The armies of Armenia and Azerbaijan came to blows this past Sunday threatening to plunge the two neighbors into renewed conflict.
Details of how this came about are lacking and clouded by nationalistic propaganda. But the first word to come out originated from Armenia, which claimed that an Azeri jeep closed the border into Armenia, prompting the Armenian military to open fire. Azerbaijan rejected this claim and stated that Armenia opened fire unprovoked and that Azerbaijan would not initiate an invasion with a jeep.
The claims and counterclaims are part and parcel of news coming from these two belligerents in the Caucasus. Regardless of how this recent round of fighting broke out, it is nevertheless continuing and earning the condemnation of global and regional powers.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have an ongoing feud over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, where fighting has occurred in the past. But this recent violence began north of that region where there are smaller enclaves of Armenian-held territory on the Azerbaijani side of the border.
Background of the Armenia and Azerbaijan Conflict
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is complicated, to say the least. To understand the standoff between the two nations we have to leave the Caucasus and look to Moscow. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of various empires until their annexation by the Russian Empire in 1828 and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Revolution in 1917 led to the creation of the Soviet Union.
In the interim, the nations of the Caucasus forged the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. Knowing that Russia could not survive without oil from Baku, Vladimir Lenin sent troops into the Caucasus to seize the region in its entirety.
During the brief independence from Moscow, Azerbaijan attempted to formalize its borders bringing it into conflict with ethnic Armenians. Once the Soviets seized the region, the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Josef Stalin, led the Kavburo committee and redrew the borders of the region with a mind to causing political strife.
The idea was to keep non-ethnic Russians fighting each other as opposed to them making trouble for Moscow. Stalin used the approach in Central Asia where several nations battled over the Fergana Valley and water rights, to scattering the Tartar people; these are all issues that remain today.
In the Caucasus, Stalin drew the borders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia and gave the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia since it was an area of primarily ethnic Armenians. A day later, he reversed his decision and placed Nagorno-Karabakh under the Azeri Soviet Republic, setting the stage for future conflict. Indeed, upon Stalin’s death, the problems between the two Soviet Republics only worsened, which led to their eventual independence, war, and several ethnic massacres.
When the Soviet Union Collapsed, So Did External Peacekeeping
The worst of the conflict began in late 1987 with claims of forced expulsions, which then led to open interethnic violence between Azeris and Armenians. By 1988, Azerbaijan and Armenia were in a state of war focused on the status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, despite the best efforts by Moscow to end the crisis.
When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, so too did the external peacekeeping operations led by Moscow. By 1992, extra-regional troops returned to the region under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States, composed of former Soviet states.
It was not until 1994, however, that mediators reached a ceasefire deal between the warring factions. In all, 30,000 people died with another million displaced. Armenia won the war, seizing Nagorno-Karabakh and occupying a significant portion of Azeri territory beyond the borders of the disputed region. But bad blood remains all around and skirmishes between the two sides have flared up on occasion.
Recent Flare-Up Comes at a Sensitive Time for Those Regional Powers
The recent flare-up comes at a sensitive time for those regional powers that have a vested national interest in the region. Iran, Turkey, and Russia all have interests in the region, both historically and contemporarily. All three nations have held the region as part of a former empire to use as a buffer against other, neighboring empires.
The same purpose of bending the region to the will of its former expansionist neighbors has not diminished. Russia wants the Caucasus as a buffer on its southern flank as well as access over the steep Caucasus mountains. Turkey prefers the company of Azerbaijan and uses that relationship to temper Armenia and its close ally Russia.
While Iran and Turkey would certainly like to see Russian influence in the region fade, both nations are likewise dependent on Russia for containing situations like the recent spate of violence. With so many domestic issues plaguing the three regional powers, a new war in the Caucasus is not something that is eagerly sought. In fact, these spates of violence tend to break out whenever there is regional weakness; thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, there is weakness in spades.
Turkey’s genocide against the the Armenian people from 1915 into the 1920s is another example of bad blood in the region that influences modern politics as well: The Turks deny that the genocide ever happened; the Armenians won’t let the world forget what the Turks did to them. For its part, Iran now has more ethnic Azeri living within its borders than there are in Azerbaijan proper. Tehran does not want to deal with another ethnic uprising within its borders — whether motivated by separatism or otherwise — while it deals with an economic downturn and a potential foreign campaign of sabotage.
Making matters worse, Turkey and Russia have faced off over Syria, Libya, and now potentially in the Caucasus. Turkey did not waste time placing the blame for the recent violence on Armenia and not unexpectedly threw its support behind Azerbaijan. Russia has troops in Armenia for a military exercise, but it is unlikely that Moscow would want to support another area of conflict as it is already providing military support to several belligerents, notably in the Middle East.
In essence, there is really no outside power capable of providing the kind of support necessary to end this regional violence beyond the use of diplomatic channels. That may be enough, but with a conflict that has gone on for decades, there is no guarantee.