Fresh skirmishes in the Caucasus between rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan have renewed media and diplomatic attention to the two-decades-old standoff between the former Soviet states over the enclave known as Nagorno-Karabakh. While tit-for-tat exchanges of gunfire across the border of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is nominally part of Azerbaijan but claimed and occupied by Armenia, have been common for years, the latest skirmish has resulted in the highest death toll since a 1994 cease-fire ended a war between the two neighbors. The leaders of the countries will reportedly meet Aug. 8 in the Russian resort city of Sochi for talks intended to temper passions, as has been typical in past Russian-brokered parleys.
Stratfor does not see the latest bout of violence, which has reportedly taken the lives of 18 soldiers from both sides, as a prelude to a full-scale military conflict. The clashes and the Sochi meeting, however, do come at a time of significant geopolitical shifts in the Caucasus recently triggered by the standoff between Russia and the West over an embattled Ukraine, Armenia's pending accession to the Moscow-led Customs Union, increased U.S. interest in deeper ties with Azerbaijan and growing military spending across the region.
Accordingly, below are some of Stratfor's key analyses on Armenia, Azerbaijan and the wider Caucasus region.
March 5, 2008: Azerbaijan accused Armenia of stoking unrest in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh after a gunbattle that killed 15 people March 5. Azerbaijan is using its petroleum wealth to arm itself for a potential conflict with Armenia over the separatist region, which on paper belongs to Azerbaijan but in reality is controlled by Armenia. The West does not want to see this conflict re-emerge, but Russia does — to a point.
May 7, 2009: After a brief setback, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan are finally sitting down and talking about the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but arrangements for the meeting were not without behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Russia, Turkey, France and the United States. All of the players, big and small, are re-evaluating their interests and allies in the Caucasus.
July 7, 2010: As complex as the politics of the Caucasus are to outsiders, they are clearly increasing in importance to the United States. We could put it this way: Bosnia and Kosovo were obscure concepts to the world until they blew up. Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are equally obscure now. They will not remain obscure unless strategic measures are taken. The logic of the American position is that it should think strategically about the Caucasus, and in doing so, logic and regional dynamics point to a strong relationship with Azerbaijan.
April 25, 2011: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia held a foreign minister-level meeting April 22 in Moscow to discuss several issues, but chiefly the dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the region reached a peak recently when the Armenian president announced his intention to be on the first flight to a reopened airport in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan threatened to shoot down any flight into the territory. Tensions have eased some since then, but as the date of the airport's reopening approaches, diplomatic and military events could indicate what will happen at the slated reopening.
June 26, 2013: Russia continues to exploit tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan by reinforcing security ties with both countries. During a June 24 visit to Armenia, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev said Moscow would overhaul the Russian 102nd military base in Gyumri. One week earlier, Moscow delivered the first installment of a $1 billion weapons package to Azerbaijan. Achieving a military balance among the Caucasus states is not Russia's primary objective. Rather, Moscow wants to bolster security ties with its two neighbors while ensuring they remain at odds over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
July 8, 2013: Given its newfound political stability and its dependence on Russia, Armenia's foreign policy is unlikely to change much in the next few years. Russia's military presence and subsidization of Armenia's economy are the strongest sources of influence that any foreign power has in Armenia, and Yerevan will likely only increase its cooperation with Moscow. Russia's support of Armenia, while a source of tension between Azerbaijan and Russia, will likely keep full-scale war from erupting over Nagorno-Karabakh.
July 13, 2014: 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.