Make Sense of the Old and New Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
History never ends, at least in the Old World. On February 18, Reuters tells us that “leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan bickered over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.” Azerbaijan has blocked the Lachin Corridor, a mountain road that links Armenia and the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies in Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but its 120,000 inhabitants are predominantly ethnic Armenians. They broke away from Baku in the early 1990s and Yerevan supported their fellow Armenians. This led to a war in which Armenia emerged on top. By 1993, Armenia not only gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh but also occupied 20% of Azerbaijan.
In 2020, war broke out again. Thanks to Turkish drones and large-scale military operations, Azerbaijan regained much of the territory it lost in the early 1990s. Now, its blockade of the Lachin Corridor is inflaming passions yet again.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken got Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev to meet in Munich. The post-Davos Munich Security Conference was a convenient excuse for the leaders to get together. Both sides claimed that they had made progress towards a peace deal. Yet a war of words broke out. Aliyev “accused Armenia of occupying Azerbaijan’s lands for almost 30 years.” Pashinyan claimed that “Azerbaijan has adopted a revenge policy” and was using the meeting for “enflaming intolerance, hate, aggressive rhetoric.”
A Tortured Past: Christianity, Islam and Communism
Both Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia tell us that Armenia became the first country to establish Christianity as its state religion. Apparently, in 300 CE as per the former and 301 AD as per the latter, Saint Gregory the Illuminator convinced King Tiridates III to convert to Christianity. The Armenian Apostolic Church is an independent Oriental Orthodox Christian church and has many similarities to the Russian Orthodox Church.
If Armenia is Christian, Azerbaijan is Muslim. In the early 16th century, Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid Dynasty conquered Azerbaijan. Ismail I proclaimed the Twelver denomination of Shia Islam as the official religion of the Persian Empire. While Iran is almost entirely Shia and Sunnis are persecuted, Azerbaijan follows a more syncretic version of Islam. The US State Department’s 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom tells us that Azerbaijan’s “constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions before the law.” It also tells us that of the 96% Muslim, 65% is Shia and 35% Sunni. There is little internecine Muslim conflict though non-Muslims still have a hard time in the country.
In the 19th century, Russia started gobbling up Azerbaijan as the Persian Empire weakened under the Qajar dynasty. Sunnis fled from Russian-controlled territory to Azerbaijan. As Russia took over, a modern Azeri nationalism arose. It emphasized a common Turkic heritage. Ties with Ottoman Turkey deepened while those with Qajar Persia weakened. To this day, Azerbaijan remains closer to Turkey than to Iran.
Azerbaijan also retains close ties with Moscow. It has spent much of the last two centuries under Moscow’s thumb. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Azerbaijan declared independence in 1918. This did not last long. Under Moscow’s rather heavy hand, the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic was formed.
Armenia too is closely intertwined with Moscow. Until World War I, Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire. Yet war inflamed suspicions about the loyalty of Amenians to Istanbul. Some Armenian volunteers were serving in the Imperial Russian Army. The infamous 1915 Tehcir Law ordered the forced relocation of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population to the Ottoman provinces of Syria and Iraq. Death marches into the desert and massacres led to the deaths of 800,000 to 1.5 million people. Forced Islamization of women and children sought to erase Armenian cultural identity and make them loyal subjects of the Ottoman sultan who was then the caliph of the entire Islamic world. This mass murder and cultural destruction has come to be known as the Armenian genocide.
World War I went badly for both Ottoman Turkey and Tsarist Russia. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres “provided for an independent Armenia, for an autonomous Kurdistan, and for a Greek presence in eastern Thrace and on the Anatolian west coast, as well as Greek control over the Aegean islands commanding the Dardanelles.” The Turks rejected this unfair treaty and fought back. Peace only came with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that established the boundaries of modern Turkey. A year earlier, the Soviet Red Army had annexed Armenia along with Azerbaijan and Georgia. Universalist communism snuffed out nationalism in this part of the world.
Communism Collapses, Nationalism Rises
In 1923, the Soviet Union established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast within Azerbaijan. About 95% of its population was Armenian. For the next 60 years, the region was peaceful thanks to the heavy-handed Soviet rule. During the disastrous 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghanistan War, Moscow’s authority weakened significantly. In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional legislature passed a resolution to join Armenia. Tensions rose but the Soviets kept things under control.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, all hell broke loose. Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved independent statehood, and went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenians in this region declared a breakaway state of Artsakh. This was unacceptable to Azerbaijan. Like the collapse of Yugoslavia, the results were tragic. The war caused over 30,000 casualties and created hundreds of thousands of refugees. As stated earlier, Armenia held the upper hand.
By 1993, Armenia had gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied 20% of Azerbaijan’s geographic area. Peace only came in 1994 when Russia brokered a ceasefire that has come to be known as the Bishkek Protocol. This left Nagorno-Karabakh with de facto independence with a self-proclaimed government in Stepanakert. However, this enclave was still heavily reliant on close economic, political and military ties with Armenia.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were economic backwaters under Soviet rule. In 2011, Azerbaijan struck gold in the form of gas. Baku launched what has come to be known as the Southern Gas Corridor. Azerbaijan wrangled a deal with the European Commission to supply gas as far away as Italy. The country used gas proceeds to buy arms from both Turkey and Russia as well as modernize its military.
In early 2016, a four-day war broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most analysts say that Azerbaijan triggered this conflict with the tacit, if not overt, acquiescence of Moscow. For many years, Baku had “been promising to liberate the territories occupied by the Armenians.” Neither were the Azerbaijani troops able to break through Armenian defenses in Nagorno-Karabakh, nor were the Armenians able to launch a counteroffensive. The truce reestablished the status quo.
In 2018, #MerzhirSerzhin—anti-government protests that have come to be known as the Velvet Revolution—broke out in Armenia and swept the old elites out of power. Serzh Sargsyan reluctantly stepped down as prime minister and Pashinyan took over. The new government sought to loosen ties with Russia without antagonizing Moscow, strengthen relations with Europe, and improve relations with neighboring countries, including Iran and Georgia.
Democracy in Armenia did not lead to peace in the region. As stated earlier, conflict broke out again in 2020. Azerbaijani forces crossed not only into the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also into Armenia. Azerbaijani artillery strikes hit cities and villages deep within Armenian territory. More than 7,000 people died and hundreds, if not thousands, were wounded. Azerbaijan recaptured most of the territory it had lost in the 1990s. Three ceasefires brokered by Russia, France and the US failed.
Eventually, Russia pushed through a ceasefire and sent 2,000 of its troops as peacekeepers. Armenia had to guarantee “the security of transport links” between the western regions of Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhichevan that lies within Armenia.
A Strange String Quartet: Russia, Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan
Since 1991, Russia had been Armenia’s main security and energy provider. The shared Orthodox Christian tradition has long made Yerevan Moscow’s most reliable partner in the region. Armenia is “the sole Russian ally in the region, the only host of a Russian military base, and “the only South Caucasus country to belong to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation.”
Yet it seems that street protests for democracy sent alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin. Russian giant Gazprom hiked gas prices in 2019, forcing Armenia to make overtures to its southern neighbor Iran. Worse, Russia turned into a primary weapons supplier to Azerbaijan. This led to “a rather surprising crisis in Armenian-Russian relations.” Intelligence sources speak about a deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to back Azerbaijan because the former wanted to teach Armenia a lesson.
Turkey declared the 2020 ceasefire deal to be a “sacred success” for its ally Azerbaijan. In his characteristically colorful language, Erdoğan described Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan as part of Turkey’s quest for its “deserved place in the world order.” In a nutshell, Armenia-Azerbaijan has become a theater where big powers are yet again playing another version of the great game. Once, the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire and the Russian Empire met here in the Caucasus, and jostled for dominance. Another jostling has now begun with Turkey, Iran and Russia—successors to the three empires—playing key roles.
Others have got involved. Unsurprisingly, one of them is the US. On September 11, 2022, Mikael Zolyan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained how the West had sidelined Russia in mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In reality, the EU is playing a distant second fiddle. As negotiations in Munich have just demonstrated, the US is calling the shots, at least as of now. Naturally, Russia is not too pleased.
Other actors are involved too. Azerbaijan is allowing Ukraine’s military to obtain fuel from its gas stations at no cost. Furthermore, Ukraine has always supported “the integrity of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory throughout the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” despite having the fifth largest Armenian diaspora in the world. Georgia is in Ukraine’s camp and is pursuing both EU and NATO membership. Armenia is home to a major Russian military base that has ground forces, tanks, air defense, missiles, helicopters and Mig-29 multi-role fighters. These are Armenia’s insurance against total Turkish-Azerbaijani domination. Despite heartburn over Russia’s betrayal in 2020, Armenian public opinion still favors Russia over Ukraine in the current ongoing conflict. The waters in the Caucasus are becoming very muddy.
A Truly International Fight Club
Involvement of distant powers is making the waters muddier. Over the last few years, Pakistan has been self-consciously looking up to Turkey to craft its Islamic identity. The northern part of the Indian subcontinent was conquered by mamluk (i.e. manumitted slave) Turks in 1192. In recent years, Pakistan has been turning to these distant Turkish roots and Erdoğan is even more popular than the Turkish soap operas that are enthralling Pakistan. The Turkish leader is seen as a true representative of the Muslim world just as historical television drama Dirilis Ertugrul is viewed as glorifying “the Muslim value system and the Ottoman Empire.”
It is important to remember that Muslims in British India, modern day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, launched the 1919 Khilafat movement to restore the caliph to his throne in Turkey. They considered the Ottoman sultan to be their spiritual leader. Erdoğan has emerged as a new caliph for Pakistanis, many of whom are willing to fight and die for him.
The Fair Observer Intelligence (FOI) Threat Monitor concluded that Turkey and Pakistan were institutionalizing strategic relations and developing the characteristics of a military alliance. With the continuing deterioration of Pakistan’s economic and political situation, the supply and willingness of young men to volunteer for jihadi causes is increasing too.
Sadly for Armenia, Pakistan has the capability to support Turkey and Azerbaijan with large numbers of well-trained regular or irregular troops in any future conflict. Pakistani regular military personnel already supplement local forces in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. The Pakistani state has rich experience of training jihadi volunteers in unconventional warfare and then sending them to fight in support of Islamic causes around the world. These irregular forces have appeared in Afghanistan, India, and Yemen, sometimes working with Pakistani special forces. With appropriate incentives, these fighters could be deployed against Armenia to support Azerbaijani and Turkish objectives, possibly in combination with elements of the Pakistani Army.
Luckily for Armenia, India has decided to support this beleaguered Christian nation. In September 2022, the two countries signed a $245 million worth of Indian artillery systems, anti-tank rockets and ammunition to the Armenian military. Two months later, Armenia signed a $155 million order for 155-millimeter artillery gun systems. Aliyev, who succeeded his father to become the strongman president of Azerbaijan in 2003, declared India’s supply of weapons to Armenia as an “unfriendly move.” India made this move only after years of provocation by Erdoğan who has sided with Pakistan on Kashmir. According to Glenn Carle, FOI senior partner and retired CIA officer, India’s sale to Armenia makes strategic sense and is a play for great power status.
In a nutshell, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has ramifications far beyond the region. The US wants Armenia to emulate Georgia and Ukraine, and join the ranks of free democracies. The EU wants peace in the Caucasus and cheap Azerbaijani gas to replace disrupted Russian supplies. Russia wants the Pashinyan government, which is increasingly unpopular after defeat in 2020, to fall. Yet it cannot and will not allow Armenia, an Orthodox Christian nation, to be completely subjugated by its Muslim neighbors.
Thanks to religion and ethnicity, Turkey and Azerbaijan see Armenia as a historic enemy. Both want to teach Yerevan a lesson. So does Ukraine and perhaps even Georgia. Curiously, mullah-run Iran wants to counter the growing influence of fellow Muslims—largely Sunni Turkey and majority Shia Azerbaijan—in the region. It fears that a powerful Azerbaijan could strive for the integration of Nakhchivan, the Azeri enclave in Armenia, and Azeri-majority areas in Iran. Therefore, Tehran is selling gas to energy-hungry Armenia. Thanks to Pavlovian cultural deference to Turkey, Pakistan sees the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict as jihad and its madrassa-trained young men might provide cannon fodder for this conflict. Meanwhile, India is responding to the pan-Islamism threat of Turkey and Pakistan by supporting a potentially valuable ally.
The die is cast for a riveting saga, which promises to have more twists and turns than Dirilis Ertugrul.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.