Nagorno-Karabakh, from ‘frozen’ to full-blown conflict

Two weeks after heavy fighting broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh, the conflict has only intensified. Azerbaijan, emboldened by Turkey’s explicit support, is resolved to gain ground against Armenia, which feels alone in dealing with the crisis. Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, has been bombed with rockets, drones, and cluster bombs over the past fortnight, and an estimated 75,000 people —about half the population— have fled to Armenia. Besides, the Nagorno-Karabakh army has bombed Azerbaijani towns such as Terter, Horadiz, and Ganja. This new war in the South Caucasus has so far killed hundreds, including both soldiers and civilians.

A frozen conflict

Azerbaijan launched an offensive, 27 September, to change the status quo under which Nagorno-Karabakh and its adjacent territories had been living since the end of the 1994 war. It should be recalled that, following the Soviet Union’s collapse, Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over this Armenian-majority enclave in a bloody conflict that killed at least 25,000 people. Armenia won the war and, apart from gaining control over Nagorno-Karabakh proper, it also took over seven Azeri districts adjacent to the enclave. Approximately 600,000 Azeris fled the regions and, to this day, many of them struggle with their lives as internally displaced persons in Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed itself an independent state, the Republic of Artsakh, and the seven conquered districts became the guarantee of its survival. Four of these districts directly link the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh with Armenia. The other three (Fizuli, Jabrail, and Aghdam), which are much less populated, provide a buffer zone to protect Nagorno-Karabakh from an eventual Azeri offensive.

On the following map you can see the boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh proper as it was defined in Soviet time —in dark maroon and yellow— and the seven adjacent districts —in pink. The current Azeri offensive is concentrating mainly —but not only— on the southern part of this territory:

Over the past 35 years, the armed confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Karabakh has generally been frozen, with long periods of tense calm interrupted by occasional outbreaks of violence that have caused victims on both sides. Over this period, unfruitful negotiations have been conducted within the framework of the Minsk Group, in which Russia, France, and the USA participate in addition to the two warring parties.

Why now?

Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, has decided to act now aiming to change the status quo, possibly driven by several factors, both external and internal to the country.

Aliyev may have launched the military operation with the aim of rallying the population against the external enemy, in the midst of a delicate internal situation and taking advantage of a favourable international context

On the one hand, the delicate internal situation of the country may have contributed to Aliyev’s decision: since 2019 the population’s malaise has been growing, owing to a serious economic crisis caused by the fall in oil and gas prices (the main goods exported by Azerbaijan), the coronavirus pandemic, and an increasingly oppressive atmosphere in which dissidents are imprisoned by Aliyev’s personalist and authoritarian regime. In this regard, Aliyev could have launched a military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh with the aim of rallying the population against an external enemy, obtaining new conquests from the districts they call “occupied,” all dressed up with aggressive and nationalist rhetoric, mobilising the population behind him and his patriotic discourse.

Furthermore, the Armenian revolution of 2018 and Nikol Pashinian’s rise to power as prime minister led to the belief that there might be a rapprochement between the two countries in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But this mirage was shattered in August 2019, when Pashinian made an emotional speech in Stepanakert that concluded with the sentence “Artsakh is Armenia, and that’s it.” That statement inflamed the mood in Baku, where it was perceived as a provocation.

Also, Aliyev may have taken advantage of a favourable international context. First, he has accepted Turkey’s assistance, a key element that has upset the balance of power that has kept the conflict dormant for the past 30 years. At the same time, the offensive has been carried out in a period in which both the US and the EU are engaged in other urgent matters. The US administration is engaged in an election campaign, while the EU is attempting to manage one of the worst crises it has suffered in recent years, the one caused by Covid-19.

The roles of Turkey and Russia

Ankara’s decision to unequivocally support Baku in this escalation is fundamental. It can help Turkey to gain strength against Russia, with other scenarios in mind. For Armenia, it represents an existential threat

As mentioned before, Ankara’s decision to unequivocally support Baku in the new escalation is fundamental. Some analysts point out that it is likely that Turkey has intervened in order to have an element of strength in the South Caucasus and to gain influence in the region in order to increase its power when negotiating with third parties such as Russia in other scenarios, such as Libya or Syria. Thus, according to analyst Laurence Broers, the Armenian-Azeri conflict may “become one among a patchwork of theatres where Russia and Turkey are militarily engaged. Taken together, this patchwork constitutes a kind of continuum across which Moscow and Ankara can negotiate trade-offs and regulate their relations.”

For Yerevan, Turkey’s entry into the enemy’s camp means an existential threat, and sets the warning bells ringing, as the Armenian people are well aware of the genocide they suffered at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, and the treatment they have received since then from this neighbouring country, which has never admitted to committing genocide.

Moscow, meanwhile, has been very cautious during the last 15 days. The Kremlin has good relations with both Yerevan and Baku, and it hopes that this will not change. So far it has remained neutral, negotiated a fragile humanitarian ceasefire and called on both sides not to make inflammatory proclamations in favour of the war. Although Russia, like Armenia, is a party to the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO), the Kremlin has made it clear that Karabakh is out of the picture, and that Moscow will not intervene unless Baku directly attacks territory that is internationally recognised as Armenian.

The Kremlin has made it clear that Karabakh is outside the defence treaty it has with Armenia. But Russia has drawn a red line: the presence of jihadist fighters

On the other hand, the Kremlin has expressed its firm rejection to the appearance of militants from the Middle East in Azerbaijan, who have been allegedly recruited by Turkey to fight the Armenians. For Moscow, this is a red line to which it will react strongly, if it deems it necessary. In the last years, Russia has made efforts to eliminate jihadists who, from the Northern Caucasus, had perpetrated terror attacks in the whole country. With different strategies, Russia has managed to dismantle jihadist group Caucasus Emirate, and will now not allow the presence of Middle Eastern fighters in Azerbaijan, a country directly bordering areas that had previously been recruitment hot spots in the North Caucasus such as Dagestan or the Pankisi Valley in Georgia.

So what can happen now?

Thus, depending on the progress made by the Azerbaijani army on the ground (more difficult as winter sets in in Karabakh’s mountainous terrain), hostilities could end in a return to the negotiating table. Azerbaijani president Aliyev is currently committed to maximalist goals, such as conquering the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, but in fact this attempt could cost him too much in terms of human losses, that the population would be unwilling to bear. It is therefore possible that the most realistic option is a return to dialogue within the Minsk Group, in which Baku would have now achieved a position of strength by gaining territory through arms. One possible solution would be for some districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh which are now virtually unpopulated to return to Azerbaijan, while the more populated districts that are needed to supply Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, such as the Lachin district, could remain in Armenian hands.

Aliyev is committed to maximalist goals, but a more realistic option might be a return to the Minsk Group dialogue, where Azerbaijan would now be in a stronger position

The other notable outcome of the current war could be for Turkey to increase its influence in the South Caucasus and, as a result, Ankara and Moscow to become two regional powers with increasingly interrelated interests that will have to negotiate in the midst of a wider and more complex kaleidoscope of conflicts and power.