Forgotten Again. Making Sense of the Nagorno Karabakh War
Ilaria Romano 6 November 2020

Over a month has gone by since the beginning of the new military crisis in Nagorno Karabakh, the most serious one in terms of victims, homeless and indiscriminate attacks since the 1994 ceasefire agreement was signed in Bishkek, Kirghizstan, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On September 27th a new and tragic chapter was written in a war fought over a strip of land measuring a little under 5,000 square km that had started in 1991, was suspended three years later and resulted in a frozen conflict that until now has alternated brief attacks with long periods of stalemate along the contact lines manned by both sides.

A legacy of the Soviet Union following its collapse caused by independentist incentives, the region had been annexed to Azerbaijan in 1921 as ordered by Stalin, but at the end of the 1980s had begun to mobilise, demanding unification with Armenia. Instead of following the fate of the new post USSR Azeri Republic, and having instead decided in favour of self-rule, in 1988 the then Soviet Karabakh voted a motion for secession that was followed by protests and massacres of the other minority with mass deportations on both sides. In 1991 Karabakh proclaimed its independence as a republic, but was never recognised as a state by any nations belonging to the international community, including Armenia.

That first ceasefire was followed by many others after as many violations. The most serious ones took place in 2016 during the four-day war from April 2nd to April 5thand ended with yet another fragile ceasefire. Last summer instead, with an escalation that took place between July 12th and 16th, marking a discontinuity with the recent past, for the first time military clashes did not occur along the contact lines but on the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, between the Armenian province of Tavush and the Azeri district of Tovuz, running the risk of activating Yerevan and Baku’s military alliances established respectively with Russia and Turkey.

Since 1992 the body that should contribute to resolving this conflict and encourage mediation between Azeris and Armenians is the Minsk Group, created within OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and led by a co-presidency formed by Russia, France and the United States, with representatives from Byelorussia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, The Netherlands, Finland and Turkey as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan. During the past three decades, however, its diplomatic work does not appear to have been significantly effective.

 

Moscow avenues

The role played by Russia, in particular, is complex and multiform; while as the country leading the Minsk Group it has effectively played the role of the acknowledged mediator at least in the ceasefire statements of 2016 and before that in 1994, in direct bilateral relations with Yerevan it is the only reliable ally in the region capable of protecting little Armenia also in the military sense, thereby avoiding its political isolation. Yerevan joined the Eurasian Union in 2014 strengthening the bond and Moscow is now Armenia’s top trade partner for both imports and exports, as well as having guaranteed a series of loans aimed at relaunching the economy in exchange for Russia’s exclusive rights to energy supplies. Cooperation also involves the security sector, which has grown together with instability in the Karabakh region. In 2016 Moscow and Yerevan signed a military agreement on the creation of a common air defence system, a shared command centre for supervising the skies of the southern Caucasus and that works in a unified manner in the event of an attack.

Economic relations with Azerbaijan are marked by a conflict of interest in the energy sector, because, starting in 2006 when the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was built, the Azeris managed to transport their oil to the Mediterranean basin as required by the European Union’s desire to diversify supplies and have alternatives to Russia. Furthermore, with the exploitation of the largest natural gas field in Shah Deniz, Baku decided to stop buying Russian gas as it was no longer needed, becoming in turn one of the most important producers in the area. When Russian definitively gave up its plans for the South Stream project that would have transported Moscow’s gas to Europe through the Black Sea and the Balkans, Azerbaijan took part in the creation of its own southern gas corridor currently under construction, which, through the Tanap and Tap gas pipelines, will carry its gas all the way to Italy.

Energy competition has not affected cooperation in the field of security. According to data for 2019 published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Azerbaijan imports from Russia 31% of all the weapons it buys and with which it is also fighting the Armenians in Karabakh, Armenians who have in turn over the past five years bought 94% of their military equipment from Moscow.

 

Turkish factor

On the Turkish front, Ankara and Baku are also historically linked for cultural reasons. Turkey was the first in 1991 to recognise Azeri independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, and is now the main export channel for Azeri oil and gas as well as having signed over one hundred military agreements with Baku. Since 1993, Turkey has closed its borders with Armenia as a mark of solidarity with Azerbaijan as far as the Nagorno Karabakh issue is concerned and, since then, relations with Yerevan have been greatly limited in spite of attempts to establish a dialogue that resulted in the 2009 Zurich Protocols, envisioning the beginning of a peace process for the Karabakh region that was immediately met with great reservations.

The main and oldest element of conflict between Ankara and Yerevan remains the historical memory of the genocide of Armenians carried out by the Ottomans between 1915 and 1921 and Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge it, as well as claims over Turkey’s eastern regions originally inhabited by Armenians and still now considered part of what was once “Greater Armenia”.

At the beginning of 2020, within the context of the shared calamity caused by the pandemic, the possibility of dialogue seemed possible when a number of Armenian citizens residing in Turkey asked to return to their homeland, and the patriarch of the Armenian Church in Istanbul had spoken directly to Turkey’s President Erdoğan to agree on this move for 73 people. This extremely important occasion for two countries that have had no diplomatic relations for almost thirty years was instantly tainted by a series of controversies concerning the shipping of anti-Covid PPE from China to Armenia, accompanied by a message in which Mount Arafat was allegedly mentioned.

Compared to Russia, which officially remans the mediator in this war, Turkey is making known its presence directly on the ground amidst Azeri military operations, using equipment such as F16s and Bayraktar TB2s, which are weaponised drones flown from afar, as well as sending fighters coming from Syria and previously deployed by those opposing Assad’s regime, then to Libya and now moved to the Caucasus.

 

No need to fight

It therefore seems to be an oversimplification to speak of Turkey and Russia only in terms of opposing alliances siding with two parties in conflict, also because the two nations have found themselves looking in the same direction albeit from different points of view in other hot regions. It is sufficient to think of their shared interests in Syria, in particular in the Idlib area, where the groups opposed to the regime and expelled from the rest of the country are now concentrated; and then there is Libya which in the past year has become part of Moscow’s agenda just as it is part of Ankara’s.

Russia is closer to the faction led by General Haftar, but also stays in touch with Tripoli through contracts signed by various energy companies with the Libyan oil company. In November 2019, Turkey signed an agreement with the prime minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord, Al-Sarraj, to outline exclusive economic areas and cooperation in the field of security. Both countries also cooperate on trade and, together with China, Russia is Turkey’s main economic partner. In 2019 trade exchanges amounted to over US$ 23 billion.

With the many constantly violated ceasefires, there are also more international interests emerging in the Caucasus conflict than a will to stop this war. According to United Nations data, of the almost 150,000 inhabitants of the Karabakh region over 130,000 were evacuated during the past month and will very probably never be able to return home should the balance change. Then there are the victims, civilians too, attacked in Stephanakert, capital of the self-proclaimed republic, in Shushi, Martakert as well as in Ganja, in Azeri territory. These are people who risk vanishing forever from this world due to yet another ethnic cleansing operation as already suffered in the past by Armenians and Azeris.

 

Writings on the wall

The evolution of the situation in Karabakh was summarised by the Azeri President Aliyev who, ten days after the conflict resumed, stated that he would only take a seat at the negotiating table if Armenia immediately gave up five of the seven Azeri districts (Agdam, Fizuli, Jibrail, Zangelan and Gubadli) occupied between 1992 and 1994, and allowed the return of evacuees of the times, acknowledging de facto the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan as stated in the 1993 UN Resolutions.

On the opposite front, the Armenians fear that withdrawal would involve the definitive evacuation of all current inhabitants and a weakening of their already difficult position. In the meantime, the Azeris advance continues especially around two key locations: the Lachin corridor, the communications route between the Karabakh region and Armenia, and Shushi, a strategic city because it is situated just a few kilometres from Stephanakert and stands at an altitude of over 1,500 metres in the Karabakh mountains. Having retaken these territories with military force, the Azeris may also decide to negotiate, this time from a position of power, in the absence, to their advantage, of a balance that has for years kept the conflict “frozen”.

It seems unlikely that Russia will take open action in favour of the Armenians, not only because of relations and interests previously mentioned, but also because entering territories that according to UN Resolutions has never been acknowledged as an independent state would spark a wide-ranging chain reaction, as well as being in open conflict with the work done by the Minsk Group, albeit without significant results.

 

Cover Photo: Reservists undergoing a military training before leaving for the frontline in Nagorno-Karabakh – Armenia’s Armavir region, October 27, 2020 (Karen MINASYAN / AFP)


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