Why Azerbaijan and Armenia Fight With Such Tenacity

Fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh has broken out repeatedly since Armenians seized control of the territory and surrounding areas from Azerbaijan in a war that started soon after the 1991 collapse of the former Soviet Union. That conflict killed more than 30,000 people and displaced another 1 million. Despite decades of mediation by the U.S., Russia and France, a solution remained elusive. The latest bout of fighting, a 44-day battle that started Sept. 27, was the worst in decades, much broader and more geopolitically fraught than the previous skirmishes that had broken out since the end of the war in 1994. This time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave unreserved backing to his country’s ally Azerbaijan, raising the stakes significantly and tipping the military balance. Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a peace deal after Armenians, facing defeat at the hands of the Azerbaijani army, agreed to stop fighting and withdraw their forces.

1. What’s the root of the dispute?

Today’s Armenia and Azerbaijan were for centuries situated in fluid borderlands between the Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires, with both suffering partition and brutality at the hands of much larger powers. The two communities began to fight each other as those empires collapsed toward the end of World War I and they sought to form independent states, with Russia backing Armenia and Ottoman Turkey supporting Azerbaijan in what amounted to a proxy war. Nagorno-Karabakh was a center of tension from the start, because the mountainous region hosted a mixed community of Armenians and Azeris and was seen by both nations as central to their national histories and identities.

2. What role did the breakup of the Soviet Union play?

After the Soviet Union took control of both nascent states in 1921, its leader Josef Stalin sowed the seeds for today’s dispute. He secured Nagorno-Karabakh for Azerbaijan but then in 1923 carved it out as an autonomous region, with borders that gave it a population that was more than 90% Armenian. The first violence of the current conflict broke out in 1988, as it became clear that the days of the Soviet empire, too, might be numbered. Tensions soared as the two Soviet Republics began to press for independence, giving new meaning to what had in essence been internal administrative borders. Pogroms against ethnic Azeris in Armenia and against ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan followed. In February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s national assembly voted to dissolve its autonomous status and join Armenia.

3. How has Armenia’s history contributed to this?

Although the Armenian and Azeri communities of Karabakh lived together peacefully and were relatively well integrated until 1988, Armenia’s history in particular conspired to create a tinderbox of nationalist feeling. The 1915 genocide, in which the late Ottoman regime killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians as it drove them from Anatolia, left deep scars. Fear of Turkey left Armenia feeling unusually dependent on Russia for military support after the Soviet collapse, and many Armenians came to see Azeris as proto-Turks, eliding the threat. In fact, the two are distinct. Azeris are Turkic speaking, but they are mainly Shiite Muslims, whereas Turks are mainly Sunni.

4. Why is Turkey involved and what are its goals?

Turkey has a closed border and no diplomatic relations with Armenia, in part due to the Karabakh conflict and in part due to wider tension over the 1915 genocide. By contrast, Azerbaijan supplies Turkey with natural gas and crude oil via pipelines that pass within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the Azerbaijan-Armenia border and 30 miles of the broader conflict zone. As a result, Turkey has long sided with Azerbaijan on the Karabakh dispute. That support was until recently limited to rhetoric, but Turkey’s military backing, including F-16 fighter jets and drones, proved decisive in the conflict. Although Erdogan’s precise goals were uncertain, the change came at a time when he is using hard power to press Turkish interests across much of the former Ottoman space, including against Russia in Syria and Libya, and against Cyprus, Greece and Israel in the Eastern Mediterranean.

5. What did the peace deal agree?

Putin brokered a peace deal, which came into effect on Nov. 10, after struggling to rein in the warring sides, in part because of Erdogan’s vocal support of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s military campaign. Russia began deploying nearly 2,000 troops as peace keepers under the accord, struck with Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Putin said the pact would create conditions “for a long-term and complete settlement of the crisis around Nagorno-Karabakh.” The deal effectively restores Azerbaijan’s control of most of the territory it lost in the 1990s, delivering the government in Baku a major prize, while saying nothing about the final status of the disputed enclave. The accord provides a land corridor through which residents of Nagorno-Karabakh can reach Armenia, to be policed by Russian forces. It also allows people in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, which borders Armenia, Iran and Turkey, to travel across southern Armenia to the rest of Azerbaijan, again with Russian security on the ground. Though not a signatory to the deal, the agreement also represents a strategic triumph for Erdogan, whose support of Azerbaijan allowed him to muscle into Russia’s Caucasus backyard. The peace accord also for the first time gives Erdogan potential land access across Armenia to Azerbaijan and the resource-rich republics of Central Asia, even as Turkey continues to reject diplomatic relations with its Armenian neighbor and keeps their joint border closed.

6. What has been Russia’s role?

As a nearby nuclear superpower and former overlord, Russia has leverage with both countries. It has a defense pact with Armenia and, while that doesn’t cover Nagorno-Karabakh, the peace accord has now ended an anomaly in which the enclave was a so-called frozen conflict on former Soviet territory where Russia did not have troops on the ground able to determine the outcome. Armenia also hosts a large Russian military base and is now more dependent than ever on the ultimate guarantee that provides. Since 1994, Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth have allowed it to substantially increase its military spending – much of which has gone to purchasing weapons from Russia, which arms both sides. Putin said in October that about 5,000 had been killed in the recent hostilities.

7. What about the U.S. and France?

The pact effectively sidelines the U.S. and France, enabling Putin and Erdogan to dominate talks on the terms of any future settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The U.S. used to wield considerable influence, as host to a large, wealthy and politically active Armenian diaspora and the primary backer of new Azeri oil and gas pipeline routes that skirt and compete with Russia’s transit network. But in recent years, U.S. interest in the region appears to have ebbed and a cease-fire brokered by the State Department in late October broke down hours after coming into effect. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to the leaders of the two warring countries, but his country’s leverage appears limited.

8. How does the conflict affect oil and gas supplies?

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has a capacity of 1.2 million barrels per day, but it normally operates at only half that level. With surpluses available on the global market, any threat of a stoppage did not seem to be sufficient to significantly disrupt the oil market amid soft demand. The South Caucasus pipeline, which runs alongside the BTC, delivered 9.2 billion cubic meters (325 billion cubic feet) of natural gas to Turkey in 2019, and was due to start supplying Greece and Italy with up to 3% of the EU’s total supply.

The Reference Shelf

  • A book, Black Garden, by Thomas de Waal.
  • A QuickTake on mapping the Turkish military’s expanding footprint.
  • A Carnegie report on Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • A Chatham House study on fighting in the region in July 2020.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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