Interstate conflicts don’t happen very often anymore. One hallmark feature of the New World Order has been a rapid decline in open, unmediated wars between two established states--particularly those with powerful allies. But just a couple of weeks ago, on November 9th, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement that has so far held steady. The two countries had been embroiled in a weeks-long fight over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority territory with its own breakaway government, but which has nonetheless been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. In this post, we’ll do a little background on the causes of the conflict. Then we’ll jump into some analysis of the aftermath of the conflict, and what it means for various trends in regional and international relations.
Tensions between ethnic Armenians and Azeris over Nagorno-Karabakh stretch back to early in the 20th century, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll begin around the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were Soviet SSRs, or members of the Union indirectly governed by the Kremlin. Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous oblast, or a smaller administrative region under the umbrella of the Azerbaijan SSR. There was one problem--by the end of the ‘80s, Nagorno-Karabakh had a strong Armenian majority. As the Soviet Union itself began to crumble at the edges, local leaders in Nagorno-Karabakh sensed an opportunity to settle the issue of autonomy and ethnic majority. What followed were pogroms, first by Armenians and then by Azeris, and eventually a descent into full-scale war in 1992. The fighting concluded with a victory for Armenia, and hundreds of thousands of remaining Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh were forced to abandon the region. Much of Nagorno-Karabakh was rechristened the Republic of Artsakh, which would de jure remain Azeri, but be governed and populated by Armenians. A cease-fire, not a peace treaty, ended the hostilities and kept the two states in a permanent state of tension.
The next 25 years were characterized by general stability, with occasional bursts of violence. But in September, Azerbaijan began a ground offensive into Nagorno-Karabakh from both the north and south, pushing the Armenian-allied forces back steadily for several days. Azeri drone strikes and artillery were able to severely damage Stepanakert, the capital of the Republic of Artsakh, and destroy important means of transportation within the region. During some intervals, the fighting turned to protracted exchanges of fire from fixed positions, only to be reopened by more drone attacks and heavily armored advances. Attempts at a ceasefire broke down in October, and Azerbaijan took full control of Shusha, the region’s second-largest city, on November 8. The current ceasefire was signed by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Artsakh, and Russia on the following day.
Each side alleged grievous targeting of civilians against the other. Most prominently, international observers confirmed Azerbaijan’s use of cluster bombs against civilian populations. The capital city of Stepanakert saw hundreds of non-military residences and buildings destroyed. Armenian officials claimed that half the population of the entire region of Nagorno-Karabakh had been displaced by the fighting. In order to fully mobilize their populations, both Armenia and Azerbaijan resorted to misinformation tactics through social media and the domestic press.
(If you want more information on the complicated history of Nagorno-Karabakh, I highly recommend Vox’s Worldly podcast episode from several weeks ago, or this visual explainer from the International Crisis Group.)
So what happens now, and what does this mean for the balance of power in the region?
The extent of Turkey’s contribution to the conflict is not yet clear. While it is certain that the Turkish government aided Azerbaijan through important arms sales, international outlets have also reported that Turkey has been responsible for paying and transporting mercenaries in the Syrian National Army from northern regions of Syria to Artsakh. Turkey denies having done this, despite interviews with Syrian fighters confirming the story, but has declared itself Azerbaijan’s ally. Moreover, Turkey’s provision and operation of sophisticated drone technologies may have been the tipping point in the conflict--but more on drones in a moment. In any case, Turkey’s open support for Azerbaijan factors into a greater proxy conflict with Russia, the historical regional power, which already opposes Turkey in Syria and Libya. Azerbaijan’s victory and Russia’s decision to hold off on a full-scale counterattack in the Republic of Artsakh could signal Turkey’s willingness to become a more aggressive powerbroker in the region, even when it means picking fights and not just defending its own interests throughout them.
Turkey’s involvement here also helps cement its transition from soft-power-dependent Middle Eastern democracy to something decidedly different. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has moved toward increasing nationalism, nativism, and authoritarianism. Militaristic incursions near its border such as this one can be used to bolster the internal political narrative that Turkey is defending itself from foes on multiple fronts.
Russia backed Armenia with arms sales throughout this year’s conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, it would seem that Armenia’s loss of territory is simultaneously Russia’s loss in terms of regional influence. But fortunately for Russia, it’s not that simple. Russia sells weapons to Azerbaijan as well; the Kremlin has chosen to hedge its bets. Since Azerbaijan chose to consolidate its victory on November 9 instead of pushing further into Armenia, Russia didn’t feel sufficiently threatened to step in.
In the intervening period between the 1994 ceasefire and November’s truce, Russia didn’t have any boots on the ground in Armenia or Azerbaijan. This was a fairly unique situation among the former SSRs that had been stuck in border disputes, and especially those in the Caucasus region. Russia has invaded Georgia multiple times, for instance, and keeps ethnic tensions in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under a watchful gaze. In November’s ceasefire agreement, Russian President Vladimir Putin was able to negotiate entry for a 2,000-soldier peacekeeping force--no longer will Russia leave Armenia and Azerbaijan to settle disagreements on their own.
There’s also the important factor constituted by the Armenian president, Nikol Pashniyan, who was forced to admit defeat upon putting pen to paper. While Armenia and Russia have been decently close political allies (partially out of convenience, and partially out of cultural tradition), there is little love lost between Pashniyan and the Kremlin. Pashniyan is a journalist-turned-politician, and represents a growing middle class. He has also prosecuted two former Armenian presidents who had warm relationships with Putin himself. Pashniyan fits the mold of the kind of political reformist that Russia generally fears having on its borders. Weakening Pashniyan is understood to be a way for Russia to reassert political control over Armenian politics from within.
EU and the West
In terms of power and influence, Nagorno-Karabakh is an unequivocal setback for the West. Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution issues used to be administered by the so-called “Minsk Group,” made up of Russia, France, and the US. The 1994 ceasefire was negotiated and implemented by the Minsk Group, which operates informally under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). That was, in some sense, a different time in American foreign policy--the Clinton administration was certainly more happy to assert American influence through international organizations than the Trump administration is today.
But the biggest loser in the way the conflict took shape might very well be the European Union. Having watched Russia invade Crimea and wage a war of both physical weaponry and media disinformation in Ukraine’s east in 2014, the EU was content to sit this conflict out as well. European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to either underestimate Azerbaijan’s preparedness and military resolve, or to not be particularly invested in the outcome of the conflict. Between simple calls for negotiation and renewed faith in the peace processes that the OSCE could offer, the EU’s big powers did not do all that much.
The result is a strengthening sphere of influence for Russia, and a path to greater regional significance for Turkey, as discussed above. Given the two countries’ current authoritarian structures, Western leaders could be right to worry about what this means for long-term stability in the region. Calls for the EU to strengthen its economic and diplomatic ties with other Caucasus states like Georgia have grown more prominent in recent weeks.
The Prospects for Peace in Nagorno-Karabakh
Speaking of long-term peace, it’s still quite unclear whether we’ll see any. The ceasefire agreement calls for Artsakh to relinquish control of its territory to Azerbaijan by December 1, and tens of thousands of remaining Armenians are in the process of leaving their homes. Many, however, are burning their own localities prior to departing, so as not to grant any refuge to ethnic Azeris who will repopulate Nagorno-Karabakh. Needless to say, this isn’t good news. Armenians are leaving the homes which they’ve inhabited for generations with irredentist sentiment stronger than ever, and the Azeris who move in, though perhaps elated by their country’s victory in the military conflict, still have significant reason to hold a grudge.
Armenians in Yerevan, the country’s capital city, met the news of the ceasefire agreement with unrest. Hundreds, if not thousands of protesters took to the streets, sweeping into the parliament headquarters, destroying offices and administrative infrastructure, badly injuring the speaker of the parliament in the process. Seventeen opposition parties signed an open letter condemning the peace agreement, and demanding Pashniyan’s immediate resignation. Political instability in Armenia makes it vulnerable to potential violations of the November 9 ceasefire--in essence, Armenia’s only defence for the coming months is not its ability to self-mobilize, but rather the hope that Russian forces will keep their word to intervene if violence returns.
The Armenian and Azeri diasporas have not seen out the conflict period peacefully, either. Reports from France in late October mentioned expatriated Armenians harassing Turks and Azeris in ethnic neighborhoods and, in one instance, shutting down a highway. While such violence has been sporadic rather than constant, if it returns in December, once Armenia has formally ceded parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, it may draw more attention from the migrants’ host countries. As a sort of footnote, expatriated Armenians contribute over 11% of Armenia’s GDP in the form of remittances--it will be interesting to see if this figure falls due to population displacement, or general discontent with the politics back home.
A Note on Drone Warfare
This is where things get really speculative. Turkey, as we discussed before, sold Azerbaijan large quantities of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, or drones) that helped it break through Armenian defences in the mountainous north and flat, sparsely populated south of Nagorno-Karabakh. Drone production and distribution has largely been limited to the United States, China, and Israel in years past. Now, as technology improves, drone manufacturing has proliferated to 18 countries--and one of those is Turkey. American drones remain the best in their class, and with weapons that require tremendous precision, this is a sticking point. But the US is relatively strict about which countries it sells drones to; these deals are generally political, but also reciprocal in some way, and the US has little interest in arming Azerbaijan or Armenia right in Russia’s backyard. As a result, Turkey has managed to use Nagorno-Karabakh as a real-life advertisement for the utility of its drones, in particular the Bayraktar TB-2, which it tested in Syria for several years prior.
For activists who hope to see drones eliminated from modern warfare, Nagorno-Karabakh is a gut punch. For the US, it’s clear that a technological and diplomatic monopoly on drones is no longer a possibility. For small countries seeking an edge in a fight with an evenly-matched neighbor, new possibilities abound.
Welcome to Political Union's blog! All opinions expressed are those of our writers, and not NU Political Union.