The breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 brought to the surface a number of previously hidden ethnic conflicts. The one which was the bloodiest, and which received at that time the greatest attention in the outside world was the war in Chechnya. Later on, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict got into the limelight – primarily because of its important geopolitical repercussions. The third ongoing – alternately – cold and hot war is between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians.
At the center of the conflict is the Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh. The enmities between the two ethnic groups flared up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and they ended with a sort of victory for the Armenians in 1994, though the disputed territory was recognized as one belonging to Azerbaijan by the international community. (In reality, religion is also playing some role, as the Armenians are Christians and the Azerbaijanis are Muslims.) As it happened in a number of other multiethnic countries – the breakup of Yugoslavia comes into mind –, one of the preferred solutions was ethnic cleansing or, in politically correct terms, population exchange. In this case, some 600,000 Azerbaijanis, and a similar number of Armenians were expelled or forced to leave their homes, thus leaving a bitter taste in the mouth of both sides. An uneasy ceasefire characterized the situation for the next two decades or so, with occasional shootings and skirmishes, which left dead behind on both sides. In April 2016, a four-day intensive conflict broke this pattern, and despite the fact that it ended within a short time, it was clear that the question was not whether there would be another armed clash between the two sides, but when it would break out. It came in the fall of 2020.
Russia and Turkey: additional dimension
Armenia and Azerbaijan alike introduced martial law in late September 2020, and in the ensuing war thousands got killed. The war was finally put an end with the mediation of the Russians in early November. This time, it is the Azerbaijanis who won. Baku is allowed to hold on to territories it has taken during the war, and Yerevan has to contend with keeping control of part of the area it practically governed before the war. The peace-broker, Russia will be sending some 2,000 troops to patrol the frontline and to keep the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians apart from each other and, as things are standing at the moment, Turkey will also be contributing peacekeeping troops. Russia’s and Turkey’s role adds an additional dimension to the ethnic conflict. The relatively keen interest taken by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, as well as a weaker but visible interest in the situation by the U.S. lifts this conflict out of present-day run-of-the-mill ethnic clashes.
Russia has a vested interest in maintaining relatively normal relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, too. Having said that, the Russians have shown more sympathy towards the former; Moscow is formally a military ally of the Armenians, and it is Yerevan’s major weapons supplier. (In point of fact, Russia also sells weapons to Azerbaijan.) The appearance of Russian troops inside the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan is not a cause of happiness in Baku, either. Moreover, despite the fact that Russia and Turkey are coordinating policies now in this conflict, the two countries’ rivalries in Central Asia are well-known, as their conflicts in the Syrian civil war showed it.
Turkey and Armenia are at loggerheads with one another: the ongoing dispute over the Turkish responsibility of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in the mid-1910s poisons the relations between the two countries. So, Ankara is seen as Azerbaijan’s No. 1 supporter in this conflict. The Turks provide military and diplomatic aid; in fact, possibly, Turkish troops were actively involved in the recent war. According to Armenian sources, Turkish fighter planes downed Armenian aircraft, while Baku only acknowledged the presence of Turkish F-16s at Azerbaijani air bases, but it denied their active role in the fights.
More countries involved
Iran is also officially neutral (like all the other outside countries on paper), but is said to leaning towards Armenia. This preference has been realized so far only in limited economic cooperation. Tehran’s major worry is not the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict per se; it is watching closely what the U.S. is doing along its northern borders.
Washington is, again, of two minds regarding the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Officially, the U.S. is supporting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, but the U.S. Congress has taken significant pro-Armenian steps recently. It, for instance, passed the Freedom Support Act in 1992, which – among others – banned any assistance to Azerbaijan in the armed conflict at that time. Similarly to Russia, the U.S. is providing military aid to both countries. It was President Trump who shifted the bulk of military aid to Azerbaijan (from USD 3 million in fiscal year 2016-2017 to USD 100 million in fiscal year 2018-2019). This change was due to the Trump Administration’s new policies towards Iran: instead of the P5+1 framework, Donald Trump preferred unilateral action on Iran, and the increased military aid to Baku has served, partly, to increase pressure on Tehran.
Conflict sources remain
The agreement brokered by Russia on November 9, 2020 does not really satisfy either side. The loss of territories provoked anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan, and it is quite likely that some politicians would like to ride the wave of anti-Azerbaijani feelings, and would promise the retake of lost lands. The Azerbaijanis did not get everything they wanted, either, and the presence of Russian troops in Azerbaijani territory is not an ideal solution for Baku. Another unknown is whether any of the regional neighbors would like to take unilateral advantage of the situation any time in the future, and if yes, it is bound to trigger countermeasures by others. As was suggested with regard to the Versailles peace treaty in 1919, ”It is not a peace treaty, it is only an armistice for twenty years.” The agreement signed in November 2020 might be even shorter-lived than the Versailles peace treaty, as some of the basic sources of conflict have not been addressed and settled.
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