Over the weekend, fighting erupted in the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. As many as 30 soldiers were killed on both sides and there were also civilian casualties. An Azerbaijani helicopter was reported to have been shot down and reports noted the involvement of heavy artillery and tanks in the battle over a contested region that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but functions as an autonomous Armenian-run self-declared republic.
This is an incredibly complex situation that threatens to draw in Turkey and Russia, as well as other regional powers, such as Israel and Iran, all of whom have relations and interests in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and long and convoluted histories with both. For some, the conflict has echoes of a Muslim-Christian confrontation, but others will see echoes of the ethnic conflicts of the First World War and persecution of Armenians. At the same time, the struggle fits into a pattern of “little wars” waged in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and Balkans that have created a kaleidescope of breakaway republics, occupied landscapes and intractable conflicts with roots in the Soviet era and before.
To understand this conflict, we must go back to the early 19th century when Persia, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire were competing over the Caucasus. What is now Armenia and Azerbaijan fell under Persian rule. The majority of the Azeri population, some 15 million out of 26 million people, for instance, does not live in Azerbaijan today, but in Iran. The majority of Armenians did not live in what is now the small landlocked state of Armenia, but lived throughout what is now Eastern Turkey before they suffered a genocide in 1915.
In 1813 and 1828 the Russian Empire marched into what is now Azerbaijan and Armenia and in the treaties of Gulistan and Turkmenchay, acquired the southern Caucasus from Qajar Persia. In 1878, after the Russo-Turkish war, the Treaty of San Stefano ceded Russia a section of Ottoman territory inhabited by Armenians in what is now Kars and the ruins of the ancient city of Ani.
This is important because it set the stage for the next round of Russian-Turkish conflict in the First World War when the Turkish army tried to invade Russia through Kars, and Turkish leader Enver Pasha’s 3rd army was almost completely destroyed in January of 1915. This precipitated massacres and deportations of Armenians, which is often called a genocide.
Between December 1917 and June 1918, as the Russian Empire sunk into chaos, sued for peace and fell into civil war between Soviet Communists and nationalists, the Caucasus seethed with conflict. A newly independent Armenia was declared in May 1918 alongside a newly independent Azerbaijan. The two new countries immediately went to war over the area of Nagorno-Karabakh. Atrocities occurred on both sides against the backdrop of a short-lived British intervention in Baku, and the Soviet 11th army’s conquest of the Caucasus and defeat of anti-Soviet forces.
In May 1918 the Soviets overran Azerbaijan and in November they crushed the Armenian Republic. Ironically, the year of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia exhausted both newly independent states and made them easy pickings for the Soviets. At the same time, little Armenia was confronted with a threat in the west as Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, throwing off the Treaty of Sevres that had partitioned modern Turkey, sought to establish the modern Turkish state. Turkish forces easily defeated Armenians and threatened Soviet forces in the Caucasus.
In stepped comrade Josef Stalin, Soviet minister for Nationality Affairs, who wanted to placate the Turks, defend the revolution and perhaps lure Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk over to communist sympathies. He was angered by Armenian nationalist posturing, which demanded parts of Turkey, who called for “Western Armenia” to be annexed to Soviet Armenia from Turkey.
“We cannot make these imperialistic Armenian demands our own…[we say no to] notes dictated by obsessively nationalist Armenians to the Turks,” Stalin wrote to V.I Lenin.
Two treaties, the Treaty of Moscow and Kars, were signed in 1921, ceding claims to Turkey and drawing the current border.
Nagorno-Karabakh was promised to Armenia to make up for the demands Armenians had in Turkey. Azeri communists objected, and Stalin decided on a compromise.
“Regarding the necessity of harmony between Muslims and Armenians…mountainous Karabakh should be left within the boundaries of the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic, while declaring it an autonomous region,” wrote Stalin. The Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast was established in 1923 with some 160,000 residents, the majority of whom were Armenian.
The 1921 decisions have resonated throughout the years. Levrenti Beria urged Stalin to pressure Turkey more strongly for territorial concessions, an issue some have alleged drove Turkey into the arms of NATO in 1951. In February 2016, Russian State Duma members Valery Rashkin and Sergei Obukhov asked the Foreign Ministry to review the treaty. Some extreme Russian nationalists who support Armenia have called for returning parts of Turkey to their ally.
While Soviet Communism was strong, the ethnic issues in the Caucasus were kept under a lid. This was similar to what happened in Yugoslavia and in the dispute over Crimea.
When the Soviet Union began to weaken, the nationalists appeared. In August of 1987, Armenians living in Karabakh sent a petition to Moscow asking to be united with Armenia.
Unsurprisingly, the Armenian Soviet Republic supported annexation while the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic did not, and open clashes between Azeris and Armenians began.
Armenia became an independent state in 1990. In August 1991, Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union and in November of 1991 Azerbaijan abolished the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous state. Armenian- dominated Nagorno-Karabakh immediately held a referendum in which 107,000 people (99% of voters), supported independence. Azerbaijani residents boycotted the vote.
Initially, Armenian leader Levon Ter-Petrossian said his country wanted normalized relations with Turkey in 1991, a new leaf in a sense.
“Armenia is changing, and in this new world we should be neighbor states with new thinking.” But the war with Azerbaijan ruined chances of that. As Armenia, which had close military connections with Russia, overran Nagorno-Karabakh and conquered 14% of Azerbaijan, Turkish President Turgot Ozul threatened intervention. Landlocked Armenia had wanted access to the Turkish harbor of Trabzon, but the dispute ended those plans and Russia closed its 311-km.
border with Armenia in 1993. Turkey also accused Armenia of committing atrocities against Azeris. Iran, with its large population of Turkish-speaking Azeris, found itself closer to Armenia, fearing pan-Turkism.
While the UN has continually condemned Armenia for its involvement in Azerbaijan and refused to accept Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, and specifically a sub-group of countries called the Minsk Group (Belarus, France, Turkey, Russia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Sweden) was set up to mediate the armed conflict, which ended in 1994. US Ambassador Rudolf Perina a co-chair of the group, said the there was little likelihood of solving the conflict in 2014, only stabilizing it. It seems unclear how to solve a conflict in which the majority of the people in Nagorno-Karabakh insist on independence or being part of Armenia, a situation similar to Northern Cyprus. In 2006 more than 74,000 voted to be a “sovereign democratic” state. This “state” is only recognized by Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnitria, three other tiny states that are internationally seen as part of other countries but declared independence in the last 25 years and have been supported by Russia.
The problem is that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is tied to Turkish-Armenian-Russian relations. The Armenian constitution still sees part of eastern Turkey as part of Armenia and wants recognition of the genocide. A Wikileaks cable from March 2005 shows that the US was concerned that Armenia’s view that it could “decouple” relations with Turkey from the conflict with Azerbaijan. Former Foreign Minister of Turkey Yasar Yakis told reporters in 2009 and 2011 that if the US could help mediate, then the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could be resolved, illustrating the degree to which Turkey has a major interest in backing Azerbaijan’s stance.
According to Richard Giragosian in an article in Al-Jazeera in December, the conflict on the ground was heating up over the past years, rising from 19 casualties in skirmishes in 2003 to 64 in 2014 and 60 in 2015. He accused Azerbaijan of acquiring drones from Israel and relying on a strategy of “military escalation as a way to bolster diplomatic leverage within the peace process.” On December 22, Azerbaijan, “whose military spending exceeds Armenia’s entire state budget… threatened to take back the breakaway region by force,” noted a separate Al-Jazeera article. The BBC says the Azeris have gobbled up $4 billion in military equipment from Russia in recent years. But analysts think Russian support for Armenia is a counterbalance.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters in February that Russia was “developing relations with Azerbaijan and will not do anything that could worsen them. On the contrary, we will focus on what can improve our relations with this country.”
However, once the clashes broke out on April 1st, Russian media was reporting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was supporting Baku’s “military solution.” That’s an indication that Russia, which has very bad relations with Ankara over the Syria conflict, is indicating its support for Armenia. On April 3, Azerbaijan unilaterally announced a cease-fire.
It is unclear how any solution to this conflict can come about after 22 years of stalemate.
Like many conflicts, it shows the weakness of the current international system that obsesses over arbitrary borders that date back a hundred years. From Northern Cyprus to Kosovo and beyond this is a problem. As with Western Sahara, there is a narrative of Armenian “occupation” of Azerbaijan, when it is clear the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh prefer independence.
Instead of self-determination, there is limbo. However, for Armenia the conflict is clearly a losing proposition. It is a small, landlocked country with a GDP only one fifth of Azerbaijan’s, and its GDP per capita is a half. It has a far smaller population, and its ability to wage another grinding war without support is unclear. It will need the Russians and Iranians and be a hostage to them. Like Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh may survive, but it will not thrive.