“They say that Russia is sulking. Russia is not sulking, she is composing herself” – Alexander Gorchakov, Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire (1856-1882)
The ‘frozen conflict’ between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region reignited in early April when tensions over the contact line escalated into open warfare. The resurgence of hostilities comes at a delicate time, with tensions high due to the crises across the Middle East. But while the conflict seems rooted in the history of the Caucasus, Russia may actually be responsible for instigating the flare-up.
The current strife over Nagorno-Karabakh is the latest episode in a long-running dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the Soviet Union captured the Caucasus in 1920, Nagorno-Karabakh was given to Azerbaijan as an autonomous region, despite having a majority Armenian population. When the Soviet Union collapsed seven decades later, the two republics fought a bloody war for control of the region. It ended with a ceasefire in 1994 and international recognition of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, but left the region under de facto Armenian control.
As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, the current situation is the result of Armenia occupying 20 per cent of its territory since the 1990s. But for Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh is part of historic Armenia, illegally parcelled off to Azerbaijan by the Soviets. Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population suffered decades of cultural oppression and ethnic cleansing, and when the region declared independence from Azerbaijan, Azeri forces attacked, obliging Armenia to intervene.
The stark differences in perception have thwarted attempts to resolve the conflict. The situation is further complicated by the alignment of support behind each state. Azerbaijan can count on more friends across the region, particularly from fellow Turkic states Kazakhstan and Turkey, while Armenia has created an influential lobby group in the United States and enjoys close military ties with Russia. However, neither of the great powers has been willing to risk their relations with oil-rich Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The conflict began just a day after Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met separately with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Washington in an attempt to revitalise long-stalled negotiations. As both presidents were returning from the U.S. when the first clashes occurred, neither side seemed prepared for the escalation of hostilities. This raises the question, was this conflict an accident, or was it orchestrated by an outside power?
Russia’s newly activist foreign policy has generated much commentary. The Kremlin’s decision to annex Crimea and support the insurgency in eastern Ukraine caught the West off-guard. The sudden intervention of Russian forces in the Syrian civil war was similarly unexpected. In light of these actions, it is not impossible to imagine the Kremlin paid off an Azeri or Nagorno-Karabakh commander to provoke hostilities, a risk reportedly feared by locals.
Russia has much to gain from a crisis in the Caucasus. The region is a bottleneck for liquefied natural gas and oil exports to Turkey and Europe, and extended conflict could raise prices for these commodities. Given Russia is currently experiencing a financial crisis because of its reliance on energy exports, any increase in prices would be welcomed.
Russian-Turkish relations collapsed in 2015 when Turkish forces downed a Russian military plane, an action President Vladimir Putin described as “an enemy act” and “a stab in the back”. Turkey’s resources are already strained by the Syrian civil war, a renewed Kurdish insurgency, and the migrant crisis. Putin is not above stretching Ankara’s forces further in revenge for the death of its pilot by inflaming a conflict on Turkey’s eastern border, particularly if Armenia - with which Turkey has historical enmity - is victorious. It would also place pressure on NATO’s commitment to the region, and possibly rattle the European Union by exacerbating the migrant crisis.
If the conflict continues to escalate, Moscow can act as a peacemaker and press its own interests in negotiations. Indeed, in the first days of the confrontation, it was Russia that swept in to broker a deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan, reaffirming its dominance in its ‘near abroad’ while the US dithered. Although the ceasefire is still being violated, this demonstration of commitment to regional stability was a diplomatic victory for Putin. Russia also has the option to intervene militarily at Armenia’s request, which would dramatically alter the regional power balance. Such action would not be without cost, but as the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and ongoing conflict in Ukraine show, Russia is willing to pay a high price to secure its national interests.
The events in the Caucasus could be a cyclic escalation of one of many ‘frozen conflicts’ in the former Soviet Union, and may be devoid of the Kremlin’s influence. But with Russia’s new activist approach to international relations, the line between strategy and happenstance becomes harder to discern. The world should not overlook this conflict, because if Russia is indeed ‘composing herself’, the clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh may be a chord in a much larger symphony.
William Baulch is an International Relations and International Security Studies graduate from the Australian National University.
Image credit: ogannes (Flickr: Creative Commons)