The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict is hardly new, the degree of the current escalation certainly is. Turkey’s active involvement in the conflict — in consonance with its aggressive foreign policy — is fueling the fire, making the expansion of the conflict beyond Nagorno-Karabakh more and more likely.
The current Azerbaijan-Armenia armed conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which straddles western Asia and Eastern Europe, is rooted in the long-standing conflict between the two countries that has continued to threaten peace in the region since the late 1980s. In 1994, a Russia-mediated ceasefire brought some peace, but the conflict was far from over because by that time the Nagorno-Karabakh region had pretty much slipped into the hands of Armenian separatists, who have already declared it a sovereign republic called the “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast”, which is not recognized by any country in the world as a sovereign entity. The region, therefore, continues to be a part of Azerbaijan under the International Law.
The current conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is rooted in the long-standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the late 1980s.
Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Background In Brief
The region under the control of the separatist Armenians spans about 4,400 sq km and is some 50 km from Armenia, which support the separatists to the extent that the Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, declared “Karabakh is Armenia”, which statement seems to hit the peace process hard enough for Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, to say that if the Pashinyan says “that Karabakh is Armenia and that we should negotiate with the so-called puppet regime of Nagorno-Karabakh, [he is] trying to break the format of negotiations that has existed for 20 years.”
In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, and Armenia and Azerbaijan were slated to be independent nations, the Armenian regional parliament voted for the transfer of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The erstwhile USSR declined the Armenian demand, giving birth to a conflict that remains to be conclusively resolved to this day. However, the latest round of armed conflict — compounded by the downing of one of Armenian fighter aircrafts allegedly by a Turkish fighter jet — threatens to spill beyond the area under the control of the separatists, which might get other nations involved with serious implications for the energy security of the European Union. The UN security council has called upon both the nations to stop the fighting and resume talks unconditionally without delay. But the appeal has not been heeded by either of the two nations, or Turkey, for that matter.
The conflict could have serious implications for the energy security of the European Union.
Azerbaijan intends to press on with the military offensive until Armenia withdraws from the region completely, which doesn’t seem to be happening for now even though Armenia’s military assets are substantially weaker than Azerbaijan. Armenia depends heavily on Russia for much of its defense needs. Russia is on good terms with and supplies arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, which explains why Russia is reluctant to take sides in the conflict and is pushing for peace.
Watch: Russia’s aerial combat planes and helicopters in both Azerbaijani and Armenian Arsenals
Though the conflict has been there since as far back as 1988, what makes the current clashes more worrisome and particularly alarming is that there hasn’t been such escalation of conflict since April 2016, and even then martial law had not been declared, whereas now Azerbaijan, Armenia and the “Republic of Nagorno Karabakh” or the “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” have all pressed martial law into force. Emboldened by the unrelenting support of Turkey, Azerbaijan seems determined to use its superior military might to the fullest against not only Armenian separatists, but also Armenia itself, which is a major cause for international alarm.
Russia, on good terms with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, is reluctant to take sides in the conflict and is pushing for peace.
Erdoğan’s Ottoman Ambitions
Although both Turkey and Azerbaijan have denied that Turkey shot any Armenian plane down, it is no secret that Turkey stands by Azerbaijan in any conflict with Armenia owing to its historical and ethnocultural ties with the former. Furthermore, supporting Azerbaijan fits into Erdoğan’s aspirations of uniting the Islamic nations and reviving the Ottoman Empire, or a version that stands closest in resemblance to the empire under the ninth Ottoman sultan, Salim I (1467 – 1520). Salim 1 transformed the Ottoman empire from a regional force to a global colossus with the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean under its control. While Erdoğan’s vision of a global Islamic empire may not have many takers within the Islamic world, or even within Turkey, it does lend credibility to the Armenian accusation that Turkey, to put it in Pashinyan’s words, “looks for an excuse for a broader involvement in this conflict.”
Azerbaijan fits into Erdoğan’s aspirations of uniting the Islamic nations and reviving the Ottoman Empire, or a version that stands closest in resemblance to it.
Unlike Russia, Turkey has a clear-cut position on the Azerbaijan-Armenia tussle: It wholeheartedly supports Azerbaijan and is acutely opposed to Armenia, for with the former it has deep-rooted cultural and historical relations, as the Azeris have Turkic ethnicity with substantial linguistic affiliation (Azerbaijani or Azeri being of Turkic linguistic family), while it has had bitter relations with the latter since the 1990s, when it shut its borders on Armenia and has had no diplomatic ties with it since. Turkey and Armenia remain opposed to each other because Turkey refuses to acknowledge Armenian genocide of 1915 in which around 1.5 million were slain by the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, which Erdoğan aspires to revive to whatever extent and in whichever form it can be in the present day world.
There have also been reports that Turkey has started enlisting and sending in Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan against Armenia, which is pretty much in line with Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy to bring territories formerly under the erstwhile Ottoman Empire under its influence by expanding its military presence. Turkey has upped its military spending from 1.8% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015 to 2.5% of the GDP in 2018 despite a weakening economy, and has extended its military presence to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan in addition to Azerbaijan. In recent times, be it North Africa, East Mediterranean or West Asia, Turkey has either actively entered conflicts on one side or the other, or has escalated them in some way, which is pretty much what it is now doing in Azerbaijan as well.
In addition to Azerbaijan, Turkey has either actively entered conflicts on one side or the other in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Qatar and Afghanistan.
Disaster In the Making?
The autonomy of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as its security against Azerbaijani onslaught depends upon Armenian military support, which largely depends upon Russian support. And so far, Russian backing for the Armenian cause in Nagorno-Karabakh doesn’t seem quite as committed as Turkey’s support to Azerbaijan.
Russia, backed by the western nations, has been calling for a ceasefire, restoration of peace and resumption of the talks the two nations have continually engaged in since 1994. But with both Azerbaijan and Turkey spoiling for a fight, peace doesn’t seem easy or near, particularly with Armenia ratcheting up the offensive. This leaves the parties with little intent to back down and instead furthers justification to continue engaging militarily rather than giving diplomacy a chance. Besides, Russia, which is for now trying to broker peace, may be drawn into the war on the Armenian side, in accordance with the Russia-Armenia military pact of 2010, and Russian involvement with Turkey on the other side could easily make the war in the Caucasus turn into a veritable disaster.