Nagorno Karabakh: Conflict Analysis

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Nagorno Karabakh: Conflict Analysis

Following a long history of power struggles between Armenia and Azerbaijan, skirmishes continued
even after the last full-scale war that brought to a ceasefire in 1994. A new conflict recently erupted
in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27th, resulting in many civilian casualties on both sides and
increasing tensions world-wide. Calls for de-escalation by the UN and both the US and Russia have
been dismissed by both sides so far. Unresolved geopolitical discrepancies, repeatedly failing
mediation attempts and recurring violations of ceasefire broadly explains this recent escalation.
However, the nuanced story grows more composite every day. 1
2020 Conflict:
On September 27th, president of (Armenia backed de facto state) Republic of Artsakh stated that
Azerbaijan launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh unprompted while, Azerbaijan authorities
argued that Armenia had started shelling their border front 2 hours prior and that their attack was
purely in retaliation. 2 Both countries continue making statements in the direction of military
escalation. The conflict is already expanding beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh borders as more than
500 have been killed in the region and thousands have been displaced. 3
A temporary ceasefire was agreed upon at the marathon peace talks held at Moscow on October
5th. However, the calm lasted only hours as both countries blamed each other for breaking the
truce the same day. 4 The conflict resumes on its fourth week and yet another ceasefire brokered by
the US this time was broken in the same day. 5 Global powers and international organizations call for
peace but no solution for peace in sight so far.
Area Profile and Background:
Nagorno-Karabakh is an area internationally recognized to be within the sovereignty of Azerbaijan.
Most of the population in the area is Armenian although there is an ethnic Azeri minority present
too. Civilians of both have been massacred and displaced from the region due to the war atrocities
in the 90s, shifting the general demographic disposition in Nagorno-Karabakh and wider regions.
The ethno-geographic rivalries in the region goes back a thousand years since when numerous
Turkic tribes migrated around and settled in the Eurasian diaspora beginning 11 th century. Armenia
was divided between Byzantine and Sassanid Empires in 387; Artsakh region specifically was
invaded and ruled by Ak Koyunlu and Kara Koyunlu Turkic tribes in the 15 th century and was given
the Turkic name Qarabağ, meaning ‘black garden’. 6 The contemporary crisis however is mainly
blamed on Soviet Union whose inconsistent policies were mainly based on Soviet interest and re-
mapped the region without concern for ethnic dissonances in the long term.
Initially, majority Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh and majority Azeri Nakhichevan were both
appointed to Armenia. This was later overturned, and both were tied to Azerbaijan. Turkey had a
big influence in this, and Azerbaijan was a key factor in its relations with Soviet Union. The wave of nationalism across the world at the end of WWI and the disintegration of the multinational
Ottoman Empire resulted in lasting unresolved complexities. The new-found Turkish Republic
wanted to avoid having a strong Armenia potentially claiming territory and jeopardizing its border
integrity. 7
Besides wanting to have good relations with Turkey, Stalin, (as the Commissar of Nationalities at
the time) also found it strategic to fragment Caucasian ethnic groups to avoid nationalist
unifications and potential resistance towards the Soviet Union. Armenians were split into Armenian
Soviet Socialist Republic and Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and Azeris were split into the
Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan Autonomous Oblast. 7
With the breakdown of the USSR, regional parliament voted to join Armenia, but the Azeri
inhabitants wanted to stay independent. The vote was rejected by Azerbaijan and territorial
conflicts erupted in between. 8 Armenia occupied 20 percent of the Azeri areas surrounding
Nagorno-Karabakh and took control of them with separatist forces since then although Nagorno-
Karabakh is still internationally recognized as a sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. The de-facto
government Artsakh Republic holding an election in April significantly raised tensions and was
taken as a provocation to war by Azerbaijan. 9 Decades of incoherent territorial shuffling, lack of
political relationships, internal governmental instabilities and nationalistic tenacity of both sides
make diplomatic attempts very difficult.
Alliances and Strategic Positioning:

Meanwhile Turkey’s involvement in this conflict has been widely viewed as a negative influence by
the international media, likely to contribute to the rapid escalation. Turkish military forces and
equipment have been heavily utilized at the forefront of the conflict in Azeri areas and both sides
have been using weaponry provided by Russia. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been reported to
heavily hit civilians.
In response to calls for peace from US and France, Turkey argued that these countries have ignored
the situation for too long and their involvement would not be in favor of peace. Indeed, there is a
general mistrust towards the western powers in the east, reinforced by their duplicitous actions in
the Syrian War and dissatisfactory response to the refugee crisis.
Turkey has been accused of relocating Islamist Syrian militias to the region to support Azeri troops
which Turkey and Azerbaijan both have denied. Turkey and Russia have a complex relationship and
are currently in opposing sides of the conflict in Syria. Expansion of the Syrian conflict to the
Russian border is a great concern for Russia and could have grave effects for all countries involved.
Russia presents to be strongly against the conflict as it has favorable relations to both countries. Russia in a mutual defense pact and has a military base in Armenia which some interpret as
Moscow possibly being closer with Yerevan in case of escalation. It is also likely that although a
full-fledged multipolar war on its border is not desirable for Russia, the maintained instability
Nagorno-Karabakh issue prevents the reach of western political influence to the region which
already meant a lot of problems for Russia in the case of Ukraine. Afterall, Russia has been
providing both countries with arms for years and have a continued grip over the ex-Soviet states
allowing Russia great influence in defining regional balances.
Oil rich Iran managed to maintain a neutral position for a while however with its large Azeri
population it became more challenging as the crisis ensues. On Sunday Iran Revolutionary Guards
stated that ground forces have been deployed to the northern border near the conflict upon some
villages reported hit with stray rockets. 10 This is a defensive measure but in case of escalation it is
likely that Iran will be more actively involved.
Considering ethnic, cultural, and religious ties of Turkey with Azerbaijan and historical and
geopolitical position in the region, Turkey has an unavoidable role in this conflict. Whether it will be
a stabilizing or an escalatory one partially depends on whether the international actors will manage
to carry a fair approach. So far EU failed to do more than just condemn the conflict and call for
peace and many member state politicians -most brazenly in France who has a large Armenian
minority- have been showing outward support for Armenia. There were large public
demonstrations across Europe and America in solidarity of Armenia and Artsakh Republic.
Criticism given to Azerbaijan and Turkey by member states may have a fair ground. However, area
specialist Thomas De Waal points out that public trust of the other party towards the international
community gets damaged when same countries do not give criticism to Armenia where it is due. 11
Seven additional regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that were undisputed Azeri districts
occupied and controlled by Armenian forces since the 90s and is a core issue for Azerbaijan’s
grievance and distrust. 12 Western powers always talking about implementing a global standard of
humanity and peace need to hold an educated and balanced stance on this issue in order to have
credibility as diplomatic actors.
Absence of any external intervention from international bodies to this point is mainly because rest
of the world is still focused on battling the pandemic and the South Caucasus is not the most
strategically significant those who can help. The timing of the conflict is seen by some as a tactical
move of President Aliyev, but Olesya Vartanyan of Crisis Group is doubtful that the violence break
out was premeditated. 13 Although an active conflict may briefly distract the Azeri public from its
increasing dissatisfaction with the government, it is more likely upping the stakes for Mr. Aliyev
considering how the government was replaced twice over military failures in the 90s. 13

Energy Interests:

Beyond historic and ethnic discrepancies, an underlying reason causing dispute in the region is its
important position for the global energy trade. Nagorno-Karabakh has some large oil fields that
adds a major financial-interest factor to the conflict and bears the possibly becoming a proxy war
field. Azerbaijan is also a major distributor for oil and gas which is imported to the West through
Turkey. 14 Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas leaves Azerbaijan only
with a smally periphery named the Ganja Gap for gas pipes to pass through to Georgia to Turkey
and then to Europe. 15 A fully realized conflict in the region is not only a humanitarian threat but a
threat to European energy security. Therefore, the west should be more diligent about investing in
stability here.
Russia on the other hand could have another strategic advantage from this conflict carrying out
without expanding too much. As mentioned, NATO ally Turkey is a competitor of Russia in
transporting energy to Europe and has shaky but relatively better relationship with the West in
comparison. A safe running Trans-Anatolian Pipeline System route also provides the ability for
Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to export their vast energy reserve to the West through the Caspian
Sea. Russia has been strongly opposing the development of a subsea pipeline here as this could
seriously threaten Russia’s dominance in the energy trade market and hinder the dependence of
these nations to Russia to sell their most valuable resources. 15
Nagorno-Karabakh may be small and appear insignificant to the outside eye. However especially in
the current climate of multi-polar conflicts, a global pandemic, rise of neo-nationalism and growing
dismay towards international institutions; this conflict could be another fighting arena for
competing powers. International organizations and political actors need to hold the ethno-
geographic, political, and economic nuances of the conflict in consideration and fulfill a less biased
and more stabilizing position for successful diplomacy and peace. Taking part in one sided,
marginalizing discourse on a war with complex influence factors is propagandist and will nothing
more than alienate the ‘other side’ and further exacerbate the conflict. With all that is going on,
Nagorno Karabakh conflict should not be ignored and sincere diplomacy and peacebuilding
processes should be initiated before it grows any further.

1 Global Conflict Tracker. “Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.” Accessed October 16, 2020.
2 Uras, Umut. “Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes: Live News.” Accessed October 28, 2020.
3 Editorial, Observer. “The Observer View on Nagorno-Karabakh | Observer Editorial.” The Guardian, October 11, 2020,
sec. Opinion.
4 Welle (, Deutsche. “Nagorno-Karabakh’s Record Growth in Ruins amid Conflict and Pandemic | DW |
12.10.2020.” DW.COM. Accessed October 16, 2020.
5 “Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: US-Brokered Ceasefire Frays Soon after Starting.” BBC News, October 26, 2020, sec. Europe.
6 Rasizade, Alec. “Azerbaijan’s Prospects in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 13, no. 2 (June
1, 2011): 215–31. | Shepard, Jonathan, ed. 2019. “The Earlier Empire c.
500–c. 700.” Part. In The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire C.500–1492, 97–248. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
7 Cornell, Svante E. “Turkey and the Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh: A Delicate Balance.” Middle
Eastern Studies 34, no. 1 (January 1, 1998): 51–72.
8 “Armenia-Azerbaijan: What’s behind the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict?” BBC News, September 28, 2020, sec. Europe.
9 Bagirova, Nvard Hovhannisyan, Nailia. “Armenia and Azerbaijan Accuse Each Other of Violating Nagorno-Karabakh
Ceasefire.” Reuters, October 11, 2020.
10 Euronews. “Nagorno-Karabakh: New Ceasefire Struck but Both Sides Allege Breaches,” October 26, 2020.
11 De Waal, Thomas, “The Caucasus Burns While Europe Struggles.” 2020. Carnegie Europe. Accessed October 28.
12 “The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Explained.” 2020. POLITICO. September 28.
13 Hauer, Neil. 2020. “Armenia and Azerbaijan Are at War Again—and Not in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Foreign Policy. Accessed
October 28.
14 “Fragile Oil and Gas Interests at Stake for Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey in Nagorno-Karabakh.” Accessed October 16,
15 MPSG. 2020. “The Strategic Energy Implications of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.” MP Strategic Group. October


Author: Berna Yusein

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