Is the Fight Over a Strip of Land or Regional Hegemony

On September 27, a new and vicious round of fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. A mountainous region the size of Delaware with a population no more than 150,000, Nagorno-Karabakh has been the cause of tensions between Armenians and Azeris for more than a century and—although populated and autonomously controlled by ethnic Armenians who desire to be reunited with Armenia—it has been internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan since shortly after the former Soviet republic’s creation in 1920. But, after over two

and a half decades of peace in the region, many are wondering, why now? Why has such intense fighting broken out between the two nations at what many consider to be the worst possible time? And, while it is not clear exactly who fired the first shot, much of the rationale has to do with the changing position of Azerbaijan since the last war over the territory

The last time such intense fighting was had over Nagorno-Karabakh was during a six year war between Armenia and Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1994. The war claimed tens of thousands of lives, saw Armenia seize control of the territory, and only ended after an internationally brokered ceasefire. Despite all of this, no peace agreement was ever signed between the warring states and, as such, international recognition remained in the hands of Azerbaijan. But, this war also traversed the downfall of the Soviet Union and, therefore, the liberation of both Armenia and Azerbaijan from their status as Soviet republics. Azerbaijan is a relatively resource wealthy country and, liberated from the Soviet yoke, spent the years after the war developing its export capabilities independent of Russia. Azerbaijan saw two opportunities in exporting gas: first, by building pipelines through Turkey, Azerbaijan could position itself as an alternative to Russia in supplying energy to gas-thirsty Europe. Second, exporting gas was a relatively quick way to get lots of money, money with which to buy weapons and build up military power. So, as former French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, posited in his analysis of the conflict on Twitter, with newfound oil revenues and a rejuvenated military, it was really only a matter of time before Azerbaijan set itself on the reconquest of its nominally controlled territory. ​ But, this war also marks a new potential proxy conflict between two of the region’s—and the world’s—biggest military powers who have found themselves increasingly at odds: Turkey and Russia. Turkey has long had an antagonistic relationship with Armenia dating back to its role in the Armenian Genocide between 1914 and 1923. But, Turkey has also had a close relationship with Azerbaijan, being a central component of Azerbaijan’s energy export policy and a major source of the country’s military hardware. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has left no doubt as to where he stands on the recent fighting, eagerly placing his support firmly behind Azerbaijan. ​ Russia, on the other hand, has a more complicated role to play. The longtime hegemon of the Caucuses, Russia has fairly strong relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. But, along with the U.S. and France, Russia fills out the top three destinations of the Armenian diaspora—a community of some seven million people worldwide with an additional three million in Armenia itself—and is signatory to a mutual defense pact with Armenia (an obligation that Moscow claims is not binding in this situation since the actual fighting has only taken place in Nagorno-Karabakh, not Armenia proper). To top it all off, Turkey has been challenging Russia more and more in proxy wars in Syria and Libya and, what’s more, Turkey has found some success in those endeavors. Now, to challenge Putin on his doorstep shows just how bold Erdoğan’s bid for regional hegemony really is. But, Russia has been dealt a losing hand here: to outright support Armenia would be to admit that Turkey’s influence in Russia’s historical sphere is stronger to threaten Russia hegemony. But, to try to stay neutral in the conflict would run the risk of allowing Turkey’s gambit to succeed and allow Azerbaijan to gain the upper-hand—much as has happened in their past run-ins in Syria and Libya—which would make Russia look weak and unable to maintain regional stability. So, Moscow has opted to play mediator and announced that they had brokered a tentative ceasefire the morning of October 10. ​ The purpose of the ceasefire was to allow civilians to evacuate and for both sides to recover their dead, but within hours of its implementation, each country had accused the other of violating it. With attempts at peace seemingly futile, it is difficult to know just how this conflict will be resolved and just who will come out on top. As the fighting continues, though, Armenian communities in the United States and in France are increasingly putting pressure on their respective governments to intervene to varying degrees, either to broker peace or pick up the task of reuniting ethnic Armenians with Armenia. Both countries played a role in the ceasefire in 1994 and are involved in the talks now as well, but the path that this conflict will take is still unclear. Perhaps the coalition of Russia, the U.S., and France will be able to forge peace once again, but it is important to remember that there were six years of fighting before a ceasefire was brokered last time, so it is unlikely that much will be made clear anytime soon. ​

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