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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Bryant

Nagorno-Karabakh: Historical analysis of a dynamic conflict at the fringes of the MENA-region



I: Intractable Conflicts Fought with the Sword


At the current moment the Armenian Crisis regarding Nagorno-Karabakh is in an extreme amount of flux. The confused and ever-changing nature of the current time period is endemic to this situation as a whole. Numerous Armenian civilians have fled the incoming Azeri forces as they make evermore blatant incursions into the Armenian backed autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh. The majority population of Armenians who have lived in the region for centuries have been forced to flee their homes, with their possessions tied to the roofs of their cars (Armstrong and Zotova 2023).


The humanitarian crisis was further reinforced by the seeming complete paralyzation of the Armenian government in the face of this renewed offensive by Azeri forces. In a lightning series of raids and military maneuvers, troops from Azerbaijan overwhelmed and incapacitated the autonomous republic of Artsakh which has led to the current mass exodus from the region. This most recent victory is in fact a reaffirmation of their victory in 2020 wherein they managed to deal heavy losses to Armenian forces and gain concessions in the form of formal renunciation of territories by the Armenian government (Ostrovsky 2022).


Azerbaijan has not just gained these recent victories because of its military investiture. It has also won because it has taken advantage of the various alliances within the region in order to maintain a consistent flow of support from a wide array of spheres. While there are many angles from which to investigate the recent events in Nagorno Karabakh, the most pertinent is how this crisis is affecting the various webs of alliances and interests that all converge in this conflict region.


Armenia and Azerbaijan were both long under the direct control of the Russian empire and then its successor the Soviet Union. In this arrangement, overt hostility between minority groups within the empire were heavily suppressed. The Soviet Union encouraged self identity with national republics that fostered a sense of shared identity within the Union. (Hirsch 2005, Chapter 4) In particular the Soviet Union placed great emphasis on fostering ‘titular minorities’ that were able to help to counterbalance the ‘Russian’ chauvinism that the new communist project was meant to suppress (Martin 2001). This overarching emphasis on harmony coupled with the local sense of identity politics and mobilization led to a situation in which nationalism was encouraged at the local level when it was subsumed into the larger Soviet whole. Without the Soviet superstructure to maintain order, local nationalism quickly spun out of control.


This issue of populations cut off from their core territories is something that the scholar Rogers Brubaker refers to as being nationally “mismatched”. In his work about minorities and nationalism he describes how ethnic minorities in the Post-Soviet space frequently found themselves going from a position of security within a wider shared geopolitical space to one of anxiety cut off from their former network of security. Brubakers example of Russians finding themselves outside of the borders of Russia with the stroke of a pen also works well for Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh (Brubaker 1996).


The Soviet Union was able to keep the balancing of these various ethnic interests only so long as they were the ones arbitrating. In the immediate collapse of the Soviet Union Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war. In the first Armenia-Azerbaijan War 1988-1994, Armenia had many advantages that allowed it to prevail over Azerbaijan. First and foremost, Armenians were overrepresented amongst the higher ranking officers of the Soviet Military, subsequently they brought more experience to the fight then their Azeri counterparts. Armenians were overrepresented within the rank and file of the military. Thus in this first conflict Armenia had an advantage in leadership and practical experience as opposed to their Azeri counterparts. (Papazian 2008, 20–22)


The Armenian military was able to force peace terms onto Azerbaijan that were most favorable to itself. However in the time between the war of the 90’s and the 2020’s Azerbaijan would go through a rapid transformation to address its abysmal performance in the previous decades. The academic papers and journal articles in the early 2010’s chronicling the Azeri military expenditure and buildup now read like the harbingers of catastrophe for the Armenian army. As scholars like Özgür Özdamar show, by the early 2000’s Azeri military spending was already outpacing that of the Armenians



It is also safe to say that for many scholars, Azerbaijan's military buildup was seen as more of a byproduct to Russia’s military clashes with Georgia which lead to an increased GDP spending on the military in the entire South Caucasus region (Shlapentokh 2013). This is not to say of course that scholars or the wider public were ignorant of the desire of Azerbaijan to redress its defeat at the hands of Armenia. It is merely to point out that it is one thing to see Azerbaijan's military expenditure as something that was more contingent and reactive to other countries like Russia’s military action, rather than to see Azerbaijan's military buildup as a form of Revanchism that we can see now has born fruit for their efforts.


Papers like Tina Kharatyan’s discussion on Azerbaijani military buildup written in 2018, take more seriously the threat that Azerbaijani military buildup has in and of itself irregardless of Russian actions in the region. It was of course always a hotly contested region but the consistent military buildup, a revanchism on the scale of France’s recovery of her ‘lost daughters’ is something that was only becoming more clear as the years went on and Azerbaijan continued to pour money and personnel into modernizing its army. (Kharatyan and Eurasia 2023). This is to show that analysis that saw Azeri military buildup as a response to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was mistaken. With hindsight we can see that this military buildup had the purpose of revanchism and not self defense.



II: Shared Enemies Makes Strange Bedfellows


The Armenian-Azeri conflict sees its true scope when factoring in the alliances which each country is able to bring to bear against the other. Before the independence of Azerbaijan (1991) and Armenia (1991), both countries were under the Russian Empire and successor state of the Soviet Union. Under this arrangement there was little room for infighting. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the aforementioned war fought in the 1990’s Armenia and Azerbaijan both were left wanting for strong alliances to secure their own position in the region.


Armenia remained in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that was Russia’s successor to the Warsaw pact and also seen as the competitor to NATO. In the first war since the 1990’s Armenia found itself without help from the CSTO when Azerbaijan attacked across the border to secure Nagorno-Karabakh. In a statement put out by the CSTO they did not condemn Azerbaijan for attacking one of its member states but rather encouraged renewed talks and a hope to avoid further violence (CSTO 2020).


This failure of Russia in particular to condemn Azerbaijan overtly was seen by many Armenians as a betrayal. With Russia’s commitments in the region seemingly becoming more focused around Azerbaijan, Armenia turned to other regional powers for security guarantees. Iran in particular has been more than willing to step into the gap left open by Russia. Iran has long desired to keep a check on Turkey’s power in the region (Gavin 2022). States may have changed but the rivalry between Anatolia and Persia has remained a constant feature of the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East. In the modern conflict Iran has multiple issues that it seeks to remain either constant or to change. A situation they would like to remain constant is the borders. Iranian foreign policy sees an ascendent Azerbaijan as a potential source of instability within its own country. Iran has a sizeable Azeri population in the region, and an Azeri victory might convince some that they would rather be in Azerbaijan than Iran(Gavin 2022)


Turkey’s presence as well has been felt more strongly in the region due to its conducting of military operations against Kurdish separatists in Syria. These military attacks have not only decimated Kurdish separatism which has always been a source of deep anxiety for Ankara, but has also allowed Turkey to project its power across the region.


The biggest lynchpin in this particular conflict has to be that of Iran. In terms of regional politics, all roads lead through a few major power brokers, and Iran as a country that borders both Azerbaijan and Armenia, holds some very powerful pieces of leverage that it can use to influence outcomes in their own favor. In the case of Armenia vs Azerbaijan, Iran sees its own interests aligned with that of Armenia. This is first and foremost an issue of Azerbaijan's close ties with Turkey who is a geopolitical rival to the Iranians.


The question arises whether this interest from Iran is only for the sake of countering Turkey. Azerbaijan also has military pacts with Israel which is a key rival of the Iranian government. These military procurements from Turkey and Israel were not insubstantial. It has been reported that much of the heavy artillery, rockets, and drones were supplied by Turkey and Israel(Debre 2023). Turkey for its part has multiple ties to Azerbaijan that make the alliance all but inviolable. Turkey and Azerbaijan have been referred to as, “one people two states”, Turkey is also the conduit of Azeri oil and natural gas (Fraser 2020)


While it might be tempting to say that Israeli defense contracts with the Azeri government are purely a check on Iran's power, the truth is more complex. It cannot be said that Israeli relations with Azerbaijan are completely mercenary, there does seem to be genuine affection amongst the population of both countries. Dave Gordon, writing for the Jerusalem Post, cites the numerous Jewish communities that have lived largely without persecution in Azerbaijan for hundreds of years (Gordon 2023). He also discusses how Azerbaijan is the first majority Shia country to open up a board of tourism as well as an embassy within Israel. Azeri separatism within Iran has also meant that relations between Azerbaijan and Iran have never been overly friendly. This shared antagonism is something that Israeli and Azeri governments have in common. Similarly to Turkey, Israel is also an importer of Azeri oil which has led to deeper economic ties between the two countries (Bagirova and Cordell 2023)



Conclusion


The recent victory of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh can be attributed to its use of alliances to bolster its own standing in the region. As was also explained, Azerbaijani funding into its own military dwarfed that of Armenia. The humanitarian disaster that has resulted from Azerbaijan forcibly conquering Nagorno Karabakh is the result of political forces that were mustered over the course of decades.


Armenia’s recent alienation from Russia has also forced them to rely on other regional powers. One might ask if Armenia's newfound relationship with Iran will endanger its own ambitions to get US aid simultaneously. In a region with complicated and oftentimes contradictory webs of alliances, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a contest to find a better guarantee for their own security.


Matthew Bryant is a graduate from the Higher School of Economics Saint Petersburg where he studied Comparative Politics of Eurasia with a focus on Post-Soviet studies. His work can be found on Twitter @Realmofmatt.




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