Why the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict Matters: A Primer

Last weekend sustained fighting erupted in the Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been occupied by Armenia for more than 20 years, and has been the site of a low-intensity conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia for that entire period. By the time the weekend was over, at least three dozen were dead, with both sides laying the blame on the other. Artillery strikes and helicopter sorties marked what many fear is a renewal of a long-frozen conflict in the ashes of the Soviet Union.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin were the most prominent voices calling for the fighting to stop over the weekend. Azerbaijan declared a unilateral truce on Sunday, which Armenian forces ignored. After international pressure to end the fighting increased, on Tuesday, Armenia eventually agreed to the truce. It appears that the fighting is over, for now, and diplomats from across the world are headed to the region to mediate.

The fighting came fresh on the heels of President Obama’s nuclear summit in Washington, where Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had traveled to take part. Speaking on the eve of what would be the bloodiest day along the conflict line in years, Obama praised Azerbaijan for its efforts to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons in the world, and highlighted the strategic importance of cooperation with  Azerbaijan, which is wedged between Russia to the north and Iran to the south.

It was just after Obama’s remarks last week that the shooting began. To understand the geopolitical danger this conflict poses, and why Russia and Turkey are trading barbs as well, it’s a good idea to learn the history and the current status of the conflict. Accordingly, here is a primer.

NAGORNO-KARABAKH IS ONE OF THE LAST REMAINING FROZEN CONFLICTS

As the Soviet Union disintegrated, old territorial and ethnic grudges came to the fore. In 1988, Armenians in the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh announced their secession and plan to unite with Armenia. Within a short amount of time, Armenia, with breakaway Russian army forces, was fighting Azerbaijan in the province. After United Nations resolutions calling on Armenia to withdraw and the fighting to end, a ceasefire was announced in 1994, by which time Armenian forces had occupied both Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani provinces.

Russia and France – eventually joined by the United States – formed a conflict resolution body under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Twenty-two years later, the OSCE Minsk group has not moved the two sides to any sort of resolution.

RUSSIAN-SPONSORED ARMENIA SUPPORTS THE SEPARATISTS DESPITE CONDEMNATION BY THE UNITED NATIONS AND OTHER CROSS-NATIONAL GROUPS

Under international law, at the end of an armed conflict, the two combatants are to return to their internationally-recognized borders. Armenia is still an occupying force inside Azerbaijan today, two decades and more later. Unsurprisingly, ending the conflict in the region has been a frequent topic for international bodies. The United Nations General Assembly has passed multiple resolutions, including one in 2008, calling on Armenian forces to withdraw from the area. Other international bodies, including the European Parliament and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have passed similar resolutions. Most recently, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution this year calling on Armenian forces to cease occupying Nagorno-Karabakh.

International media have begun stressing this as well, with the BBC and Al-Jazeera, among others, referring to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding provinces as “occupied territory,” and stressing the multiple resolutions by the U.N. and other international bodies calling on Armenia to withdraw.

THE CONFLICT CONTINUES BECAUSE OF RUSSIAN ACTIONS

It is hard to overstate Moscow’s role in the conflict. It is nominally a good-faith mediator in the OSCE Minsk process, but it is Armenia’s leading supplier of arms and materiel – the stalemate in the peace process is no coincidence. It strong-armed Yerevan into joining its Eurasian Economic Union a few years ago, which precludes the country from joining the European Union in the foreseeable future. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has charted an expansionary course, not so much grabbing territory as reminding its client states that Moscow is still a power in its own right. Its annexation of Crimea and undeclared war in Ukraine were merely the preface to muscle-flexing to all of its former satellite states. Its control over Armenia is significant; it can potentially threaten Baku, whose natural gas and oil supplies make it a natural competitor to Moscow’s primary source of income. When the fighting started this weekend, Russia demanded both sides cease immediately, acting outside of the OSCE Minsk process.

Armenia’s position as a Russian ally and proxy makes this conflict even more intractable. When Armenia acts, Azerbaijan knows that Moscow at the very least approves. In this light, Azerbaijan’s close linguistic, religious, and cultural ties to Turkey led Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan to declare solidarity with Baku. With increased tensions between Moscow and Ankara in Syria, this suggests that if the conflict resumes, it is likely to escalate as Putin seeks to assert Moscow’s superiority in the region and in Syria.

THE START OF THE WEEKEND’S FIGHTING IS MURKY

The instigator of the current violence is, as usual, unclear; both sides claim that the other took the first shot. Baku claims that Armenia touched off the hostilities with shelling and small arms fire and killed Azerbaijan soldiers; Yerevan claims that Azerbaijan launched a full-scale invasion that was repulsed. However, past violence along the contact line – the space where the two armies face each other – has consistently followed a pattern of smaller engagement: a few shots here, an artillery round there, and so on. Furthermore, years of energy wealth allowed Azerbaijan to significantly upgrade its military capacity, something that Armenia, with its troubled economy, has been unable to do. Finally, the full mobilization Armenia describes would have left many more dead and wounded. These details, coupled with Aliyev’s absence from the country at the time, make Armenia’s responsibility for the initial provocation more likely.

What is clear is that Azerbaijan was the first to call for a unilateral cease-fire, something to which Armenia later agreed only as international pressure mounted.

WHY THE FIGHTING IN NAGORNO-KARABAKH MATTERS

Azerbaijan has been, for years, the West’s strategic lynchpin in the region. A majority Shi’i country with a tendency to Quietism and moderation, Azerbaijan has been allied with the United States and Israel for decades in the fight against terrorism. Even with the thaw in relations between the United States and Iran, the US relies on Azerbaijan as a transit and political ally. At the nuclear summit last week, President Obama praised Baku as “a critical partner” in the process of worldwide and regional nuclear disarmament, especially in helping to eliminate the smuggling of nuclear material – a statement undoubtedly aimed at both Tehran and Moscow.

And that is undoubtedly part of why at least three dozen are dead today. Putin would prefer an Azerbaijan beholden to Russia to placate Armenian sentiment, to expand its sphere of influence, and for economic reasons. Aliyev’s presence at Obama’s nuclear summit, while ostensibly for the laudable goal of nuclear disarmament, was likely seen as further proof of Azerbaijan’s working alliance with Washington. Russia’s foreign minister is headed to Baku, its prime minister to Yerevan, as Putin appoints himself the de facto lead mediator between the two sides. This subtly reminds Azerbaijan of the physical distance between Azerbaijan and the United States on the one hand, and the small barrier of the Caspian Sea — and a relatively small expanse of land — between Russia and Azerbaijan on the other. (When Putin last paid a state visit to Baku, he arrived on a Russian warship. The symbolism was none too subtle.)

The cease-fire may not last, but for the foreseeable future, the occupation of a fifth of Azerbaijan by Armenia will. If Nagorno-Karabakh catches fire, it will damage Azerbaijan as a source of secure energy for Europe and as a strategic U.S. partner in the battle against Isis; it will undermine Washington’s continuing effort to maintain stability and influence in the region; and it will risk drawing in greater powers, worried about yet another Ukraine-like situation. It will also give Putin a freer hand in his backyard, and further undermine the post-Cold War order. That is why the obscure story of an Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani land in the distant Caucusus actually matters.

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