What seems to be a territorial border dispute over a seemingly insignificant piece of mountainous land has serious international implications.
A four-decade old territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted again last week resulting in several hundred casualties on either side. The strife originated in 1988 over Nagorno-Karabakh, situated in the mountainous region of the South Caucasus. Over time, there have been many bitter border skirmishes, several reports of human rights violations and a refugee crisis, all of which have had devastating consequences for the economy of the region. However, the current conflict, being termed in military language as ‘war’ by governments on both sides, appears to be more serious than anything the region has seen in the last 40 years.
The current conflict, being termed as ‘war’ by governments on both sides, appears more serious than anything the region has seen over the last 40 years.
Both Trans-Caucasian republics reported action with tanks, military helicopters and artillery in this rapidly escalating flare up since Sunday 27 September. The escalation follows a tense year – with belligerent rhetoric and clashes in July in the area of the international border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
History of the Conflict
The origin of the conflict can be traced to the early 20th century with the formation of the USSR. The new Soviet Union created well-defined national territorial units among the diverse ethnic populations in its sphere of influence. The strong communist regime, however, did not allow any border disputes to transpire under totalitarian rule. This changed three decades ago with the Soviet collapse.
The origins of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict can be traced back to the early 20th century with the formation of the USSR.
The Azeris claim the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been under their rule throughout known history, while Armenians voted for the region to be transferred to Armenia—a demand turned down by the Soviet authorities. Years of clashes followed between Azerbaijan forces and Armenian separatists. In 1991, Karabakh, a largely Armenian Christian enclave, declared independence from Azerbaijan. A bitter ethnic and territorial dispute has since simmered between the two countries. In 1994, Russia brokered a deal, by which time ethnic Armenians had taken control of the region. They continue to govern it. Azerbaijan still claims the territory while Armenia backs the enclave.
Watch: History of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
Despite the 1994 peace deal, the region has been marked by regular skirmishes. A four-day war broke out between the two sides in 2016. Russia again stepped in to mediate peace. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia and the US, has rather unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a peace agreement between the two countries for several years.
Five reasons why the fresh conflict is a matter of global concern:
What seems to be a territorial border dispute over a seemingly insignificant piece of mountainous land has serious international implications:
1. Russia and Turkey Taking Opposing Sides
The conflict is garnering worldwide attention because of the involvement of regional rivals Turkey and Russia. Russia backs Armenia with a mutual defense agreement that could take effect if the fighting were to spread to Armenia proper. Armenia has reported some shelling on its territory.
Turkey, a NATO member, recently declared unconditional support for Azerbaijan, also a Muslim-majority country. In a strongly-worded statement, the Turkish national security advisor recently condemned Christian-majority Armenia for not resolving the issue through peaceful negotiations. “We believe this conflict can be resolved through peaceful negotiations, but the Armenian side has shown no interest so far,” the statement said. Urging Armenia to “stop violating international law,” the statement added: “We will continue to stand by the people of Azerbaijan and the government of Azerbaijan against any kind of aggression by Armenia or any other country.”
Russia and Turkey also back opposite sides in the civil wars playing out in Syria and Libya. Turkey’s open support for Azerbaijan may be seen as an attempt to counter Russia’s influence in the region.
Turkey’s open support for Azerbaijan may be seen as an attempt to counter Russia’s influence in the region.
2. Martial Law Invoked
The dispute took a nasty turn on the morning of 27 September as both sides inflicted heavy casualties upon each other using big artillery. According to the BBC, “in scale and scope, the fighting that broke out on Sunday surpasses the periodic escalations of recent years, involving heavy artillery, tanks, missiles and drones.” Also, for the first time in history both sides have proclaimed martial law.
For the first time in history both sides have proclaimed martial law.
3. Russia’s stance unclear, contradictory
Moscow supplies arms to both sides and is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group mediating the conflict. Russia also supplies, arms, keeps up trade ties with Turkey and shares several natural gas deals. In fact, the US was angered when Turkey bought antiaircraft missiles from Russia.
Moscow supplies arms to both sides and is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group mediating the conflict.
In a statement released on 28 September, Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, said Russia “has always taken a balanced position” on the matter and has “traditionally good relations” with both countries. He added that Russia is in contact with Turkey regarding the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, reports of Turkish-made drones hitting targets in Nagorno-Karabakh, may change the equation in the region. Speaking over telephone to The New York Times, Dmitry Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said “Trespassing into former Soviet territory with arms is not something Russia will look kindly at. That could cross a red line” not passed before.”
4. International reaction
According to analysts, international mediators, distracted by issues like the pandemic and a popular uprising in Belarus, missed warning signs in the Caucasus conflict.
Over a telephonic interview with NYT, Olesya Vartanyan, a senior analyst of the Caucasus at the International Crisis Group, said “All the signals were in place, everything was telling that escalation was coming. And there was diplomatic silence.”
While most regional and global powers have called for restraint and a quick cease-fire both sides seem to be settling in for a long fight. A meeting of the United Nations Security Council on 29 September affirmed the primary role of the Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia and the United States, of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, in mediating between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Secretary General António Guterres issued a statement urging Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop fighting immediately and “return to meaningful negotiations” under the Minsk Process.
Watch: International Reactions on Azerbaijan-Armenia Conflict
While most regional and global powers have called for restraint and a quick cease-fire both sides seem to be settling in for a long fight.
5. International attention amid pandemic, US elections challenging; energy market to be impacted
Given the timing of the conflict, concentrating significant international attention away from the Covid-19 pandemic and the US elections to renewing diplomacy will prove challenging. Azerbaijan exports the vast majority of its crude oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to an export terminal on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Natural gas exports flow through the South Caucasus pipeline to Georgia and Turkey, and are due to reach EU markets later this year. All three run in parallel through Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is due to begin gas deliveries to Italy and Greece through the line next month, While the proximity of the pipelines to the border puts them at potential risk, Armenia has not attacked the lines during previous escalations in the conflict between the two countries. Furthermore, the pandemic has reduced global energy demand, thus producers the world over should have spare capacity. Yet, a protracted war in the region cannot bode well for overall crude oil supplies internationally.
A long drawn protracted conflict would set off domestic instability and see increased involvement by outside powers, risking a wider regional war.