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Nagorno-Karabakh: An old conflict in a new geopolitical context, says South Caucasus expert Tom de Waal

Screenshot from a  BBC video explaining the geography of the conflict

For over three decades, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has been mostly dormant, with long periods of stalemate punctuated by flare-ups of armed confrontation, leading to death on both sides. The most recent outbreak of violence began on September 27. This time, both combatants and analysts are predicting that the conflict will escalate, with unknown and potentially dangerous consequences.

To understand why, I spoke with Tom de Waal, a Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe and expert the geopolitics of the South Caucasus, Russia and Ukraine. De Waal has traveled extensively in the region, and wrote an authoritative book on Nagorno-Karabakh, “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War”.

Filip Noubel (FN) What is different this time in the escalation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which started September 27?

Tom de Waal (TdW) We have seen violations of the 1994 ceasefire before, we’ve even seen small bouts of fighting, but we haven’t seen a sustained military offensive by Azerbaijan since the war ended in the 1990s. This is new, and so is the geopolitical context: Russia looks strangely impotent and seems unable or unwilling to impose a cease fire, while Turkey has dropped any pretense of neutrality and is now playing an active role. Finally, the US, which has had a strong role in this has been an extremely weak voice so far.

FN Both leaders are said to be both prisoners to the conflict, but also exploiting its narrative to fight opposition at home and ride a wave of populism. Would you agree? 

TdW This is correct, but this is true of any leader: the whole nation is involved in this conflict, those two modern nations [following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991] were built starting in the 1990s around the claims on Karabakh, so a leader is bound to be a leader of this national idea around Karabakh as well. It is also useful in terms of domestic politics. This is more true on the Azerbaijani side, because it is an authoritarian society, so now the opposition has to go quiet. Indeed the opposition figures are supporting the army and being very patriotic and supportive. Azerbaijan had a lot of problems this year: falling oil prices, the COVID-19 pandemic, problems with political prisoners, yet now it unites behind this call. But this is also very tricky: if there is no success on the battle front, the nation can turn against its leader, and indeed two previous Azerbaijani leaders, Ayaz Mutalibov and Abdulfaz Elchibey lost power in large part because of failure on the Karabakh front.

FN During this escalation, Armenian authorities restated that they could recognize Nagorno-Karabakh. If this were to happen, what could be the consequences?

TdW In military terms, we are far from being in a full scale war. Most operations are concentrated in three regions around Karabakh, using long-range weaponry. To retake the territory lost is literally an uphill battle because Armenians control the mountainous terrain. This could mean heavy losses on the Azerbaijani side, which is not something the Azerbaijani leadership would want, nor their society tolerate. That is a restraining factor, but this [fight] could go on for a long time. Russia doesn't seem to be able impose a ceasefire, thus there are many ways this could escalate. One is Armenia recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh. Then we would have more of a Cyprus situation, with no possibility to agree. Another one could be the use of heavy weapons to attack cities, which would be disastrous. Or if Turkey were to increase its involvement: for now it is not sending troops, it is helping at the edges. In the least bad scenario, the current fighting would continue for a few days, then both sides would be exhausted, claim some success, and agree to a ceasefire. But I am not holding my breath for that.

FN Turkey’s support is unprecedented. What do you make of the Turkey-Russia relationship, which has been swinging from sworn enemies to allies in the past few years on several regional issues, including the Syria conflict?

TdW Erdoğan and Putin are happy to have a fight using proxies, which is why I hope Turkey will avoid any incursion which would cross into Armenian territory, which Russia would have to respond to under its military obligation with Armenia. So I don’t think they will come under direct conflict. Russia’s hands are really tied. They are the main mediator, they value their relation with Baku and Yerevan, so if they get too involved on one side, they would lose the other side. Russian can only provide support discreetly to Armenia, and there are reports of Moscow sending weapons via Iran.

FN What about the roles of Georgia and Iran, two other neighboring countries?

TdW Georgia has a strong interest in this situation not escalating. It shares borders with both countries. It also has ethnic minorities of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis who have lived in peace for decades. But Georgia is very dependent on Azerbaijan economically. It has also expressed solidarity with Azerbaijan on the concept of territorial integrity [Georgia itself has parts of its territory that have declared self-proclaimed independence and are no longer under Georgian control: Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. Georgia has offered to be a mediator, but it would not be regarded as an honest broker by Armenia. And Russia certainly wouldn’t want Tbilisi to be involved [Russia and Georgia fought a war in 2008]. Georgia could provide a neutral space for both sides to meet, and should be more involved but there are limits to their capacities.

Iran was a mediator in 1992, but then was shut out. But it has borders with both states as well. It has enormous stakes and any future negotiations in an international format must include Iran, despite US opposition.

2 comments

  • As for role of Iran, I might add that Iran wants an opportunity to take back it’s territories from Azerbaijan too. Iran “will never” abandon it’s irredentist claims on its territories of “Arran and Shriven” on the north side of Aras River which fallaciously is being called country of Azerbaijan.

  • I might add that Iran always looking for opportunity to take back its territories from Azerbaijan too. Iran “will never” abandon it’s irredentist claims on its territo-ries of “Arran and Shriven” on the north side of Aras River which is fallaciously being called country of Azerbaijan.

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