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A nation must think before it acts.
The following is a report summarizing an event on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, featuring: Arzu Geybullayeva, Managing Editor and Co-Director for Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation and former Associate Scholar in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; and Aaron Stein, Director of Research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The past two weeks have seen an explosion of tense fighting and conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. The region has been populated by ethnic Armenians for years, and since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has seen periods of intense back-and-forth military engagements between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The emergence of conflict 12 days ago was the first significant outbreak of fighting between the two countries since 2016 and the largest since the 1994 ceasefire. To shed some light on what exactly is going on in Nagorno-Karabakh and what the international ramifications are, former and current scholars of FPRI listed above convened to discuss these topics.
Daily life in Nagorno-Karabakh has changed drastically over the past two weeks for both the residents of the region as well as the local military units stationed there. For the military, artillery and missiles are continuing to strike not just ground force targets in the region, but also civilian areas. Hundreds of civilians have lost their lives. On top of that, 70,000 residents have evacuated so far to escape the danger. Ms. Geybullayeva remarked that the conflict surrounding the embattled region can be classified as a humanitarian crisis. Geybullayeva said, “The human cost of the conflict is being forgotten.” The number of casualties on both sides is the highest since the 1994 ceasefire and that is without an approximate number from the Azeri government, which has refused to release casualty statistics until the conflict is resolved. Azerbaijan and Armenia have yet to officially claim that they are shelling and launching missiles, but the picture on the ground is telling a different story.
Conflict between Yerevan and Baku over the disputed region is nothing new, and their goals have remained the same as well. The residents of Nagorno-Karabakh would preferably like to join Armenia and their fellow ethnic Armenians as one state. No country in the world recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as a part of Armenia, or even as an independent state from Azerbaijan. Baku would like to keep it that way. Baku wants Armenia to withdraw from the region completely and promises to grant the Nagorno-Karabakh population citizenship. Geybullayeva reiterated that Baku has been emphasizing for the past two weeks that Azerbaijan will not come to the negotiation table until Armenia’s forces have departed Azeri territory. Armenia’s prime minister, however, has stated that his country’s forces will not leave. Anti-war activists in both countries, Geybullayeva noted, have “been marginalized,” even though their presence is instrumental in finding a lasting solution.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was in a dire political situation before the outbreak of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, Geybullayeva described. The economy of Azerbaijan took a serious hit because of the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Geybullayeva believes the economic downturn induced a significant negative impact on Aliyev’s reputation as president and his country’s reputation on the world stage. Engaging in conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh was, however, universally accepted by the Azeri citizenry and the opposition. Many in the country, Geybullayeva added, are calling Aliyev a “hero” for his role in the conflict.
While the Nagorno-Karabakh region is only a fraction of Azerbaijan’s total territory and is not a very well-known region to Western populations, the influence that this conflict could have on international geopolitics is considerable. Ms. Maia Otarashvili noted how quickly regional powers are being drawn in and how seriously they are taking this conflict.
Russia and Turkey have had an active hand so far, and both seem willing to stay involved as a way to build regional influence. Russia is playing all sides of the situation. Moscow has great relations with both countries, including having a military base in Armenia and an arms sale agreement with Azerbaijan. The Kremlin is also a member of the Minsk Group (along with France and the United States), which has been attempting unsuccessfully to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Geybullayeva believes the Minsk Group’s failures to make any progress in resolving the conflict stem from its exclusivity of deliberations and its lack of engaging openly with all of the parties. Geybullayeva also added that the idea of inserting Russian peacekeeping forces into Nagorno-Karabakh would not be effective, believing that another country’s (possibly another European country) peacekeeping force would make more sense. Turkey, on the other hand, is devoting itself heavily to assisting the Azeris.
Dr. Aaron Stein remarked on the topic of Turkey’s commitment to the conflict that the status-quo created after the end of the Cold War is no longer serving Turkey’s interests. Turkey wants to foster a stronger bond with Baku and also build itself up enough in the conflict to have an influential seat at the negotiation table when that time comes. Russia’s influence in Baku has been dwindling since the last flare up in 2016, and Turkey has stepped in instead. Turkey has had tense relations with Armenia for over a century and was not involved much in Nagorno-Karabakh until recently. Ankara has likely been supplying ethnic Turks in Baku with special forces. Geybullayeva, who has been living in Turkey on and off for almost two decades and is in Istanbul currently, put the Turkish involvement with Azerbaijan into perspective, pointing out that she has seen more coverage on Azerbaijan and more reports directly from Azerbaijan than at any point during her time in Turkey.
As for other actors on the world stage with a stake in the fight, Geybullayeva and Stein remarked on the European Union, the United States, Israel, and Iran. On the EU, Geybullayeva believes that the 27-member union’s lack of communication about the conflict is concerning and gives a perception that Brussels is not prioritizing the region. She added that any statements now from EU leadership would be too late to quell any increase in fighting. The European Union could stand to lose significant influence in the region if it does not act. If the EU does not make any sizable moves to assert its influence, the region could become dominated by Turkey and Russia. The United States has done little to move the needle in the conflict so far, and it does not appear that will change anytime soon. However, it was noted that considering the presidential election is about to take place next month, the White House is too preoccupied to focus on Nagorno-Karabakh. Israel’s role is small, but Geybullayeva noted that Israel is actively selling arms and surveillance technical equipment to the Azeris. As for Iran, which borders Azerbaijan and Armenia on its northern border, Stein noted that its role in the conflict is small and that there is more weight on what Putin will decide to do in response to the conflict than Tehran. Geybullayeva also added that Iran is watching the region carefully, but will likely not engage with armed forces.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.