A War No One Wants
I have been asked by a number of friends to write something on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I am quite resistant to the practice of rushing out pieces on obscure conflicts merely because they are in the news. It was embarrassing how many journalists became “experts” on Afghanistan after9/11, and the United States was poorly served by the experts on “Russian subversion” who flooded social media after November of 2016. I actually have some familiarity with the conflict, not from having worked on it, but because for personal entertainment I read Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War several year sago. While the book ended in the mid-2000s, it went on more than long enough to establish the degree to which the conflict had poisoned the politics of both countries, smothering democracy in its crib.
The most interesting aspect of the conflict I gleamed from my reading was the degree to which it was unwanted. While much has been made of the potential of a regional conflict to suck in Russia, Turkey, or even the United States, in reality almost all the major parties have sought to defuse the conflict since1992 or so. The United States, divided between a geopolitical desire to gain access to Azerbaijan’s vast oil wealth through a pipeline by way of Turkey, and the pressures of the powerful Armenian American lobby at home, sees the conflict as an obstacle to its regional interests. America’s goal is to undermine Russia’s regional power by exploiting Azerbaijan’s oil. Yet, despite Armenia’s close relationship with Moscow, the US congress prohibited any American aid to Azerbaijan in 1993, under pressure by the Armenian lobby. Without solving the conflict, the US cannot legally align with Azerbaijan no matter how much every President has wanted to. As for Turkey, pan-Muslim and Turkic kinship, suspicion of Russian influence, and longstanding antipathy to Armenians drive it to back Azerbaijan. And yet it has no desire to seek an open proxy conflict with Russia, not least because there is little Turkey can do but blockade Armenia whereas Russia can exert direct influence. Russia, in turn, having intervened in the 1990s to help Armenia triumph, has found itself committed to upholding an Armenian occupation which ensures the enmity of Azerbaijan which would otherwise be Pro-Russian given its authoritarian government.
In fact, the only person who wanted the conflict was arguably Mikhail Gorbachev, who as chronicled in The Last Empire by Sergii Plokhi, sought to stir up ethnic conflict to prove the necessity of a continued Soviet state. This failed to set-off a Russo-Ukrainian conflict over the Crimea, but it nevertheless laid the groundwork for Chechnya’s secession from Russia under a former Soviet general whose declaration of “sovereignty” was recognized by the phantom Soviet government in its death throes. The result was to turn the Azeri-Armenian conflict into a proxy war, one where side backing the Azeris ceased to exist at the end of 1991, contributing to their defeat.
There is then a degree of irony that Azerbaijan, run by the family of the former long-time KGB chief and party oligarch, Heydar Aliyev, became the de facto "Western" proxy in the region, and Armenia nominally democratic with multi-party elections and a large diaspora became Russian. But having bet everything on the Soviet Union, and more importantly declared itself the enemy of the Russian reformists under Yeltsin, Azerbaijan was committed to an anti-Russian course no matter how little sense it made. Armenia, even more tragically, found itself trapped in the Kremlin orbit, which after 2000 saw increasing authoritarianism to echo what was happening in Moscow under Putin. Armenia was relatively lucky, however. Unlike the Ukraine, or Belarus, where Putin was convinced the public was anti-Russian, Armenia's position is so dependent on Russian support that when protests broke out in 2018, Putin was willing to allow a peaceful transfer of power content in the knowledge that one pro-Russian government would be replaced another.
All of this is peripheral to the real question? What is this conflict about?
The simplest answer is that it is a border dispute. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh has been since the 1930s located within the territory of the Azerbaijani Republic yet has an Armenian population. Prior to that it was an autonomous region governed by local Armenians, but Stalin, as part of his efforts to undermine nationalism and set nationalities against one another abolished this autonomy and transferred it entirely to Azerbaijan. When Perestroika begin in the 1980s, Armenians began agitating for the restoration of autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh or its full return to Armenia. If Nagorno-Karabakh had been located on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan this would have been a relatively simple request, albeit still a highly charged one. But it is not. The Armenian majority enclave was surrounded entirely by territory in which Azeris were the majority. We will come back later to my use of the past tense "was" regarding the ethnic makeup of the surrounding territory. Stalin's successors tried to reach a compromise by establishing an autonomous Armenian dominated local government in Nagorno-Karabakh but this created a further problem when that government itself began clashing with the Azeri government in Baku. The former accused the latter of interfering in its autonomy, while the Azeris accused the local officials of promoting an Armenian nationalist agenda.
Any reunion of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia therefore would result in the further division of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, is to be fair, already divided by Armenia, with the enclave of Nakhichevan located along the Turkish border. Agreements were reached on transit through Armenia, and these have held up even during the years of conflict proving that given trust, such an arrangement would have been feasible for Nagorno-Karabakh. But that would have required Azerbaijan to agree to cede the region in return for almost nothing, while it would require Armenia to leave transport and supply of the region at the mercy of Azeri territory. In the end, matters never go that far. Panicked by Armenian agitation, Azeris began to see Armenians as fifth column. In 1988 a pogrom was launched in the city of Sumgait. In response the government of Nagorno-Karabakh declared secession from Azerbaijan. This culminated in riots in the capital of Baku in which hundreds of Armenians were killed and tens of thousands driven from their homes. The events convinced Armenians that there was no place for them within Azerbaijan, and made Azeri leaders wary of the popular reaction to any concessions. The New York Times reported "Azerbaijan is no Lithuania... Nationalists in Lithuania are struggling to wrest independence from Moscow by nonviolent, political means. Nationalists in Azerbaijan also talk of independence, but their protest includes bloody pogroms against their Armenian neighbors." By the middle of 1990 therefore, any solution which involved an Armenian population remaining under Azeri rule was out of the question.
The conflict rapidly became a national problem. While the actions of the Azeris were embarrassing to Moscow, the actions of the Armenian government and the autonomous administration of Nagorno-Karabakh were a direct challenge to the constitutional integrity of the Soviet state. They asserted a unilateral right to change borders without reference to the Soviet Union as a whole, which implied the Republics, not the Union, were sovereign. As such, while the Soviet government sent troops to try and contain rioting and ethnic pogroms against Armenians, they did so in a context in which they were tasked with upholding Azerbaijan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. That meant the removal of the autonomous government of Nagorno-Karabakh which had challenged it. Regardless of Gorbachev's efforts to be even-handed then, he by definition took the side of Azerbaijan on all major issues of contention even if deplored some of the actions taken by Azeris. By contrast, the cause of the Armenians rapidly became the cause of Russian liberals. Armenians had long been overrepresented in the Soviet intelligentsia whereas the only Union institutions where Azeris were disproportionately present was the hated KGB. Very soon, support of the Armenian cause became a test of one's commitment to democracy and reform.
As 1990 turned to 1991 this became increasingly important. The Soviet government was fading, and the views of the Russian government were becoming more important. Russian, Ukrainian, and Baltic Soviet troops increasingly sympathized with the Armenians, and violating orders, sold them weapons or outright handed them over when withdrawing. The result was the worst of both worlds. Official the Red Army was peacekeeping on the side of the Azeris, alienating Armenians. In practice, Red Army troops increasingly were supporting the Armenians and arming them with the result that the Red Army presence was enabling an Armenian takeover of the dispute regions. By the time of the August Coup, Armenian forces were largely in control of Nagorno-Karabakh. When the coup destroyed the KGB and set off a short battle for control of the Red Army between Gorbachev and Yelstin and became the signal for an intensification of the conflict. Armenian forces launched a campaign which rapidly overran not just Nagorno-Karabakh but Azeri majority areas adjacent to it. Gorbachev ordered the Red Army to suppress this invasion, Yeltsin to stand down. In practice the Soviet forces increasingly began to dissolve as non-Russians returned home, but before doing so they generally turned their weapons over to the Armenians. By early 1992 the Armenians were ascendant.
The next year and a half saw repeated Azeri offensives intermixed with chaos in Azerbaijan as these failed. By the end of 1993, Azerbaijan was back under the control of Heydar Aliyev, the former Communist era boss and KGB deputy head, and 20% of the country was occupied by Armenia. That is more or less where things have sat. Azerbaijan is unable to displace Armenian militarily. Politically, hostility to Armenia means that Turkey has blockaded the country in solidarity with Azerbaijan. Armenian Americans have blocked any US aid or engagement with Azerbaijan.
There have been incentives for both sides to move beyond the conflict. Armenia for reasons of economic development, Azerbaijan to be able to move on. But public opposition exists to trading territory, especially when it means the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of ethnically cleansed compatriots. The President of Armenia was forced out of office in 1998 for agreeing to a peace agreement. Similar efforts, hosted by the United States and Russia, have run aground in the years since.
So why is fighting breaking out now? Well a lot depends on who you think is behind it. Armenia has much to fear from a potential Russian-Turkish rapprochement. Armenia's position, regardless of the sympathy that exists in the West, has been dependent on Russian support. If Russia were to decide that detaching Erdogan from NATO was worth more than Armenia, especially if Erdogan delivered an authoritarian Azerbaijan in tow, Armenia would have little choice but to accept whatever terms Russia dictated. Russia has other reasons for pursuing this end. Azerbaijan is located along its border with Iran. One reason for the West's extensive interest in Azerbaijan is for exactly that reason. Securing a direct overland link would be advantageous. Fearing a settlement, Armenia would have plenty of reasons to try and drive the parties apart.
That said, there are reasons why such a settlement, while advantageous to Putin, might not be to Erdogan or Aliyev. For one thing, their interest is in getting Azerbaijan's oil wealth to market. By contrast, Russia and Iran, both major energy producers heavily dependent on high prices, have a vested incentive not to develop Azerbaijan's energy resources. A pact with Russia might well deliver some of the lost territories to Azerbaijan, but at the cost of Erdogan's dreams of energy security. It is unclear why Erdogan would particularly value the former over the latter. The Azeri people would welcome the return of the territories, but as a realistic matter it has been almost 30 years since they were lost. Their Azeri population is gone. Administering them would be logistically impossible, and it is unclear why Aliyev and the Azeri elite would wish to even try. By contrast they profit handsomely from Western interest in Azerbaijan's energy sector, and if the cost of an empty nationalist victory would be taking on less desirable Russian partners they would accept that outcome under duress. The Aliyev's themselves have never been invested in the conflict with Armenia. On the contrary, they hail from Nakhichevan which they effectively kept neutral in the 1991-1993 war. They have endorsed virtually every peace deal proposed. The stumbling blocks have been on the Armenian side.
Complicating matters, Armenia has been hard hit by Covid19 with much of the political elite including the Prime Minister contracting the virus. While in theory this would have mitigated against any adventurous action it is also possible that the outbreak could have exacerbated the ever present sense of siege in Armenian elite circles.
The real mystery then is why now? None of the major players has an interest in stirring up a conflict. The Armenians have the most, namely an incentive to remind the other powers that THEY are a party to conflict and can reignite it if and when they so chose. But given Armenia's deteriorating regional position .and the uncertainty caused by the American election, this would be a very dangerous time to take this risk. Armenia holds virtually the entire disputed territory. It can only lose it.