The shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February and its subsequent campaign has seen international attention inevitably focused on this issue. The response has ranged from military supplies to financial sanctions, such as Russia’s removal from the SWIFT banking system, ‘Western’ shops closing their Russian branches, and financial assets frozen. With what has been described as a return of Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ across Europe, many have described these issues as leading to a ‘new’ Cold War. The situation in Ukraine has served as a distraction for other regional issues, some of which might have assumed greater attention otherwise.
One of these is the protracted Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Karabakh, an area largely inhabited by ethnic Armenians, but surrounded by districts mostly populated by Azerbaijanis. Whilst these regions are formally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan, in reality, they are controlled by the Republic of Artsakh, a breakaway state supported by Armenia. The first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had begun with demands that the region should be transferred to Armenia from Azerbaijan, and lasted from February 1988 until May 1994 when a ceasefire was agreed, and relative stability restored. Subsequently, this has deteriorated, reaching a four-day escalation of tensions in April 2016 and more recently, full conflict between 27th September 2020 and 10th November 2020. As a result of this, Azerbaijan has been able to regain territory it had lost during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. May 2021 saw the start of an ongoing Armenia-Azerbaijan border crisis which has seen Azerbaijan occupy parts of the Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces which are a part of Armenian territory.
With international attention focused on events in Ukraine, the current problems have been reported, but not widely. Notably, that the main pipeline supplying gas to Nagorno-Karabakh has been damaged , in Azerbaijan-controlled territory. According to the Nagorno-Karabakh Ministry of Internal Affairs, Russian peacekeepers have reached an agreement with Azerbaijani forces to allow workers from the State Emergency Situations Service to carry out reconnaissance work in this area, however, it has been reported that an Armenian repair crew was barred from entering the area. A representative for Russian peacekeeping forces stated that negotiations on resolving issues concerning the pipeline were underway. The effect of this has meant that from 8th March to the 19th of March gas supplies were halted, and then again from the 21st of March to the 28th. It has been noted in Armenian media that there were widespread power outages, with hospitals, schools, and other facilities left without heating .
Reporting on the conflict has focused on the role of Russian peacekeepers, whose presence formed a part of something outlined in the 1994 ceasefire agreement. Their role is actually quite modest, limited to 1,960 personnel with small arms, 90 armoured carriers, and 380 other motor vehicles, all of which man 27 checkpoints and the Lachin corridor, a narrow road connecting, the region with Armenia . More recently, increased violations of the ceasefire agreements have led to concern that full military conflict is likely to break out once again, with fears from the inhabitants of Nagorno- Karabakh that an Azerbaijani attack is imminent . These groups worry that Azerbaijan will attempt to occupy the region, expelling its Armenian population. The Chatham House Institute reports reflect how the precarious situation in Karabakh has been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This has provided a window of opportunity for Azerbaijan to attempt to take the region back . This is significant considering that Russia acts as Armenia’s main ally, in contrast to Azerbaijan, which has close historical links to Turkey .
The history of the whole Caucasus region certainly provides ample scope for tension and conflict. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has been described as largely stemming from the incorporation of the wider South Caucasus into the Soviet Union following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In an attempt to resolve problems, Soviets developed an ethnic-territorial policy, granting different ethnic regions different levels of autonomy within the USSR. Whilst Armenians claimed Nagorno-Karabakh was historically theirs, the Azerbaijanis made claims to counter this, with ownership of the region largely dependent upon what particular point in time is being considered. Even the Bolshevik Caucasus Bureau was undecided, initially attaching the region to Armenia, a decision subsequently reversed by Stalin who proclaimed it to be an Autonomous Region of the SSR of Azerbaijan. This was “confirmed in the Soviet Constitutions of 1936 and 1977, until unrest grew during the Glasnost and Perestroika policies of the late 1980s ”. To this extent, the influence of Russia, in its various forms, on the region is very clear. Many of its disputes, including that of Nagorno-Karabakh, have been blamed on the ‘ethnicisation’ of the conflict, something which began under the Soviet Union. From here, ethnicity and nationalisation became intertwined issues, both being a means of retaining a sense of local identity and opposing Soviet rule. In its aftermath, it was probably inevitable that political and territorial integrity became confused .
The legacy of local conflicts that have existed in the wake of this is unsurprising. Georgia and Ossetia in 1989 is an example of this- a dispute with historical origins in 1918 and the collapse of Tsarist Russia. Intermittent fighting continued until a ceasefire was brokered by France in 2008. Another example is the first Chechen war between 1994 and 1996, and the subsequent Russian attempts to re-integrate the state. The separatist movement there is best remembered for the hostage-taking at a school in Beslan in 2004 in which nearly two hundred children were killed . The list could be continued, but it is sufficient to observe that the whole area is both politically and militarily unstable. Over a decade ago the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe held a hearing on the prospects for resolution in the Caucasus to mark the twentieth anniversary of the break-up of the Soviet Union . Even then, expert witnesses were far from optimistic, and the ensuing decade has done little to improve matters. The disputes were unresolved in 2011 and remain so. At that time, the estimated number of displaced people in the region had numbered nearly two million, and this is unlikely to have been significantly reduced.
The last decade has also provided scope for other regional powers, most importantly, Turkey and Iran, to take an interest in the Caucasus region, in particular in the South and Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2020, despite Iranian denial, it was reported that Iran had been supplying energy to the self-proclaimed government in Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite having previously claimed to be neutral upon the issue, tensions with Azerbaijan in the post-Soviet era have increased, as it is now proving to undermine Azerbaijani interests, in favour of Armenia. It had been noted that further destabilisation in the region might draw in Russia and Turkey, although the role of Russia is now less clear. Such conflict would also have wider implications for the West, in particular the USA, where the absence of a response to Iran may lead to it continuing this action in other locations. The issue also appears to undermine American interest in Armenia, where it supported the democratic revolution in 2019, as well as seeking to reduce the influence of Russia over the Caucasus . Concerns for Iran and Russia seeking to increase their power has been clear for some time: “Since President Trump took office, in 2017, Moscow and Tehran have shared increasingly common bonds: growing tensions with Washington and a quest to expand spheres of influence in the Middle East ”. Historically, Turkey has had close relations with Azerbaijan based on their shared ethnolinguistic background. The slogan ‘one nation, two states’ is often employed , although there have been recent disagreements over the pricing of gas supplies and a degree of diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. Relations between Turkey and Iran are positive on an economic level, but geopolitical rivalries in the Caucasus and beyond into Northern Iraq and Syria remain. For the moment a deliberate strategy of ‘compartmentalisation’ of the economic and geopolitical issues helps maintain positive bilateral ties.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has the potential to destabilise this delicate structure. In the Northern Caucasus, the governor of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, a region fighting for independence from Russia, has supported President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with both financial and military resources. It is worth noting that much of Kadyrov’s loyalty is to Putin as an individual, as opposed to the Russian government or to Russia more widely. It has been argued that Kadyrov’s involvement is potentially a high-risk strategy for him as Russia has established Sergey Melikov, current head of the Republic of Dagestan, neighbour to Chechnya, as a counter-weight to Kadyrov in the region. Continuing Russian involvement in the Caucasus cannot be ignored, “but the consequences of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine are still coming into focus. The fate of the war has yet to be decided and the full effect of sanctions has not been felt” . The economic sanctions now placed on Russia will inevitably impact both Georgia, Dagestan, and the North Caucasus generally, which in turn will filter through to the states in the South Caucasus.
The potential for military conflict is a cause of great concern for many people. If the Ukraine campaign becomes protracted, as currently appears possible, signs of Russian military weakness or distraction may be viewed as an opportunity for others to settle scores of their own, using Ukraine as a justification for doing so. Journalist, Thomas de Waal notes the differences between various conflicts surrounding unrecognised European states- Abkhazia, Transnistria, and Northern Cyprus- and in particular, how these differ from those of Donetsk’s People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic in Ukraine . If conflict was to occur in these other regions, comparisons could be drawn between this and Ukraine, an application that, for the most part, would be incorrect due to the vast number of differences between the circumstances in these de facto states. During the 2011 review of the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s ‘Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe’, witness, Dr. Fiona Hill made reference to the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia in the Balkans. She went on to explain how the U.S. government had denied parallels between this and the situation in the South Caucasus, and how this established a precedent for Russian involvement in Russia recognising the independence of de facto and breakaway states, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the last few days, South Ossetia has outlined plans to unite with Moscow, breaking from Georgia, although Russia has claimed that no action is being made to achieve this . To date, Russia has made no attempt to recognise the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus. Ignoring the claims made by Armenia and Azerbaijan, it would be hard to avoid the involvement of Turkey and Iran in such circumstances, potentially widening the scope of the conflict still further. The comparison made with the Balkans in 2011 by Fiona Hill was a perfectly valid one at the time. In the light of recent events in Ukraine, it carries a more uncomfortable resonance than was intended.
Written by Frances Rigby
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