforts to normalize ties with Armenia in a bid to boost its standing
in the region. Turkey is not in as strong a position as Russia,
but the United States’ backing of Ankara’s efforts could reshape
regional dynamics. The extent to which Turkey’s relationship with
Azerbaijan grows, and to which both countries are supported by the
United States, could change the way Nagorno-Karabakh is addressed,
at least on a political level.
In a similar vein, the ongoing nuclear and broader political
negotiations between the United States and Iran could give Tehran a
freer and stronger hand to engage in the region. Iran has been the
least influential of the regional players in the Nagorno-Karabakh
dispute over the past few years, but this could change if the current
adversarial relationship between Tehran and Washington improves.
Certainly with the changes occurring in the Middle East, this is not
out of the realm of possibility.