Conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh Region
Early last month, fighting broke out again in the Nagorno-Karabakh region for the first time in years, when about 30 soldiers lost their lives in a violent skirmish.
This is a reminder that the break-up of the Soviet Union can still be felt in former client states of Russia.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been under a ceasefire agreement – not a truce or peace agreement – since 1994, when the war between the two countries ended after Russia stepped in to negotiate peace. The self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is a region within Azerbaijan, but is populated primarily by ethnic Armenians. As one might expect, it’s a conflict that invokes extremely strong reactions in people on both sides, like a Palestinian-Israeli conflict for the Caucuses. In fact, there are even some parallels to draw, in that Armenians are predominantly Christian, and Azerbaijanis are mostly Shia Muslim.
This is not the only troubled region in the area—much of the Caucasus region continues to have difficulties with breakaway states like South Ossetia and Azkhaba in Georgia. Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008 when they came to the aid of separatists. They eventually won, and the separatists now have control over their respective contested areas.
Why is there so much fighting all the time in this area? I haven’t even mentioned Chechnya yet, which is just north of the Caucasian mountains.
I would argue that it comes down to Russia. This is a country whose history, if read like a poem, would have a constant chorus of “and then we were invaded.” This is because the core industrial and farming areas of Russia are concentrated near Moscow, St. Petersburg, and much of the area in the West. A destabilized Caucasus region isn’t bad for Russia because it keeps them from getting too strong or united to oppose Russian influence. In fact, Russia at one time sold weapons to both sides in the Azerbaijan-Armenian war.
Today, the situation is still confusing. Russia currently has 5,000 troops stationed in Armenia, and extended a $200-million loan to the country for the purpose of buying discounted weapons. Russia has also sold $4-billion worth of artillery, helicopters and tanks to Azerbaijan between 2009 and 2011.
Peace talks have been attempted many times, usually mediated by Russia, France and the United States in cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It’s difficult for both sides to come to an agreement, politically speaking, Nagorno-Karabakh is a nationalist issue on both sides, and either country accepting less than ideal is subject to any angry voter base.
It also needs to be said that a pipeline built between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan would damage Russia’s already awkward oil and gas situation. Should a pipeline across the Caspian Sea be constructed, it would eliminate the need for Central Asian countries to move their product through Russia to deliver to the European market. It’s no secret that Russia vehemently opposes this pipeline idea.
It’s for this reason that Russia has had slightly more preference to Baku over the last several years. Azerbaijan likes getting assistance from Russia, so it’s in their interest not to make such a move. However, Russia still helps out Armenia from time to time, using these minor dealing as leverage against Azerbaijan.
However, it would be unfair to characterize Russia as the engineer of the conflict, they actually have less influence here than in the Ukraine. Much of the conflict can be blamed on both sides, as Armenia and Azerbaijan have been stoking their own flames with propaganda.
Regardless, a full scale war would be bad. Last time both countries fought in the 1990s, 20,000 people were killed, and over a million people were left homeless. Now, both sides have substantially more advanced weaponry, and both Russia and Turkey (via their relationship with Baku) have interests.