The Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute: A Case of Contested Sovereignty and Geopolitical Rivalry

The century-old dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh has experienced over the last three decades constant turmoil as Armenia and Azerbaijan jostle over the enclave. In recent years, the geopolitical and military balance has swayed overwhelmingly in favor of Azerbaijan. While Baku and Yerevan accused each other of breaking a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreed in 2020, an increasingly assertive Azerbaijan initiated several military offensives in 2022, leading to an extended blockade of the enclave that created a dire humanitarian crisis. More recently, Azerbaijani forces launched an assault on Nagorno-Karabakh in what Baku called an anti-terrorist operation, determined to end its secessionist aspirations and formally (and forcefully) integrate the region into Azerbaijan. 

The situation is brittle: the enclave’s security forces have surrendered and disbanded; its independent political structure soon to be dismantled. A fragile ceasefire, again brokered by Russia, remains in place. The future of the enclave, home to some 120,000 ethnic Armenians, is uncertain. Fearing retribution, a swelling exodus of refugees has fled Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia through the Lachin Corridor that links both territories. A centuries-old community is abandoning its ancestral homeland, most probably for good.

The dispute is one of several so-called frozen conflicts that linger since the Soviet Union abruptly collapsed in 1991. Nagorno-Karabakh represents a complex and unresolved case of contested sovereignty. But the latest developments should not only be viewed as the denouement of the deep-rooted territorial feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They also reveal a weakened Russian presence that is altering the regional geopolitical order. 

The Transcaucasian cauldron

Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are located in Transcaucasia, a region of geostrategic importance as the crossroads between Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, and a place where Russian, Turkish and Iranian interests converge. That is why what happens there resonates beyond its borders. Rich in natural resources, Transcaucasia has a long history of ethnic rivalries and arbitrarily imposed borders. This fateful combination has spawned a series of territorial claims in recent decades, some of them leading to war.

Nagorno-Karabakh shares similar historical experiences with other disputed territories in Russia’s “near abroad”, including having been an autonomous enclave within a Soviet republic that is ethnically, culturally -and in this case also religiously- alien. During the Soviet era, Nagorno-Karabakh, 95% of whose population was until now Christian Armenian, ended up being part of the Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic, ethnic Azeri and Muslim. The recurring ethnic frictions between the two communities intensified as the Soviet federation disintegrated. 

When Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1991, a bloody war broke out between neighboring Armenia (which came to the aid of the beleaguered enclave, with whom it shares close ethnic and religious ties) and Azerbaijan. The conflict left tens of thousands dead and more than a million refugees, with both sides resorting to ethnic cleansing to consolidate territories. Since then, the border between the two countries has been one of the most militarized in the world. Armenia won that war with the support of Russia and took control of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as seven adjacent Azeri districts. Shortly after, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh -also known to Armenians as Artsakh- was declared, which, despite proclaiming itself an independent republic, remained closely integrated with Armenia. 

The circumstances and developments in Nagorno-Karabakh differ from other separatist entities in Russia’s periphery. Moscow does not have a direct impact on the territory; there is no “community of ethnic Russians to be protected” -as in the cases of Transnistria in Moldova or Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia- nor does it share a direct border with Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, although it does so with Azerbaijan. Rather, Russia’s strategic interest was to retain a sphere of influence in Transcaucasia, including a cooperation and mutual assistance agreement with Armenia, while also maintaining good relations with Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is one of the most complex frozen post-Soviet conflicts due to the diversity of actors and interests involved. Multiple peace initiatives, initially spearheaded by the now maligned Minsk Group, failed to resolve the dispute, much less reduce the animosity between the parties. Continued border skirmishes triggered a second war in 2020, further disrupting the regional order. This time Azerbaijan, which had used its considerable energy revenues to modernize the armed forces, emerged victorious, seizing parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, and regaining adjacent territories lost a quarter of a century earlier. In the fighting over the course of 2022, an emboldened Azerbaijan took additional territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, and even strategic terrain within Armenia proper. Baku’s position became military dominant, hence the determination to forcefully alter the status quo.

Russia and Turkey, allies and rivals  

Of geopolitical and diplomatic interest is the role played by Russia and Turkey in the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave. Ankara maintains close ethnic, linguistic and cultural bonds with Azerbaijan. Its military support (providing weapons, training and Syrian mercenaries) was decisive in the 2020 Azerbaijani victory, projecting Ankara as a reliable ally and helping to enhance its presence in Transcaucasia, a region in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Transcaucasia also serves as a strategic gateway to Central Asia, with whose countries Turkey has deepening cultural, economic and defense ties. 

Russia, for its part, opted not to openly support Armenia in the 2020 conflict, clarifying that its strategic security alliance with Yerevan does not cover the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave or adjacent areas. (As the region’s power-broker, Moscow negotiated the ceasefire agreement in 2020, sending Russian peacekeepers and border guards that are still in place.) A new, democratic, government in Armenia in 2018 that overthrew a Russian-leaning kleptocratic ruling elite in a peaceful color revolution, as well as Yerevan’s cautious overtures to the European Union, may have tempered Moscow’s loyalty. Ever since, bilateral relations have frayed. 

But there are also other considerations involved. Although Moscow and Ankara support opposing sides in the civil wars in Libya and Syria, and until recently in Transcaucasia, they share other strategic interests, in particular a mistrust of the West -more veiled in the case of Turkey due to its membership in NATO- and the desire to keep it away from the neighborhood. Moscow probably gauged the benefits of letting Turkey act freely in the 2020 conflict, and since, in exchange for maintaining their anti-Western alliance. But this alignment of convenience does not exclude scenarios for an escalation of tensions further on; Russia and Turkey are natural rivals in Transcaucasia, as well as in the Middle East and Central Asia. 

While the mullahs mull 

A mention should be made of Iran, a more discreet but crafty regional geopolitical player. Although Azerbaijan and Iran are Shiite-majority Muslim nations that share an intermittent border, bilateral relations are tense, with numerous points of contention, chief among them historical grievances, and accusations by Teheran that Baku is inciting secessionist aspirations in its sizable ethnic Azeri community, while Baku accuses Teheran of supporting radical Islamic groups in the country. They are also at odds in the byzantine geopolitical chess board that is Transcaucasia. Iran maintains close, and shadowy, ties with Christian Armenia and supports it in its dispute with Azerbaijan; whereas Baku sustains a tight partnership with Israel, including cooperation in the military and intelligence spheres. 

Theres’s apprehension in Teheran that recent developments have fortified Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s regional presence and weakened Armenia’s, and hence its own standing; Ankara and Teheran are contenders in the South Caucasus, as well as in Central Asia. Azerbaijan and Turkey, with Russian acquiescence and oversight, are discussing the creation of a transport corridor linking the main part of Azerbaijan through southern Armenia to its isolated, autonomous exclave of Nakhchivan; if this occurs, it would disrupt Iran’s active border with Armenia. The so-called Zangesur Corridor would provide Turkey with a contiguous land route to Azerbaijan -bypassing the current routes through Iran-, and beyond to Central Asia, thus linking up with the wider Turkic world. In any case, the sovereignty over this corridor -whether it will be considered part of Armenia or whether Azerbaijan and Turkey impose some form of extraterritoriality over it- could become a future flashpoint, this time also involving Iran and Turkey. 

A country that does not exist

Past ceasefires, and multiple mediation efforts, were not able to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave was, until now, inhabited by Christian Armenians that did not accept Azerbaijani rule. Although the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” had its own president, parliament, constitution, army, and foreign ministry, its existence as a de facto independent state was hotly contested. Artsakh was in the past closely integrated with Armenia, to the point that they were often perceived as a single entity – the first president of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was later the Prime Minister and President of Armenia.

Nonetheless, the Armenian government resisted internal pressure to formally incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh due to ongoing negotiations to resolve the dispute, and because it did not want to be perceived as an aggressor state that forcibly annexed the territory of a neighboring country.  It was also unclear whether integration was the preferred alternative. Although a few years ago a majority of the population of Artsakh favored unification, recent polls were less clear; what these did reveal was the absence of any bonds with Azerbaijan

Mutual hostility and suspicion prevented a peaceful solution to the dispute; past proposals included holding a referendum to determine its future, self-determination, and granting the enclave extensive autonomy. However, Azerbaijan’s increasingly dominant position altered the dynamics on the ground. In 2022, a chastened Armenian Prime Minister stated that his country renounced any territorial claims on the enclave and, earlier this year, recognized Baku’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, while demanding special rights and protections for its ethnic Armenian inhabitants. Baku, for its part, argued that this is an internal matter and its inhabitants can enjoy the same rights as its other citizens. The status of the enclave’s ethnic Armenians was always a major point of contention. 

Neither the United Nations nor any of its member states ever recognized the sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh, considering it an integral part of Azerbaijan under international law. Along with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, Artsakh belongs to the grandiose sounding but hollow Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations (colloquially known as the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States), which seeks solutions to territorial and sovereignty disputes with the republics from which they split. 

Despite the lack of diplomatic recognition, the enclave has had a greater international presence than other “Countries that do not exist.” It has maintained, for example, what it calls permanent representations in Berlin, Paris and Moscow, as well as in Beirut, Yerevan, Sydney and Washington D.C. It also has surprising support at the sub-national level. An Australian state, a group of states in the United States, several Spanish autonomous communities, and the Italian region of Lombardy, among others, have recognized the independence, or at least the right to self-determination, of Nagorno-Karabakh. These representations will most likely disappear with the fading of ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The dispute exemplifies the arbitrariness of the past and the prudence of the present regarding cases of contested sovereignties, and not just in Russia’s near abroad. Although under international law Nagorno-Karabakh is considered part of Azerbaijan, there is also the historical fact that it was a reckless Soviet-era imposition that has been a source of regional instability and wars for the last century. Moreover, the rejection of Nagorno Karabakh’s sovereignty by some countries did not respond to questions of principle and international law, but rather to pragmatic domestic considerations related to their own secessionist challenges.

The bear stumbles

The dispute transcends the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both regional and international actors are calibrating the extent of Russia’s resolve in Transcaucasia, as its underwhelming military performance in the war in Ukraine has revealed major structural failings. Azerbaijan, enriched by its oil and gas revenues, and emboldened by the support of Ankara, exploited its military edge to impose its will in the dispute, counting, correctly, on a diminished response from Moscow. Although the Kremlin has repeatedly mediated ceasefires, it was ultimately unable, or unwilling, to stop the recurrence of hostilities, distracted and weakened as it is by the war in Ukraine. 

Yerevan has voiced frustration at the Kremlin’s inaction, and perceived ambiguity in the dispute. Vladimir Putin’s personal hostility towards Armenia’s fledgling democracy has not helped. But it’s not only about passions. There are signs that Russia’s main loyalty in the region is shifting from Armenia and converging pragmatically with Azerbaijan and Turkey, particularly as the war in Ukraine has forced Moscow to search for alternative corridors through Azerbaijan and on to Iran and Central Asia; from regional power-broker, Russia is becoming a stakeholder. Regardless, small, land-locked Armenia is still heavily dependent on Russia in strategic sectors of its economy. 

There are, though, some signs it is slightly tilting. Over the summer, Yerevan sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, a gesture timed with the visit of the country’s first lady to Kiev; and has stated it intends to join the International Criminal Court, which has issued Putin with an arrest warrant for war crimes in Ukraine. Recent developments in Nagorno-Karabakh have produced large protests in Armenia at the government’s lack of response, but also against Russia’s stance. In any case, Yerevan seems intent on downgrading its participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led Eurasian military bloc, with condemnatory voices calling for an exit from the Russian security umbrella. 

Moreover, a trip to Yerevan in mid-2022 by a high-level delegation from the US Congress served to express support for the Armenian government. The official visit, the most senior since Armenia gained independence in 1991, was seen as a move by Washington to strengthen ties with a country that has been a staunch ally of Moscow. Last month, Armenia hosted peacekeeping military exercises with a small contingent of US troops, an undertaking that drew a rebuke from the Kremlin. 

The European Union (EU) has also enhanced its role in the region. The deadlock in past negotiations prompted Brussels to try its hand at mediating in the dispute, sponsoring several rounds of talks since December 2021, and establishing a civilian monitoring mission in Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. Brussel’s more assertive diplomacy also has economic overtones. Azerbaijan’s strategic location and energy production are viewed with interest by an EU eager to diversify its energy sources from Russia. But it also has a security dimension, as both the US, the EU and Israel perceive Azerbaijan as a bulwark against Iranian regional intentions. 

The countries in Russia’s periphery are taking note of the changing dynamics. If free to do so, Armenia would most likely further distance itself from the Russian orbit and seek closer ties with the West. Massive protests in Georgia are pushing back against a Moscow-drifting government. Iran, complacent with the previous status-quo, is weighing how to preserve its regional clout amidst Russia’s diminished influence and Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s strengthened presence.

Other flashes are visible across Central Asia. Russia’s influence in the region appears to be waning, as governments struggle to contain restive populations, and their discontent with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while maintaining close security and economic ties with Moscow. The Kremlin was unable to mediate when clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan intensified in 2022 over border disputes. The Kazakh president has criticized the war, and stated recently that his country will abide by the sanctions regime imposed on Russia. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; while the Tajik president has openly castigated Putin for treating the region as if it was still “part of the Soviet Union”. Meanwhile, China has handily displaced Russia as the dominant economic power in Central Asia. And the US, sensing a strategic opportunity in a contemporary version of the Great Game, is seeking to deepen its engagement with the Five Stans. Further afield, landlocked Mongolia is also carefully attempting to plot a middle path between its two towering neighbors, China and Russia, while seeking closer relations with Washington.  

The house of cards on which Russia attempts to retrieve its lost sense of grandeur is not crumbling; but it is wobbling.

[Photo by ԶԻՆՈՒԺ MEDIA, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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