There has been a burst of diplomatic activity in recent months over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have disputed for decades. Russia, the strongest power in the Caucasus, has become more engaged in the issue in light of Azerbaijan's growing leverage in the region, raising the possibility of a shift in this conflict. It is the changing positions of larger regional players such as Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States, more so than Azerbaijan and Armenia themselves, that will drive the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the months and years to come.
As Russia and the West continue their confrontation over Ukraine, there is a subtler yet potentially equally significant competition occurring in the Caucasus. While Georgia attempts to move closer to the West and Armenia strengthens ties with Russia, Azerbaijan has attempted to maintain a careful balance between the two sides. Azerbaijan thus serves as the pivot of the Caucasus, and the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is a crucial aspect in shaping Baku's role.
The Historical Backdrop for the Conflict
Nagorno-Karabakh is a small yet strategic piece of territory located in the center of the South Caucasus region. Despite its small size (4,400 square kilometers, or about 1,700 square miles) and population (fewer than 150,000 people), Nagorno-Karabakh historically has been an ethnically and religiously mixed region because of its mountainous terrain and location at a crossroads between continents, although the population now is over 95 percent Armenian.
Nagorno-Karabakh, along with much of the rest of the Caucasus, was contested by the Ottoman Turks and Persians for hundreds of years. The emergence of the Russian Empire as a major player in the Caucasus during the 18th century culminated in Russia's annexation of the region, including Nagorno-Karabakh, in the early 19th century. The Russian Empire would be the dominant power in the region until the Russian Revolution of 1905 weakened the empire and the subsequent revolution of 1917 brought about its collapse.
Both of these periods marked significant turbulence in the Caucasus culminating in a war over control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the wider region in the midst of a vacuum created by Russian weakness and distraction. By 1921, the Bolsheviks had taken over the entire region, and the Caucasus was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic in 1922. The Soviet republic was then reorganized in 1923 into three separate republics: Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh was placed under the jurisdiction of the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic by then-Soviet Nationalities Commissioner Josef Stalin. This redrawing of borders and territorial lines, which were designed to create territorial disputes among the republics in order to keep them weak, set in motion the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
With the introduction of the glasnost and perestroika movements in the late Soviet period and the easing of public discourse and political participation, Nagorno-Karabakh became one of the first and highest profile issues to come under dispute. Starting in February 1988, numerous public demonstrations were held in the Armenian capital of Yerevan supporting the incorporation of the majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh into the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Next, the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast Committee of the Communist Party held an unprecedented unofficial referendum to rejoin Armenia. Azerbaijan appealed to Moscow to condemn such actions, but when Moscow's response was slow and not to Baku's liking, ethnic violence erupted against Armenians in Azerbaijan and against Azerbaijanis in Armenia.
This violence quickly spread into a full-scale military confrontation in which all Azerbaijanis were expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to the territory's current Armenian-dominated ethnic balance. Armenian forces decisively defeated Azerbaijan in the conflict, leading to the de facto independence of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian control of several provinces abutting Nagorno-Karabakh as a corridor into the region. After mediation by numerous external players including Russia, Turkey and Iran, a cease-fire was reached to end the conflict in 1994.
Geopolitical Alignments and the Elusiveness of Peace
With an end to the war, a formal peace process was launched by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1994, with Russia, the United States and France serving as co-chairs along with Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, 20 years and countless meetings and summits later, there has been no substantial progress made on a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There are fundamental geopolitical drivers for why this is the case.
First and foremost is the participation and influence of regional power players in the conflict. Russia, Turkey and Iran have competed in the Caucasus for centuries, and this continues to be the case. The participation of these countries, with their entrenched and often competing strategic interests, has been a significant component to the protracted dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.
During the war in the 1980s, each country played complicated and sometimes contradictory roles. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan employed mercenaries during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, with fighters from Russia (including Chechnya), Turkey and Iran participating on both sides of the conflict. These countries also become involved in a more official capacity, with Turkey and Iran supplying personnel for training the Azerbaijani military, while Russia provided weapons, supplies and training for both sides. Notably, the war began while the Soviet Union was still nominally intact, putting Moscow in a very complex position. Soviet leaders initially responded to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in a law enforcement capacity as a means of restoring order, but the Soviet Union's internal weaknesses and divisions prevented definitive action from being taken to ameliorate tensions or overwhelmingly support either side.
The result was sporadic Soviet assistance to both sides, whether weapons for Armenia or tactical training for Azerbaijani soldiers. However, Moscow's support of Armenia grew once the Soviet Union had officially ceased to exist and the Russian Federation emerged. Moscow's support of Yerevan intensified further as the Armenian side gained the upper hand in the conflict. In the meantime, Turkey and Iran increased their assistance to Azerbaijan. Turkey closed its border with Armenia, and Iran created a protection zone within its borders for tens of thousands of displaced Azerbaijanis. Once Armenia captured Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding provinces, Yerevan came under increasing pressure from Turkey and Iran. Russia helped negotiate the cease-fire in 1994, but by then Armenia had decisively won the war.
Since then, the conflict has shifted to the diplomatic realm, with the Organization for Security and Co-operation's Minsk Group providing the official framework for political negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The United States became involved in the negotiations, and the best chance for a settlement emerged in the early post-Soviet period, when Russia was still weak and ties between Moscow and Washington were relatively warm. Indeed, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian endorsed the Organization for Security and Co-operation talks, which advocated a phased approach to the settlement, including staged land swaps for political and economic concessions, in 1997. However, this was an unpopular move within Armenia and eventually led to Ter-Petrosian's resignation in an illustration of the degree of political polarization over Nagorno-Karabakh. Since then, attitudes within Armenia and Azerbaijan have only grown stronger. Armenia's last two presidents hailed from Nagorno-Karabakh and participated in the war.
For the next 12 years, negotiations continued over Nagorno-Karabakh, but very little progress was made. Sporadic attacks continued on the line of contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the two sides could not agree on even basic conditions for fruitful talks. However, the regional climate changed in 2009, when Turkey attempted to normalize ties with Armenia in exchange for an agreement between Yerevan and Baku over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. But because Turkey did not seek to establish an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan before talks on opening the Turkish-Armenian border began, Turkey's move strained ties between Ankara and Baku. This benefited Russia, whose position improved as a result of the increased tensions between Azerbaijan and Turkey and because Armenia strengthened its ties with Moscow once the Turkish rapprochement failed. Meanwhile, Iran saw tensions rise with Azerbaijan due to Baku's growing relationship with Israel. Iran has maintained a working relationship with Armenia, though Tehran has been relegated to a background role in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue because its primary interests are in the Middle Eastern theater.
Despite Moscow's leading role in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks, it has long been in Russia's interest to maintain the status quo of hostilities between the two countries. Since the war concluded, Russia has been in a strategic alignment with Armenia, including the presence of 5,000 Russian troops in Armenian territory. Russia also has a military presence in neighboring Georgia in the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The one country in the Caucasus that has remained outside Russia's orbit has been Azerbaijan, which has been able to use its sizable energy resources and diplomatic maneuvering within the region to create a balance-of-power strategy. But Russia's support of Armenia, including its de facto support of Yerevan's position on Nagorno-Karabakh, has kept Azerbaijan in check. Despite Azerbaijan's claims of being able to forcibly retake Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku's security buildup in this regard, Azerbaijan does not have the capability to confront Russia militarily over the territory.
The Future of the Dispute
This is not to say that the current state of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh will last forever. As history has shown, Nagorno-Karabakh has tended to flare up at times of major upheaval in the wider region, particularly during periods of Russian weakness. This aspect is worth considering, especially as Russia is again experiencing major challenges in the former Soviet periphery, as can be seen in the crisis in Ukraine. Though Russia is on the defensive when it comes to Ukraine, this by no means marks an impending collapse of the Russian Federation. Moscow retains significant economic, political and energy leverage over Ukraine — and the same can be said for other former Soviet countries being contested by the West, including Moldova and Georgia. Russia also still boasts a network of loyal allies within the former Soviet space, including Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia.
However, Russia does face serious long-term challenges to retaining its powerful position in the former Soviet Union, particularly compared to its period of re-emergence as a regional power over the past few years. One country that could pose a particularly substantial challenge for Russia is Azerbaijan, which has positioned itself as a significant alternative energy provider to Europe via the strategic Southern Corridor route. Azerbaijan has also expanded political and security ties with the likes of Turkey, Israel and (still in a nascent form) the United States, increasing Baku's leverage in its dealings with Russia.
It is in this context that Russia has become more engaged on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue than it has in years, with Russian officials holding numerous meetings with officials from Azerbaijan and Armenia on the issue in recent months, indicating a possible shift in Moscow's position. But in order for Moscow to truly change its stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia would need to weaken considerably, or Azerbaijan would need to become so vital to Russian interests that Moscow would change allegiances and confront Armenia, an unlikely prospect at this point.
However, the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh does not solely depend on Russia. Turkey's role is also important, especially as Ankara continues to court Baku into an informal alliance while continuing efforts to normalize ties with Armenia in a bid to boost its standing in the region. Turkey is not in as strong a position as Russia, but the United States' backing of Ankara's efforts could reshape regional dynamics. The extent to which Turkey's relationship with Azerbaijan grows, and to which both countries are supported by the United States, could change the way Nagorno-Karabakh is addressed, at least on a political level.
In a similar vein, the ongoing nuclear and broader political negotiations between the United States and Iran could give Tehran a freer and stronger hand to engage in the region. Iran has been the least influential of the regional players in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute over the past few years, but this could change if the current adversarial relationship between Tehran and Washington improves. Certainly with the changes occurring in the Middle East, this is not out of the realm of possibility.