Home / Articles / Event Report on the Geopolitical Implications of the War in Nagorno-Karabakh
The following is a report summarizing an event on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, featuring: Aaron Stein, Director of Research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute;Robert E. Hamilton, Black Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Senior Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute;Miro Popkhadze, Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; and Elene Melikishvili, PhD, King’s College London. You can watch the event here.
Scholars discussed the geopolitical implications of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The tense fighting in the region has continued to rage on and shows no signs of stopping. Hundreds of military personnel and civilians have lost their lives in the last two weeks. The fighting has drawn significant attention from Russia and Turkey and passing attention from other global powers such as the European Union and the United States. Significant influence is up for grabs in the region, and the resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could be momentous for geopolitical power.
Root Causes of the Conflict
Ethnic Armenians have populated Nagorno-Karabakh for centuries and are virtually the only people that live in the disputed region. Therefore, it would be easy to think that this conflict between the region, Armenia proper, and Azerbaijan would have decades worth of fighting history. However, as Elene Melikishvili described, this separatist conflict can trace its origins to the 20th century. Bolshevik geographical engineering was responsible for the initial delineation of borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the late 1980s, with the advent of glasnost and perestroika, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had sent a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev requesting that the borders be redrawn to include Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenian territory. The Kremlin had denied the request as it was very much preoccupied with the crumbling of the Soviet system. The downfall of the Soviet Union can explain the eruption of violence that ended with the 1994 ceasefire.
Robert Hamilton explained that the reason a frozen conflict like the one in Nagorno-Karabakh never erupted significantly during the Soviet days was due to the Soviet policy of ethno-federalism and the Kremlin’s ability to keep the frozen conflicts “at a low-boil.” Once the Soviet Union began to crumble, the Kremlin was no longer able to maintain the status quo, and the eruption of conflict ensued. Hamilton further opined that the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh is the most dangerous of the frozen conflicts in Russia’s periphery, the others being Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and Transnistria. The military budgets between Armenia and Azerbaijan are far apart, with Baku spending three times more than Yerevan. Unique to Nagorno-Karabakh in comparison to other frozen conflicts is the lack of peacekeeper presence. The lack of Russian forces in the battle leaves open the possibility that the conflict will be resolved militarily and not diplomatically. He compared the conflict to that between India and Pakistan, minus nuclear weapons.
The battle over Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia and Azerbaijan is centered around which geopolitical feature is most important: territorial integrity/consensus on agreed upon borders or self-determination. The Azeris are obviously in favor of the former and keeping their borders as is, while the Armenians would like for the citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh to decide for themselves which country (which would be Armenia) they want to belong. Azerbaijan is also unsatisfied with the current status quo and seeks to ameliorate its position by removing any doubt as to which state the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a part of.
Geopolitical Influence at Stake
The opportunity for increased influence over the region surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh is drawing significant attention from Turkey and Russia. Turkey is closely allied with Azerbaijan and is reportedly sending not just military units from Syria to the Azeris, but also drone technology, Aaron Stein explained. Armenia, so far, has suffered losses of almost one-third of its tank capacity, which is over 40 tanks, Hamilton described. Armenia, because of its lower military budget and lack of a strong military ally like Turkey, cannot defend itself effectively against drone strikes. Turkey’s foreign policy began to shift starting in 2016. Ankara is now more likely to use military force in conflicts that it feels it can favorably change the status-quo. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is an opportunity for the Turks to make a mark in the region, and thus they are hesitant to push for a ceasefire as they feel time is on their side. Stein disagreed with the latter point and feels now is the best time for a ceasefire. Polls in Turkey are showing discontent among the population with the involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh, with Turkish citizens not wanting to see Turkish soldiers returning in body bags.
The Russians, on the other hand, are taking a different approach as Nicholas Gvosdev explained. The Kremlin is more than willing to sit back and let this conflict play out. Armenia has been asking Moscow for assistance, but has received no help. Moscow has shown in recent years it will not hesitate to punish countries on its periphery that have been cozying up to the West. Armenia has made outreaches to Western nations, but has not gotten close enough with any of them to warrant assistance at this time. Moscow and Yerevan are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—which has a stipulation like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Article 5—but Russia is walking that back as much as it can for now.
Miro Popkhadze added that, for the Kremlin, frozen conflicts have proven effective in maintaining regional influence, and it would be more than happy to, as Gvosdev summarized, “kick the can down the road.” Hamilton disagreed slightly believing that Moscow would prefer the fighting to stop. Turkey and Russia have built a decent relationship between each other over the years, and both will not want to let the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh cloud that. The relationship with Turkey for Russia could be an important one as Moscow is aware of tensions in Turkey’s relationship with the United States, Stein argued, and getting closer to a NATO member could have some benefits for the Kremlin.
The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh brings some complexities for Georgia. As the only other country in the Caucasus region between Russia and Turkey, logistical issues arise for military units. Even if Moscow were to invoke the collective defense principle in the CSTO, Popkhadze explained that mobilizing units to Armenia would prove challenging because they would have to traverse through Georgian territory. Georgia has had great relations historically with Armenia and Azerbaijan, but is worried about a breakdown in the multilateral international framework. Georgia has no national security strategic partner, unlike the Azeris who have Turkey, and, to some limited extent, Armenia has Russia because of the CSTO. Azerbaijan and Turkey have actually invested significantly in Georgia, which has led Tbilisi to fear the economic fallout if the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh continues for a prolonged amount of time. Popkhadze warns that without Western involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia could be in trouble.
Other major players have been slow to get involved in the conflict, let alone picking a side. For many countries, the presence of COVID-19 is a considerable distracting factor, and there are other conflicts around the world that carry more danger, such as the India-China border dispute. The United States, specifically, is also preoccupied with its upcoming presidential election. Armenia and Azerbaijan want to see Washington as a reliable partner, Gvosdev argued, but the lack of American involvement is pushing both Yerevan and Baku into viewing the United States as something other than that. The United States is, however, in a tough position. Gvosdev pointed out that, along with Israel, Iran, and even Russia to a certain extent, Washington does not want to “foreclose relations” to either Armenia or Azerbaijan if they decide to support one side over the other. Turkey is the only major player that has clearly chosen one side so far. The United Nations has also been sitting this conflict out. No peacekeeping missions have been sent out, and the UN has stated no desire in doing so.
In terms of attaining a settlement or ceasefire, Melikishvili remarked, “Domestic politics (in both Armenia and Azerbaijan) are a major stumbling point in negotiations.” She would further clarify that political elites are treating the conflict as a political commodity. In Azerbaijan, specifically, Gvosdev noted that the “old guard” in Baku politics, who had been pushed out in 2018, are criticizing the current leaders for incompetence towards the issue. Declining oil prices are also not helping the situation in Baku as the country’s economy is heavily dependent on exporting the product.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is almost three weeks old. The situation will draw even more attention as it has gone past just being a flare-up of tensions and into a protracted confrontation with no end in sight yet.
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.