One on one? Geopolitical Payoffs in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

One on one? Geopolitical Payoffs in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Introduction

For nearly three decades, the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been largely omitted by the international community, despite continued breaches of ceasefire. After sixteen people were killed in a border skirmish on July 12 (Stronski, 2020), tensions further escalated, culminating in weeks of heavy combat in the autumn of 2020 (BBC, 2020a). This new low in the nations’ bilateral relations represents a watershed in the region’s troubled history, spelling potential catastrophe and begging for an international solution, especially when considering that the peace deal Russia brokered in the beginning of November bears the potential to instigate the conflict even further (BBC, 2020b). This article recounts developments leading up to the current situation, approaching the apparent deadlock by investigating the interest structures of the two main regional powers involved in the conflict – Russia and Turkey – that have the capacity to sustainably alter the conflict’s trajectory.

Historical Background

The ongoing confrontation results from deep historical animosities that have plagued the region for a century. One of the earliest events that unquestionably fuels this division is the Armenian genocide (Editors H.com, 2010) committed by the Ottoman Empire which at the time ruled over present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the shadow of the first World War it launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenians, causing an estimated death toll of up to a million and a reduction of West Armenian territories. Though Azeris were not directly involved in the genocide, their ethnic and religious affiliation with Turkey still heavily undermines their relation to Armenia. In the contemporary conflict, both the Azeri and Armenian leadership often attempt to reincite nationalist sentiment and garner the support of their constituencies through accusing the other state of unwarranted aggression.

Acknowledging the ethnic divide between the countries provides a favourable vantage point for making sense of the centerpiece of the border dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia: Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave, mainly inhabited by ethnic Armenians, is situated in the south of Azerbaijan and surrounded from all sides by Azeri territory. While Soviet leadership had delegated administration over the semi-autonomous region to Azerbaijan, grievances over this largely bureaucratic act were curbed by both countries coexisting under the stabilising umbrella of the Soviet empire.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union of course changed that dynamic and gave rise to a regional power vacuum in which the Nagorno-Karabakh War unravelled in 1988. Over the course of the following six years the war left about 20.000 dead while displacing 700.000 Azeris and 300.000 Armenians. Finally, thanks to efforts by the Russian government, a ceasefire was negotiated in 1994 which is frequently broken from both sides until this day. (Carney, 2020)

When merely considering bilateral dynamics, a textbook case of a conflict in deadlock emerges which is further amplified when taking into consideration the geopolitical interests at play here. In suggesting a potential solution to the conflict, we argue that a common shortcoming of relevant coverage is that the two adversaries are analyzed in a vacuum, disregarding other state actors involved that support either (or both) Azeri and Armenian governments.

Russian Bearing on Nagorno-Karabakh

Albeit overtly acting on behalf of the conflict parties – Russia hosted several trilateral summits between Armenia and Azerbaijan and has brokered the recent peace accords -, tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh create a volatile climate in which Russian presence as a regional balancing factor is indispensable. However, Russia also effectively utilizes this instability, going to considerable lengths to further its geopolitical interests (Cavanaugh, 2017).

Following the USSR’s dissolution, Armenia and Russia have maintained a close but asymmetrical partnership insofar as Armenia relies on Russia as the primary supplier of discounted weaponry and gas to ensure its (energy-) security (Giragosian, 2019, p. 5-6). Via this support, the Russian government attempts to solidify its position in a region of high strategic importance and close remaining security-vacuums in its immediate neighbourhood.

As they directly relate to Armenian national security, both gas and defence equipment can also be effectively used as levers to influence Armenian politics. For example, Armenia’s declaration to further integrate with the EU led Russia to “increase military cooperation with Armenia’s fiercest foe, Azerbaijan, in the form of supplying Russian military hardware worth $4 billion”, thereby tilting the regional balance of power. Further, Russia “played its energy card” by raising Armenian gas prices by 50 percent (Terzyan, 2017, p.190). The prices were immediately reduced in 2013 when Armenia opted to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), instead of advancing on the Association Agreement with the European Union. The potential economic gains for Armenia from being integrated with the EAEU, however, come at the opportunity cost of more beneficial cooperation agreements and possibly the price of regional stability.

Accounting for Russian interest in the region – which is now safeguarded by peacekeeping troops in Nagorno-Karabakh -, other global actors would be well advised to support Armenia both in security and economic terms. Exemplary, the EU represents Armenia’s biggest export market (European Commission, 2016) and could, in context of their new Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement emphasize trade expansions and tariff reductions on products sourced and manufactured in Armenia as to not violate the country’s commitments to the EAEU. Most relevant, the EU already committed to mediating between Armenia and Georgia to establish energy transit routes, enhance Armenian energy security and thereby remedy reliance on Russian gas.

Turkish Influence 

In contrast, Turkey, as pointed out before, firmly supports Azerbaijan, giving rise to a regional power balance around Nagorno-Karabakh within which interest structures are firmly dependent on a prolongment of the conflict. Within this scheme, merely the local populations would benefit significantly from a peaceful resolution in both economic and social terms (Saha, 2018).

While Armenia remains generally dependent on Russian benevolence, Turkey can be seen as the Azeris’ biggest supporter in respect to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and regional cooperation overall. That is firstly due to the countries’ historically salient ethno-religious ties which manifest in joint initiatives such as building a regional energy infrastructure largely bypassing Armenia to the detriment of its economy (Giragosian, 2009).

Moreover, the history of Turkish-Armenian relations was unequivocally marked by conflict, tension, and division. As described above, ethnic enmities on both sides led to territorial conflicts in the area around Erzurum (nowadays Eastern Turkey) and most prominently culminated in the Armenian genocide which to this day has not been acknowledged by the Turkish state. In this context, Turkey has also fully stalled diplomatic relations with Armenia (including closing the border).

All things considered, it therefore becomes clear why Turkey has taken the side of Azerbaijan and supports its territorial claims. While Turkey’s involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh has been of rather indirect nature, it clearly aims to use its leverage over Azerbaijan to push back on Russian supremacy and solidify its own geopolitical standing in the area (New York Times, 2020). However, with the successful signing of the Russian-brokered peace deal, the opposite has occurred as Russian peacekeeping forces are now patrolling the strategically crucial Lachin corridor and Turkey is less perceived as a stabilizing force and more as an aggressor, partly due to its reported involvement in Azeri air strikes.

Acknowledging Turkey’s eagerness to assert itself as a balancing factor against Russia meanwhile stands in stark contrast to basing its support for the Azeris on purely ethno-religious grounds. This stance has strengthened the deadlock around Nagorno-Karabakh which has now lasted for three decades and impedes development in the entire Caucasus region; while hindering Turkey from achieving its geopolitical aims. Of course, one must acknowledge that these enmities are by no means easy to overcome, though improving the relationship between Armenia and Turkey may constitute a feasible -and highly effective- first step towards disentangling the deadlock between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

As laid out by Giragosian (2009), this could commence by resuming diplomatic relations with Armenia, opening the border, and therefore giving rise to opportunities for trade both countries could vastly profit from -economically and, in the case of Turkey, also politically. That is because Turkey’s strategic interest to establish itself as a force for peaceful cooperation in the region, including a settlement on the Armenian genocide, is a likely prerequisite to further convergence with the EU and would also be welcomed by the US.

Concluding Remarks

The illustration of Russian and Turkish involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict exposes a number of levers available to actors inside and outside the Caucasus with which to affect the conflict’s trajectory. Of the two regional powers analysed above, Turkey stands to gain more from changing course and pursuing a diplomatic alternative in light of growing Russian dominance. Though, one needs to qualify that, firstly, the Erdoğan administration has continuously alienated itself from its (Western) allies by taking a more offensive diplomatic approach while his rhetoric remains more ethnically divisive than reconciling. Second, even if such advances were to be facilitated and the deadlock loosened, this would not ensure that these changes are actually desirable for the local population or lead to a likely consensus among the states involved. As we made clear, ethnic enmities run deep and will take generations to ameliorate.

This prognosis reiterates that time is running out as continuing the delay of decisive action will further entrench path-dependencies whose reversal will consume exceeding amounts of resources and political will, rendering future peaceful resolution of the conflict all the more unlikely. Undoubtedly, tensions not settling even after yet another peace deal was struck further underline the necessity to break the deadlock now.

 

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At the moment, Lukas Maximilian Hertel is completing his MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford. He has completed multiple internships in the foreign affairs and political communications sectors, with stints at the U.S. Department of State and the Aspen Institute. Currently, he is writing his masters thesis on the historical development of the EU enlargement process. Elisabeth Friedrich is currently finishing her BSc in International Relations and Organisations at Leiden University in The Hague, where she also holds positions as a research assistant. Her core interests lie in international development, EU Foreign Policy, and political theory, having written her thesis on individual-level support for illiberalism in contemporary democracies. Prior to her studies, she worked on a social enterprise project for an NGO in Dilijan, Armenia.