The largely mountainous and forested Nagorno-Karabakh, home for some 150,000 people, is at the centre of the conflict again.
Fresh clashes erupted on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, threatening to push the countries back to war 26 years after a ceasefire was reached. Dozens have been killed so far. The conflict between the two former Soviet republics has wider geopolitical implications as Turkey, which shares a border with Armenia, is backing Azerbaijan, while Russia, which has good ties with both countries, has called for a ceasefire.
Why are they fighting?
Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan but is populated, mostly, by those of Armenian ethnicity (and mostly Christian compared to the Shia Muslim majority Azerbaijan).
The conflict can be traced back to the pre-Soviet era when the region was at the meeting point of Ottoman, Russian and the Persian empires. Once Azerbaijan and Armenia became Soviet Republics in 1921, Moscow gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan but offered autonomy to the contested region.
In the 1980s, when the Soviet power was receding, separatist currents picked up in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In 1988, the national assembly voted to dissolve the region’s autonomous status and join Armenia. But Baku suppressed such calls, which led to a military conflict.
When Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the clashes led to an open war in which tens of thousands of people were killed. The war lasted till 1994 when both sides reached a ceasefire (they are yet to sign a peace treaty and the border is not clearly demarcated).
By that time, Armenia had taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh and handed it to Armenian rebels. The rebels have declared independence, but have not won recognition from any country.
It is today governed by separatist Armenians who have declared it a republic called the “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast”The region is still treated as a part of Azerbaijan by the international community, and Baku wants to take it back.
What triggered the current clashes?
Even after the 1994 peace deal, the region has been marked by regular exchanges of fire. In 2016, it saw a Four-Day War before Russia mediated peace. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, chaired by France, Russia and the US, has tried to get the two countries to reach a peace agreement for several years.
Despite the ceasefire, there were occasional flare-ups on the border. In July this year, at least 16 people were killed in clashes.
After current violence, Azerbaijan and Armenia blamed each other. Baku said it was forced to respond after Armenian attacks killed and wounded Azeris. The Defence Ministry said the troops have captured territories from Armenian forces. Armenia, on the other side, blamed Azerbaijan for launching the “large-scale” attack targeting peaceful settlements. Nagorno-Karabakh authorities have claimed that dozens were killed in the region in the Azeri attack.
What is the strategic significance of the region?
The energy-rich Azerbaijan has built several gas and oil pipelines across the Caucasus (the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea) to Turkey and Europe. This includes the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline (with a capacity of transporting 1.2 billion barrels a day), the Western Route Export oil pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline. Some of these pipelines pass close to the conflict zone (within 16 km of the border). In an open war between the two countries, the pipelines could be targeted, which would impact energy supplies.
What’s Turkey’s role?
Turkey has historically supported Azerbaijan and has had a troublesome relationship with Armenia. In the 1990s, during the war, Turkey closed its border with Armenia and it has no diplomatic relations with the country. The main point of contention between the two was Ankara’s refusal to recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide in which the Ottomans killed some 1.5 million Armenians.
On the other end, the Azeris and Turks share strong cultural and historical links. Azerbaijanis are a Turkic ethnic group and their language is from the Turkic family. After Azerbaijan became independent, Turkey established strong relations with the country, which has been ruled by a dynastic dictatorship.
In July, after the border clashes, Turkey held a joint military exercise with Azerbaijan. On September 28, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Armenia for the most recent clashes and offered support to Azerbaijan.
There were reports that Turkey was recruiting mercenaries from West Asia to fight for Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. This fits well into Ankara’s aggressive foreign policy, which seeks to expand Turkish interests to the former Ottoman territories. Recently, Turkey has either joined conflicts or stepped up tensions in West Asia, East Mediterranean, North Africa and now the Caucasus.
Where does Russia stand?
Moscow sees the Caucasus and Central Asian region as its backyard. But the current clashes put President Vladimir Putin in a difficult spot. Russia enjoys good ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and supplies weapons to both. But Armenia is more dependent on Russia than the energy-rich, ambitious Azerbaijan. Russia also has a military base in Armenia.
But Moscow, at least publicly, is trying to strike a balance between the two. Like in the 1990s, its best interest would be in mediating a ceasefire between the warring sides.
For other countries, including the US, have limited their participation to appeals for maintaining peace so far. For all countries, the region is an important transit route for the supply of oil and natural gas to the European Union.
What is next for Nagorno-Karabakh?
Observers believe an all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is unlikely due to a number of factors. In this disputed region, there are hundreds of civilian settlements, residents of which would be directly impacted and potentially displaced if any large-scale war were to break out between the two countries.
Although Turkey released a statement that it would back Azerbaijan “in its struggle to protect its territorial integrity”, observers believe any military escalation would draw regional powers like Turkey and Russia more deeply into the conflict, something that wouldn’t be preferred by either Ankara or Moscow.
There is also the question of the network of oil and gas pipelines and strategic roads to which access might be blocked or interrupted for the region at large should any large-scale fighting ensue. For both Armenia and Azerbaijan, these would create immediate challenges, leading observers to believe that a war would not be in the interest of both countries.
Where Does India Stand?
India does not have a publicly articulated policy for the South Caucasus, unlike ‘Neighbourhood First’, ‘Act East’ or ‘Central Asia Connect’ policies and the region has remained only on the periphery of its radar.
Further, there is a visible asymmetry in India’s relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Armenia is the only country in the region with which it has a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty (signed in 1995), which incidentally would prohibit India from providing military or any other assistance to Azerbaijan in case Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh spills over to the territory of Armenia.
India has received three heads of states from Armenia but none from Azerbaijan or Georgia. Armenia extends its unequivocal support to India on Kashmir issue whereas Azerbaijan not only supports but also promotes Pakistan’s narrative on this issue.
The levels of India’s trade or investment with Armenia are, however, very low. In the case of Azerbaijan, the ONGC/OVL have made relatively small investments in an oilfield project in Azerbaijan and GAIL is exploring the possibilities of cooperation in LNG.
Azerbaijan falls on International North-South Transport Corridor route, connecting India with Russia through central Asia; it can also connect India with Turkey and beyond through Baku-Tbilisi-Kars passenger and freight rail link.
In view of Georgia’s foreign policy priority of integration with Euro-Atlantic structures and also in deference to Russia’s sensitivities, India has slow-peddled the development of its relations with Georgia with whom Russia’s relations are at a very low ebb. On the whole, India’s stakes in the region can be assessed as more or less peripheral.
India has adjusted its position as the conflict has evolved.
In the very initial stages of the conflict in 1993, India said it had “followed with great concern the escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh with considerable ingress of Armenian forces into Azerbaijan” and had called for “respecting each others’ territorial integrity and inviolability of existing borders”.
In 2008, India joined Russia, the USA and France and voted against Azerbaijan’s resolution in UNGA which inter-alia demanded “the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories of Azerbaijan” For quite some time now, India’s emphasis is on peaceful resolution of the conflict through diplomatic negotiations.
India has every reason not to support Azerbaijan who has built its case on the basis of territorial integrity as Azerbaijan has shown scant regard for India’s territorial integrity violated by Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir.
At the same time it is difficult for India to support Armenia and publicly endorse Nagorno-Karabakh’s right for self-determination in view of the possible repercussions it can have for India as its adversaries may misuse it not only by making erroneous demands to apply it to Kashmir but also to re-ignite secessionist movement in certain parts of India.
Under the circumstances India has adopted a balanced and neutral stance and made a politically correct statement in which it has expressed its concern, called for restraint and immediate cessation of hostilities and resolution of conflict peacefully through diplomatic negotiations.
In this context India has also expressed its support for the OSCE Minsk Group’s continued efforts towards peaceful resolution, implying that India is not in favour of the involvement of any other entity, including Turkey. Arguably, India’s statement should have also reflected its position on the alleged entry of mercenaries in the conflict.