A frozen conflict between two former Soviet states, Azerbaijan and Armenia, flared up unexpectedly last week in the Caucasus. The potential for a major clash remains high.

Caucasus
An Armenian serviceman of the self-defense army of Nagorno-Karabakh launches artillery toward Azeri forces in the town of Martakert in Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is controlled by separatist Armenians, 3 April 2016. (REUTERS/Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure)

By Rashad Mammadov

Forgotten by most outsiders for the past 22 years, a frozen conflict between two former Soviet states, Azerbaijan and Armenia, flared up unexpectedly last week in the volatile Caucasus.

At least 30 military and several civilians lost their lives and hundreds were wounded before a ceasefire was declared.

Still, the potential for a major clash in the southern Caucasus region remains high.

Caucasus Region (Wikimedia Commons/Jeroencommons)
Caucasus Region (Wikimedia Commons/Jeroencommons)

The fighting took place in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave inside Azerbaijan that was seized by Armenia after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Up to 30,000 people were killed in three years of fighting then, and about 800,000 Azeris were driven from their homes. Some 230,000 Armenians were displaced.

The war ended with a truce that was brokered by Russia in May 1994, but it did not include a peace-keeping force, and tensions have remained high since, with sporadic ceasefire violations. Refugees have not been allowed to return home.

The truce left Armenia in control of about 20 percent of Azeri territory — not just the 11,460 square kilometers of Nagorno-Karabakh (an area about half the size of New Jersey), but also several surrounding districts.

Azerbaijan has international law on its side.

Azerbaijan and Armenia — together with their northern neighbor Georgia — make up the South Caucasus, a mountainous land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

Culturally and ethnically diverse, with deep historical roots, the Caucasus is where Russia, Iran and Turkey meet. Keep in mind that for most of the 19th century, the three powers jockeyed for dominance of the region. “Of all the regions of the world, this one is among the most potentially explosive,” Statfor global intelligence group wrote in 2010.

For at least the last hundred years, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh has been predominantly Armenian.

Nagorno-Karabakh (Wikimedia Commons, Clevelander)
Nagorno-Karabakh
(Wikimedia Commons/Clevelander)

But, while the two sides disagree about when and why the Armenians arrived there, international law is firmly behind Azerbaijan’s claim to the territory.

Armenia has ignored four resolutions of the UN Security Council calling for the immediate withdrawal of its forces and similar statements from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Parliament.

In December 2008, the enclave held a referendum and proclaimed the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, but Azerbaijan declared the vote illegal because the Azeri population in the region was not allowed to vote. The state has not been recognized by any UN member country.

Armenia was criticized in January this year by the Council of Europe for depriving several parts of Azerbaijan of water from the Sarsang reservoir, the largest body of water in the enclave.

Russia is key to resolving the conflict.

Both countries have been increasing military spending, but here Azerbaijan has a strong advantage, thanks to its oil revenues. Azerbaijan’s military budget alone exceeds the entire Armenian government budget. The increase in spending adds to pressure from the Azeri people to recapture the lost territories.

The key to resolving the conflict is Russia.

Many Azeris believe that the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, played on the dreams of Armenians to expand their lands at the expense of their neighbors.

It is also a common belief that it was mainly Russian troops who defeated the Azerbaijan army in the Karabakh War that ended in 1994.

Armenia is a member of the military alliance sometimes called the “Russian NATO” — the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which also includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Like Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, CSTO’s constitution says that an attack on one of its countries would automatically mean a declaration of war on all CSTO members.

Armenians feel betrayed by their allies.

This is of little comfort to Armenia, however, because its CSTO allies are not enthusiastic about getting involved in a dispute unless they have a strong international legal case.

The day after the latest clashes, President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus called Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and promised his full support. And in Kazakhstan, Internet users went wild with expressions of support for Azerbaijan the very same day.

Kazakhstan, like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is part of the larger “Turkish world” that also includes Azerbaijan.

Still, Russia is the only member whose position matters. Unless Russian President Vladimir Putin openly supports Armenia, the other CSTO members have no interest in the dispute. Even if Russia did get involved, unless Azerbaijan attacked Armenia’s international border, the other members would likely hold back.

For many years, Armenia was informally assured that Russia would not allow the war with Azerbaijan to become active. This favored the status quo. When hostilities did flare up, Russian officials called for the immediate restoration of the cease-fire.

The first meeting of the Russian foreign and defense ministers with the leaders of two countries has been set for April 7. That meeting may show whether Russia remains a passive observer or whether it will side with Armenia.


Rashad Mammadov

Rashad Mammadov is a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Media School, with a research focus on political communication. He holds a master’s degrees in journalism and mass communication. He worked as a reporter and editor for almost a decade in newspapers and magazines covering international politics and media economics.

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