A conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is heating up as the war in Ukraine prompts geopolitical realignments, with implications for outside powers including the West and Russia.
Azerbaijani soldiers carry portraits of soldiers killed during fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Baku, Azerbaijan, 27 September 2021. (AP Photo/Aziz Karimov)
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the earthquake that has triggered geopolitical realignments around the world, the South Caucasus nation of Armenia may be suffering one of the aftershocks.
The country of nearly three million is again slipping into the international spotlight since the Ukraine war erupted in February. Its traditional alignment with Moscow appears to be cooling, and a long-running conflict with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region is flaring, with three killed in a skirmish early this month.
Armenia is facing economic challenges, including record inflation and lingering post-COVID problems, compounded by political troubles.
Between April and June, there were protests over Armenia’s loss of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war to Azerbaijan and demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan related to the terms of the peace. They echoed earlier demonstrations blaming him for Armenia’s defeat in the 44-day conflict.
It is easy to pay little attention or to even ignore regional conflicts, but they can hold the key to understanding larger political currents in the world. Often, small nations become proxies for competition among stronger powers.
In the post-Ukraine world, alignments are moving quickly. Events in Armenia can tell us a lot about how the West, Russia, Turkey and Iran will act in this new geopolitical landscape.
Both Europe and Russia have stakes in the region.
While bubbling hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh are regional in nature, the stakes for U.S.-aligned European nations and Russia are global.
Europe needs more energy since it must replace its reliance on Russian natural gas, which Moscow has been more than willing to withhold for political leverage. In July, the European Union proposed a natural gas deal with Azerbaijan.
Russia, meanwhile, needs all the support it can get from other nations. Armenia, which is sometimes described as a hostage of Moscow, is wary that Azerbaijan may take advantage of the fact that all eyes are on Ukraine to press its conflict with neighboring Armenia again.
It will be instructive to see what Turkey — a NATO nation often seen as attempting to reassert its Ottoman Empire influence in the Muslim world — and Iran do.
Another nation to watch is Israel, which has been closely aligned with Azerbaijan since the Soviet Union collapsed. Israel shares military technology with Azerbaijan, in return for what amounts to about 40% of Israel’s oil supply. With its ties to Azerbaijan, Israel has a good perch from which to watch Iran, especially since part of the territory disputed in Nagorno-Karabakh borders Iran.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a little more than a year had passed since the declaration of a Moscow-brokered ceasefire in the second war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The 44-day conflict killed 6,000 and saw Azerbaijan, with state-of-the-art weaponry paid for by its oil wealth and the help of Turkey and Syrian mercenaries, defeat Armenian forces.
Armenia, Azerbaijan have disputed Nagorno-Karabakh for over three decades.
At issue is a long-running dispute in which the majority-ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh claimed territory inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders as its own, leading to the first Nagorno-Karabakh war from 1988-1994.
Despite nearly 30 years of diplomacy by Russia, France and the United States, which brokered that ceasefire under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, there has been no lasting solution.
The still-brewing hostilities — and Armenia’s difficult choices — are emblematic of its centuries-long history of being thrashed around by competing empires.
Armenia’s ancient cultural history as a kingdom and the first nation to adopt Christianity underpins fierce ethno-national pride and a strong diaspora. But its history is scarred by memories of a World War One genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. In the modern era, the perpetrator is the antagonist on Armenia’s Western border, NATO member Turkey.
Bounded by Iran to the south, Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east, Armenia’s geographic location has put it, by turns, at the mercy of the Persian, Russian and Ottoman empires.
Those same factors manifested themselves after the Soviet Union collapsed. A client state of Moscow then and for decades after, Armenia has remained part of Russia-led regional organizations and has been a reliable diplomatic ally at the United Nations. Russia is Armenia’s largest trading partner and officially guards its borders and airspace.
Armenia’s silence over the war in Ukraine speaks volumes.
What does Ukraine have to do with all of this?
When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Armenia backed Moscow publicly and did not cooperate with the EU’s diplomatic efforts. Now, Armenia’s silence over the current war in Ukraine speaks volumes. It abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote demanding Russia withdraw from Ukraine, and from a Human Rights Commission vote to begin an urgent debate on a Ukraine war crimes inquiry.
While Europe has raced to recalibrate its relationships following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Armenia’s peace talks have become another arena for the post-Ukraine geopolitical realignment. Although Russian peacekeepers are on the ground enforcing the ceasefire, France has taken a much more public and active role in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, to Moscow’s frustration.
For some Armenians frustrated with the status quo and Russia’s apparent indifference to the last Nagorno-Karabakh war, it is time to look for different alliances, especially with the strong possibility that the sanctions on Russia will hurt the Armenian economy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s March phone call with Pashinyan included a barely veiled threat that if Armenia did not comply with sanctions against Russia, it would face Washington’s wrath: “The Secretary highlighted the U.S. commitment, alongside other partners, to continue to hold Moscow and its supporters, including the Lukashenka regime in Belarus, accountable for the Kremlin’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine.”
So, Armenia now faces:
- the national security threat that would arise if Moscow pulled its troops out of Nagorno-Karabakh,
- fallout from sanctions against Russia that will ripple through its economy,
- potential punishment if it does not cooperate with U.S.-led sanctions,
- high-stakes talks with Turkey to normalize relations,
- and pressure from Russia and the West to pick a side.
“We only have two choices here. North or West,” a businessman friend of mine recently told me by phone from Armenia, referring to Russia and the U.S.-European alliance.
“We need the West. If the West wants us, we can do something about it,” he said, referring to calls in some Armenian political quarters for new elections. The West has been silent on the matter, but its default position toward elections is, by and large, to follow the laws of the country in question.
Whether or not there are elections, Armenia will have to walk a fine line as the geopolitical forces around it shift. That is often the story for nations, like Armenia, whose history and geography have been both uplifting and imprisoning.
Three questions to consider:
- Is Armenia in Europe or Asia?
- What three empires have all had a hand in Armenia’s history?
- How does Armenia typify the challenge that smaller nations often face when more powerful ones are competing for influence?
Bryson Hull is vice president of strategic communications and advisory at the HBW Resources consulting firm. He spent 17 years in journalism, reporting on politics, business and wars in nearly 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and North America. He has also taught journalism and public speaking at Loyola University-Chicago.