The Russia brokered peace deal on November 10 has provided the much-needed respite in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area. A few weeks earlier, the US also brokered truce but it was too short-lived as it was widely believed that the US efforts were more aimed at garnering the support of the sizeable Armenian population in the US, for the US elections, rather than for a lasting solution. Such occasional cosmetic approach may not bring lasting peace in the region unless sustained efforts are made to address the root cause of the problem by bringing all three parties to the negotiating table.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area has been dominated by sporadic border skirmishes, occasional flare-ups and full-scale war for the last three decades. Recently, the role played by external actors like Turkey, Russia, Israel and Pakistan, acquiring of sophisticated weaponry including Israeli drones and Turkish drones by Azerbaijan, internal pressures within the States, pushed the conflict to a large-scale battle, necessitating appeals from United Nations and other countries, to end hostilities and maintain peace.
However, these appeals did not yield any tangible results as both Armenia and Azerbaijan pledged to continue fighting and further escalated tensions by switching from cross border shelling to using long-range artillery.
Is the conflict due to ethnic, religious and cultural reasons? With its 97% Christian population and Christianity as the state religion, Armenia is considered a Christian state, whereas even with more than 90% Muslim population, mainly Shias, Azerbaijan is considered a secular state in the Muslim world.
Principles of territorial integrity and self-determination have dominated the conflict for the last three decades. But what pushed the dormant dispute to such a serious level? A brief history of the conflict and the changed geopolitical scenario in the region would provide some answers.
When the Red Army conquered the Caucasus in the early 1920s, former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin placed the Nagorno-Karabakh area into Azerbaijan but 90% of the population in that area were Armenians. Since then, the area remained a bone of contention between the Christian majority Armenia and Muslim majority Azerbaijan.
The Armenians living in 4,400 sq km area of Nagorno-Karabakh had declared independence in 1991 and some of them even turned to guerilla warfare. The Azerbaijan government sent security forces to suppress Armenian militants without much success. Nagorno-Karabakh soon declared that it was joining Armenia by its own will but Azerbaijan objected. The Azerbaijan government insists that Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be independent and is part of Azerbaijan province as recognised by the international community.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, popularly known as Karabakhi fighters, aided and abetted by Armenian regular troops and Russian advisers, fought fierce battles with Azerbaijan for four years from 1991 to 1994. Karabakhis not only retained control over the 4,400 sq km area of Nagorno-Karabakh but also seized adjoining seven districts territory comprising 7,000 sq km.
The international community is concerned as the breaking of large scale fight will trigger civil unrest, leading to a humanitarian crisis, internally displaced persons, outflows of refugees, etc, which will also affect neighbouring States besides adversely affecting their economies. Azerbaijan is the main supplier of energy resources to neighbouring States and Europe, and intense fighting could disrupt energy transportation network. Moreover, Azerbaijan falls in the international North-South transport corridor route connecting India with Russia through Central Asia.
The fluctuation in oil prices, coupled with the Covid pandemic, adversely affected economies of both States. It was suspected that Azerbaijan authorities were trying to divert public attention from a declining economy and other governance issues by escalating conflict with Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia authorities by arousing nationalism. Similarly, the economy of Armenia is no better, and yet massive protests were organised in Armenia on the soft handling of the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. These internal pressures prompted both States to maintain a tough public stand.
With revenues from rich oil resources, Azerbaijan has acquired air defence systems, drones from Israel and Turkey, Russian surface-to-air missiles and other advanced weaponry. In spite of its limited spending power, Armenia has also acquired heavy weapons and sophisticated missile systems from Russia. Russia is committed to defending Armenia, Turkey is committed to protecting Azerbaijan, Iran has a border with both countries and has a sizeable Azeri population.
In November, Azerbaijan, with its newly acquired sophisticated weaponry, particularly Israeli and Turkish drones and support from external actors, finally took control of the land surrounding villages of Nagorno-Karabakh, previously occupied by Armenian forces. It is widely believed that fielding of armed Israeli and Turkey drones by Azerbaijan in the latest fighting tilted the scales of victory in its favour.
The November 10 peace deal differed from the three previous ceasefire agreements, as it provided for the deployment of peacekeepers from Russia and Turkey. The deployment of peacekeepers in the conflict zone will not only keep the warring factions at bay but also have a sobering effect as it will prevent further escalation. In general, the peace deal has been interpreted as a sort of victory to Azerbaijan and defeat to Armenia. This is evident from the victory celebrations in Azerbaijan and internal turmoil in Armenia that erupted after signing of the peace deal. However, the deal has provided new hope for de-escalation of tensions in the region.
India, rightly, maintains a balanced approach by maintaining relations with both States. Due to the support extended by Armenia to India’s stand on Kashmir issue and other historical reasons, India maintains strong relations with Armenia. In fact, India signed a friendship and cooperation treaty with Armenia in 1995. So far as Azerbaijan is concerned, the ONGC made small investments in Azeri oil project and GAIL is exploring the possible cooperation in LNG. Ultimately, it is diplomacy and not military, which can pave the way for a lasting solution to the conflict.
(The author is IPS (Retd) and former Chief Security Adviser, United Nations)