The Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict
Written by Marren Haneberg
Nagorno-Karabakh in 2019
At a January 16 meeting in Paris about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to “prepare their populations for peace” and discuss economic cooperation (Kucera 2019). This agreement hints at possibility for an eventual resolution to this decades-old conflict. Resolution could change the power dynamic in the region.
The Nagorno-Karabakh situation poses as a sparkpoint for violence making resolution important. Resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will require a long peace process. The conflict is embedded in a long history of tension between Christian Armenian and Muslim Azerbaijani influences (“Nagorno-Karabakh Profile”). In the 1920s, the Soviet Union established the territory, which has a 95% Armenian population, as autonomous (“Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict”).
After Soviet control over the region collapsed in 1991, fighting broke out, taking 30,000 lives and making hundreds of thousands of refugees (“Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict”). In 1994, Russia mediated a cease-fire between the two countries. Under this cease-fire, the conflict remained frozen until April 2016 when a four-day war broke out. Permanent resolution efforts led by the United States, France, and Russia have failed and the territory remains a major conflict point between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In January 2019, both countries had 20,000 troops stationed on the border (“Thomas de Waal…”).
Azerbaijan and Armenia have had recent political changes which could make resolution possible (“Thomas de Waal…”). After a series of 2018 protests called the Velvet Revolution, Armenians elected a new prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, to replace longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan (Grigoryan, Kucera 2018). After Pashinyan’s election, Armenians began protesting the Nagorno-Karabakh situation. Given the bottom-up nature of Pashinyan’s election, the protests could influence Armenian officials to make policy changes, though the last leader to mke large changes, Levon Ter Petrosyan, was consequently deposed in 1998 (“Thomas de Waal…”).
Following Armenian and Russian elections, Azerbaijan held snap presidential elections in March 2018. The winners were relatively young compared to officials they replaced, though the change is considered a “rejuvenation” of the elites rather than a revolutionary political shift (Rahimov).
In recent months, Azerbaijan has shown signs of thawing its Nagorno-Karabakh policy. It replaced some army units with border troops on its official border with Armenia. With a policy of “strategic patience” towards Armenia’s new leadership, Azerbaijan appears open to finding resolution. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev demonstrated this attitude in December 2018 when he tweeted that “the only way for the new Armenian leadership to carry out all their plans on transforming the country is to resolve the conflict with Azerbaijan” (Gurbanov).
Russian Arms Supplies
By supplying both sides with arms, Russia controls the conflict’s balance of power. Supplying both sides also prevents another power, such as Turkey or Iran, from stepping into the conflict and tipping the balance of power (Avdaliani). Its high influence level put Russia in a position to mediate an agreement between the two countries. On January 16, Azerbaijani ambassador to Russia, Polad Bülbüloğlu, called for a resolution to the conflict and called on Russia to make “maximum intermediary efforts so that the occupation policy be stopped” (“Azerbaijan ambassador relies…”). Russia’s interest in resolving the conflict, however, depends on its ability to maintain influence in both countries, especially as it has already lost influence over the other South Caucasus country, Georgia.
How Resolution Would Affect the United States
If the conflict is resolved, Azerbaijan will be able to increase production and supply Europe by expanding the Ganja Gap oil pipeline. Supplying Europe will decrease the continent’s dependence on Russian energy and improve the United States’ ability to impose sanctions on Russian behavior in issues such as the war in East Ukraine (Coffey and Nifti).
With recent political changes, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is heading in the direction of peace, but this peace could provoke Russia. Resolution of the conflict will decrease Russia’s sway in the region. If Russia follows its pattern of past behavior, it will retaliate through other channels to hold both countries in its sphere of influence. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea after Ukraine elected a Western-leaning government in 2014 and threatened to increase oil prices in Belarus after it “flirted too forcefully with the European Union” in 2017 (Tamkin). One possibility would be economic sabotage in Armenia. Over the past decade, Russia has increased its economic presence in the country by buying up Armenian energy and communication resources and could exploit this economic control (Avdaliani). Russia might have more difficulty exploiting Azerbaijan, as the country is rich in energy resources and has not been receptive to Russian soft power campaigns (Shiriyev).
Resolution will need to come through a long process and could provoke Russia. However, recent political changes in Armenia and Azerbaijan increase the chance for peace between the two countries. Already, both sides have made promising progress. There have been no ceasefire violations in recent months. Both sides also implemented “formal communications channels to prevent future armed incidents” (Rahimov). Overall, Nagorno-Karabakh is heading in a direction making resolution more possible than it has been for decades.
Image 1: Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. Armenia and Azerbaijan have disputed the territory, which is majority Armenian, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Source: University of Kent.