Thorny regional demographic divisions and ethno-religious clashes have marked the Caucuses since its incorporation into the Russian empire in the early 19th century. With the Bolshevik conquest of the Transcaucasian states in the wake of the First World War the Armenian majority region was turned into the Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast, a quasi-independent enclave of Armenians within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Although predominantly composed of an Armenian population, the territory remained within the borders of Azerbaijan and was tied closer to Baku than it was to Armenia’s Yerevan. Moscow’s strong arm in the matter ensured that ethno-religious tensions, between the mainly Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris, did not spill over into clashes or conflict. The Soviets were not able to create peace, rather they just were able to delay war.
War did break out. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the autonomous territory of Nagorno-Karabakh held a vote in 1988, against the wishes of Baku, to join Armenia. The vote, to which the Azeri population of the enclave boycotted, resulted in an overwhelming agreement for unification under the government in Yerevan. Azerbaijan claimed the vote illegal and war soon broke out between the two former Soviet republics. Following six years of intense fighting leaving almost 20,000 fallen and several swaths of land devastated, Armenia found itself in the dominant position with a clear path to Baku and its foe’s manpower pools drained. In the early months of 1994, with defeat looming around the corner, Azerbaijani diplomats met with Armenian diplomats to discuss ceasefire terms. An unstable ceasefire was brought into effect in May of that same year thanks, in great part, to the mediatory efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group, co-chaired by Russia, the United States and France.
The ceasefire left Nagorno-Karabakh in an awkward limbo with most of the international community acknowledging it as part of Azerbaijan, whilst the control of the state itself is the responsibility of the Republic of Artsakh which, in turn, is closely entwined with Armenia. Moreover, the uneasy ceasefire did not usher in an era of peace. What began instead were smaller, violent clashes and notable escalations, such as that in 2016, persisting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh despite the official truce between Baku and Yerevan.
A New Deadly War
The recent skirmishes have been by far the deadliest and the most worrying, as escalation rather than ceasefire emerges as the more probable route, in the tortured timeline of the region. On the 27th of September Nagorno Karabakh was struck by artillery from Azerbaijan, killing a woman and a child and injuring around 100. Baku declared the act as a response to previous Armenian shelling, whilst Yerevan spent no time in responding in a similar manner, firing back and killing 5 Azeris. Soon after, both states declared a state of war and began endlessly shelling each other.
The neighbours began shelling civilian centres with Armenians hitting Ganja on the weekend of the 2nd-3rd October and Azeri strikes responding back and hitting the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, Stepanakert. The fighting, that persisted until the recent ceasefire, demonstrated the deadly capabilities of a new type of warfare. The conflict saw the pervasive and rapid use of new technologies on both sides, namely the deployment of drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Coupled with improved sensors and ground radar, the use of drones has rendered the age-old military strategy ‘hide and seek’ obsolete. The battlefield of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of near-perfect visibility to both militaries and as such has turned into a tit-for-tat of precision shelling and targeting of armoured vehicles.
The battlefield has also become perfectly visible for the domestic populations of both countries, as the recorded footage of the destruction of enemy assets has propagated the internet and has been used by both governments as excellent propaganda. This media-fed diet of military superiority and strength has hardened the resolve of both populations, making bottom-up clamour for ceasefires less probable.
So far attempts at enacting a ceasefire have failed, the most recent of which, a humanitarian-brokered truce, has crumbled in the face of resumed shelling hours after it was signed into effect on the evening of Saturday 17th October. Much to the dismay of the international community, this old Soviet-era wound the conflict rages on, and civilians continue to bear the brunt of the continued shelling, with over half of Nagorno-Karabakh population finding itself displaced having fled homes and villages.
The Build Up
Peace in the region was never an assurance. The steady increase in tensions in the months leading up to the outbreak of war went unseen and ignored by both the international community and European Union, with both occupied by the battle against coronavirus. Azerbaijan’s recent economic blossoming, thanks greatly to their oil exports to Turkey, rocketed the country’s GDP up to around $48 billion. This newfound wealth led to Azerbaijan far outpacing its neighbor Armenia’s $14 billion GDP. Baku has since been able to pour a whopping $2.75 billion into its military budget, whilst Yerevan has had to make do with a comparatively meek sum of $0.5 billion. Azerbaijan was able to modernize its military strength, equipping its air force with Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 drones and Israeli produced cluster bombs, an internationally banned class of munition which have been used, against civilians, with brutal precision according to a report by Amnesty international during the conflict. A closer relationship between Baku and Ankara led to increased Turkish military support and training in the months leading up to the outbreak of war.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan buoyed this material support with a flamant rhetoric towards Armenia. Amid clashes and small skirmishes that erupted in July this year, Ankara strongly condemned a deadly Armenian attack against Azeri troops. The Turkish foreign minister stated, following these events, that it stood “with all it has” behind Azerbaijan, reassuring and invigorating the leadership in Baku. More seriously, the Guardian reported that Turkey organized the movement of Syrian fighters from the Free Syrian Army, as early as the 23rd of September, suggesting Turkey played a key role in orchestrating and premeditating the outbreak of war days later.With Ankara throwing its weight behind Azerbaijan, the four weeklong conflict has sparked fears of possible escalation, as ceasefires continue to be broken days after they are brokered.
Bigger Interests at Play
Russia however is still reticent in picking a side, focusing its efforts on calls to end hostilities between the two former Soviet republics. From the outset of the pandemic Moscow’s strong man approach to neighboring countries has been dealt a stinging financial blow. The domestic instability in Belarus, its security concerns in Ukraine, as well as the growing national discontent in the far east have all produced callous bills Moscow must pay. More importantly, they have placed the domestic and global spotlight on Putin’s doings in his backyard, forcing the president to adopt an uncharacteristically chary hand. Russia has supplied weapons to both sides and has not thrown its support behind Armenia, despite sharing a security pact with the latter. Instead Putin has focused efforts in brokering a ceasefire outside the framework of the Minsk Group, which Russia has co-chaired alongside the US and France since its inception in the 1990s.
Not picking a side is an attempt by Moscow to strengthen its influence in the region and avoid further expenses for its shaken economy. Turkey on the other hand has taken this opportunity to increase its reach up to the Caucuses and threaten Russia’s backyard, adding yet another chapter to the fluctuating relationship between the two.
The EU needs to respond to these subtle power grabs and reinvigorate the Minsk Group. Only by including Russia in the conversation can Brussels underline the absurdity of Moscow’s attempt of going at it alone. The Union must also wield its economic weight to sanction those states that have continued to fuel the conflict through the sale of arms. Through the rhetoric of a united Europe, Brussels can steer conversations back towards the established institutions, reinvigorating them with new energy and impeding both Moscow and Ankara from expanding their spheres of influence. The EU must engage in the power plays that Putin and Erdogan are willing to make in order to prevent the region falling into the spheres of influence of one of the two countries. Equipping its rhetoric with unwavering economic action will stem the flow of weapons to both sides, diminishing the quantity and intensity of clashes.