Washington’s role and pressing concern over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), the ethnic Armenian enclave insider the border of Azerbaijan proper, are now minimal at first impression. The same can be said for other countries, organizations and prestigious international organizations and their interests in the region. However, there are still many active points of contention in Armenian-Azeri relations, including proverbially, as well as literally, unexploded landmines, which have far-reaching foreign policy implications. Yet, the world presently appears to be turning a blind eye to these issues.
Are forces at work that see cooling down or the heating up of conflicts as moves on a larger board game, especially for the US and its EU-NATO allies? The apparent lack of any public concern for the possibility of another war between Azerbaijan and Armenia is deceptive, and not merely out of indifference. Does the purported stakeholder esteem there are more pressing issues to deal with besides a 30-year never-ending conflict, or is there another plan in the works?
Nonetheless, with all that’s transpiring in Ukraine, which now includes the African continent, eyes are focusing again on this simmering conflict that only two years ago was a hot war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The most recent war between the two sides resulted in a severe and humiliating defeat for Armenia, headed by Prime Minister Pashinyan, where–with the help of Turkey and Israel—including the use of technology and in some instances military advisors or the ground, the Azeri military scored a victory over their Armenian opponents.
In the midst of this, there appears to be a collective disregard for the situation in Artsakh, as it is called by Armenians, or Nagorno-Karabakh to the Azeri and the world at large, also known as “Black Garden.”. This region is currently undergoing a devastating blockade that is preventing vital supplies like food and medicine from reaching its population of 120,000.
The area’s complex history dates back to earlier treaty maps and revolves around NK, which originated from the Soviet nationality policy granting the region autonomy in the early 1920s. The seeming lack of public concern regarding the potential re-escalation of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is misleading. This indifference is likely not due to a lack of interest, but rather the parties involved might believe that there are more urgent matters to address than a three-decade-long unresolved conflict, which is formally an internal issue within Azerbaijan.
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From December 12, 2022, until now, Karabakh Armenians have been cut off from food and medicine as a result of the blockade. Little is being reported about this, and that in itself is the story—and why so many long-term stakeholders are looking elsewhere?
You be the judge!
However, amidst the ongoing fighting in Ukraine and threats of Africa, very few observers are directing their attention to the conflict that alternates between frozen and simmering in Nagorno-Karabakh. This enduring, long-term conflict had only witnessed a rise temperature two years ago when a heated war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over an ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijani territory.
This conflict concluded with significant battlefield and humiliating moral losses for the Armenian side, as the odds were heavily stacked against their forces because they faced not only the Azerbaijani military, who also received support from Turkey and Israel. This assistance encompassed advanced technology, including drones, and in some instances, even military advisors on the ground.
To further complicate the situation, according to the UK press, such as The Telegraph, Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian Prime Minister, who is considered by many as being too pro-American, has “accused Moscow of failing in its peacekeeping duties by ignoring Azerbaijani aggression because the Kremlin is distracted by its military conflict in Ukraine.”
In the midst of all this political discourse, accusations, and the shifting of blame, Azerbaijan is steadily tightening its grip on Stepanakert, as experts and current events suggest. The country’s financial resources have swelled due to recent gas agreements with the EU, reinforced by security pacts with Turkey. Additionally, Azerbaijan remains well-equipped with advanced military technology, the best that money can buy. Following its decisive victory in the one-sided 2020 conflict, Turkey is invigorated, further bolstering its moral stance at home and on the international level.
Now in the wake of a Russian negotiated cease fire deal, it is hard to decide that it was, in retrospect, was it just a pause in fighting, as the current situation is more threatening? All the while, Armenia warns of another war after accusing Azerbaijan of planning genocide, as is reflected by Yerevan’s urgent appeal to the UN Security Council for help.
In the meantime, Armenia also claims Azeris are causing a humanitarian crisis with a blockade on Stepanakert. In spite of good intentions, talks under the mediation of the European Union, United States, and separately Russia, none of the initiatives have brought much progress. The conflict is perhaps too deeply rooted and serves too many outside geopolitical interests.
The Armenian Perspective
Yerevan agreed to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, but at Western-mediated talks in May they demanded international mechanisms for protecting the rights and security of the region’s ethnic Armenian population. However, Baku insists such guarantees must be provided at the national level, rejecting any international negotiating format.
“So long as a peace treaty has not been signed and such a treaty has not been ratified by the parliaments of the two countries, of course a [new] war [with Azerbaijan] is very likely,” Pashinyan told AFP.
Another war… I am not sure how that would work
Another war seems unlikely since the Armenian army’s “back is broken” and there is no political will to pursue the use of force. Yerevan will not receive international backing – at least not openly. It could be in the interest of Tehran and even of Moscow to have a short flare-up with Armenian forces advancing. However, these are merely speculations. A new war would utterly derail any negotiations and set the stage for even wider violence.
Yet, a new war is considered as “very likely” by Pashinyan, as reported by VOA. This would bring about great human suffering and would further undermine all efforts by Russia, and the United States, with their shared goals of de-escalating regional tensions
However, for some stakeholders, another shooting war can serve some short-term goals, such as distracting and hampering Russia in the conflict with Ukraine and the West, and for Turkey to be able to draw even closer to Azerbaijan, in a co-dependency, as the BIG Brother who is always willing to lend a helping hand. For the collective West, something is stirring, and it perceives Russia as being distracted over Ukraine.
The fate of the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh remains the most substantial issue separating a wide range of stakeholders, and even political parties in Armenia. The position of Azerbaijan is clear, if you will only listen to a previous BBC interview from three years ago, held between Ilham Aliyev and the BBC.
He described how his forces were winning the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and said Armenia’s “opportunities to compromise were shrinking”. Little has changed in terms of the root problems, except that Azerbaijan has been able to accomplish on the battlefield what it could not win diplomatically. It was stalemated for years, mostly due to the Armenian lobby abroad, and unwavering US support for the Armenian side, “right or wrong” –without regard to international law.
Little has changed, in terms of the root problems, other than that Azerbaijan has been able to accomplish on the battlefield what it could not do diplomatically, as it was stalemated for years—mostly due to the Armenian lobby and unwavering US support for the Armenian side, “right or wrong” –and without regard to international law.
Azerbaijan’s balancing act
Some aspects of this war are clear, a least for the US, according to recent US Senate testimony. For the US, Azerbaijan is the only country that borders Russia and Iran so it sits “right smack” in the middle of a strategic region and its role in the former space of the USSR is very important. For certain, Azerbaijan has played an interesting balancing act and the US perceives the country as helpful for supporting Ukraine with food and fuel assistance. Also, Baku voted for the UN General Assembly Resolution condemning Russia and affirming Ukraine’s territory integrity.
Mitt Romney, the former republican presidential candidate, recently questioned one potential nominee for an US policy foreign slot about Azerbaijan’s Role in the Russia-Ukraine military conflict, and its impact on overall US policy in the region.
Yes, indeed, for US, foreign policy interests, what is mentioned in the confirmation hearing is reflective of how folks in DC think and what they want to hear. It is not very encouraging for Armenian ears. In reality, however, counter -balancing Russian access – and also Iranian influence – would most likely imply inviting Turkey in. Those prospects would probably have a negative effect on the security situation in Armenia, to say nothing of Karabakh.
Baku Plays the Ukrainian Card
Online discussions about Azerbaijan’s positioning on Ukraine, as it tries to ride with the fox and run with the hounds include Dr. Vasif Huseynov, a Senior Advisor at the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center) and Adjunct Lecturer at Khazar University in Baku, who re-interprets the official governmental position, apparently for Western consumption.
It was also mentioned during the confirmation hearings, that it is likely Baku’s positioning for Ukraine is based on its own agenda, and not out of concern for what has actually transpired in Ukraine or the reasons for Russia’s special operation in the wake of 2014, and the subterfuge of the Minsk Agreement—or justification for taking military action.
For many in Washington, it seems, the negative outcomes for Armenia are acceptable as long as Russia withdraws from the South Caucasus. But for others in DC, that scenario is not acceptable. But it is only with boots on the ground in Armenia and Artsakh that any other kind of dynamic can play out. Only Russia has boots on the ground at the moment that are capable of stopping a total Azeri victory
Unless Armenia’s armed forces somehow demonstrate otherwise, only Russia has enough boots on the ground at the moment which are capable of stopping a total Azeri victory. A direct Iranian military intervention would be quite extreme, but not impossible, however. It is becoming obvious, at least from one perspective, the manner in which the US continues to see Azerbaijan as an energy conduit and a counterbalance to Russia’s influence in the region, and a base of operation against Iran.
Moreover, the US and EU also perceive the military conflict in Ukraine as a distraction for Russia in other strategic areas of concern, as a possible “game changer” in the balance of power in Eastern Europe with wider implications for the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
As for the current situation for Azerbaijan, in a nutshell, “Azerbaijan’s main political objective has been the signing of a peace treaty with Armenia that would further tip the post-2020 balance in its favor and would close the chapter of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict without addressing the outstanding issues related to it”.
Yerevan demands special rights and protections for the overwhelming Armenian majority living in the enclave of NK, all the while Baku insists that their status is a domestic matter, as the region is part of its internationally recognized territory.
For Azerbaijan, there are: “no, ifs, ands, or-buts”!
Baku’s position is clear, and to even to discuss the future is inappropriate for any bilateral talks, as for Azerbaijan it is a domestic matter. It also knows that time is on its side and that international law is in its favor.
All it has to do is to keep up the pressure on Armenia—putting it on the defensive. Nevertheless, the open question, and one not only for the regional combatants, is whether or not a new war can be averted or not, as Baku has the upper hand, in terms of international law, military might, and staunch allies. These even include Israel (for which Azerbaijan provides the lion’s share of its oil imports), and Turkey, which its greater regional scheme in mind.
Much has been written and discussed about Averting a New War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but still, there is no clear end in sight—only another beginning, and one that may not end well for either side of the conflict. However, Richard Kauzlarich, the co-director, Centre for Energy Science and Policy, George Mason University, believes Aliev may be overplaying his hand, even when he is already winning.
He said that “Aliyev lacks the patience to play a long game, so has miscalculated Baku’s leverage with the US, EU, and Russia.” Much of the Western media reinforces the contention that Baku tries to balance its relations with Moscow, at the same time going as far as it can to support Ukraine.
Role of the UN, If Any?
It would be helpful if the UN Security Council had some serious things to say about the Armenian enclave, during an upcoming meeting on Security issues. However, given the record of that organization, expectations are not high. The problem is, usually, the same, as noted in UN press releases.
It is essential for both parties to respect the commitments made under the 2020 trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation, normalize relations to lay the foundation for a future peace treaty and ensure that humanitarian aid and food be allowed to reach the population of NK and for Azerbaijan to restore free movement through the Corridor so commercial and humanitarian vehicles can reach the local population.
In conclusion: another war… I am not sure how that would work!
As mentioned earlier, it appears that the Armenian army is a spent force, its back is broken, incapable of halting a renewed Azeri offensive without significant outside support, and there is no political will to pursue the use of force. Yerevan will also not receive the desperately needed international backing – at least not openly. A renewed war of limited duration would, in fact, be of benefit to a number of interested parties, depending on the outcome, the shape of which would benefit larger power blocks differently, based on the complex geopolitics of the region.
However, instigating a fresh conflict would deeply disrupt the ongoing negotiations, resulting in escalated violence and heightened instability within the region. Such a war would not yield positive outcomes for Armenia, Azerbaijan, or other regional players, and certainly not their populations. The potentially negative consequences for various stakeholders in the region should also be considered by foreign policy actors.
Despite the pursuit of immediate gains, the potential political repercussions could bring about far-reaching and negative consequences for US foreign policy and result in political fallout with the Armenian diaspora community in the US.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.