War is still ongoing in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Caucasus, with apparently few prospects for achieving a durable ceasefire. To understand better the origins and the dynamics of the conflict, we spoke with Tigrane Yégavian, an associate researcher with the Paris-based French Center for Research on Intelligence (CF2R). Tigrane Yégavian is also a member of the review committee of the French Geopolitical Quarterly Conflits (Conflicts). He is the author of many publications as well as two books, “Minorités d’Orient : Les oubliés de l’histoire” (Minorities of the Orient: the forgotten people in history, Le Rocher Editions, 2019), and “Arménie, à l’ombre de la montagne sacrée” (Armenia, in the shadow of the sacred mountain, Nevicata Editions, 2015).
Tigrane Yégavian, first of all, could you portray Nagorno-Karabakh and why it is so important?
First of all, Nagorno-Karabakh has also another name: Artsakh. Media often portray it as a separatist region, but this is not accurate. Nagorno-Karabakh is the size of any average French region. It is located in the South Caucasus, the historical cradle of Armenia. Armenians have transmitted a very rich religious heritage to the South Caucasus; in fact, they were the first to build a state with Christianity as the official religion, in 301 AD.
In 1921, Josef Stalin was head of the Russian department of citizenships. He decided to separate Artsakh from Soviet Armenia, based on the principle “divide to conquest”. Nonetheless, by creating an autonomous region that would exist within a Soviet and Turkish-speaking Azerbaijan, Stalin also wanted to express his good intentions to the Muslim world in general and to Kemalist nationalist Turkey in particular. He saw it crucial to try and avoid seeing Turkey submitted to a strong Western influence.
That said, overall, nationalisms kept contained under the Soviet Union. Then, with Perestroika, in 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh asked to be part of Soviet Armenia: but Azeris responded by committing massacres. In September 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence, but from the USSR, not from Azerbaijan. Since 1991, the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh has been able to build the same institutions as a sovereign State. The international community does still not recognize it, although it is pursuing its development, with Armenia’s help, and under Azerbaijan’s threat.
This is why this conflict is frozen by name only. It is true that protagonists had agreed on a ceasefire in 1994, at a time when Armenians had achieved considerable military victories; but the absence of a political solution, and the playing on time, ended up having terrible consequences. Indeed, while Armenians could have swapped territories in exchange for the recognition of Artsakh, they thought, naively, that time would fix things, and those things could go the way they did in Cyprus. But Armenians underestimated Azerbaijan’s capacity to threaten and look for revenge. From Baku’s perspective, status quo has always been unacceptable: this is why skirmishes have prevailed on an almost daily basis on both sides of the line of contact. The line of contact is several hundreds of kilometers long, and it extends from the mountains of Mrav in the North of Azerbaijan up to the Araxe river at the border with Iran.
In April 2016, violent clashes prevailed for four days, after Azerbaijan had decided to engage a fight to try and change the status quo. Baku thought that the situation that prevailed back then did not serve its interests, and this is why it wanted to try and reconquer parts of the territories that it had lost during the 1988-1994 conflict. Since 1992, a mechanism of mediation has been implemented under the supervision of the OSCE’s Minsk Group (co-directed by Russia, the USA and France).
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict puts into perspectives two contradicting views related to international law: Azerbaijan defends territorial integrity, while Artsakh claims the right to self-determination. In 1988, Sakharov had this famous quote: “for Azeris, this war is about national pride, but for Armenians, it is existential”. Nagorno-Karabakh’s first and most important problem is about the right for its indigenous people to live on their ancestral land… from their perspective, it is a matter of life or death.
Why did Azerbaijan want this war and how can we explain Turkey’s attitude?
The socioeconomic situation in Azerbaijan is very worrying. The Aliyev dynasty has been exerting a fierce rule in oil-rich Azerbaijan for decades, and it keeps conditioning its relations with other countries to Nagorno-Karabakh. Besides, Baku’s anti-Armenian resentment is almost hysterical; but Azerbaijan uses this as a way to turn eyes away from its internal problems: social inequalities, crushing of opposition groups, etc.
Back in July 2020, in the fight against Armenia in the Tavush region, Azeris faced serious military setbacks: this generated further frustration from the population in Azerbaijan, since this setback added to their angriness. Azeris are already suffering the consequences of the drop of oil prices and the pandemic.
Now, seen from Turkey, this conflict is an opportunity. Ankara wants to use it as a way to set a new fire in the Caucasus, and Erdogan feels that it can help him weaken rival Russia. Russia is an ally of Armenia with whom it shares membership within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In fact, Russia has a military base in Armenia, and also has troops monitoring the border with this latter. As for Erevan, it needs the Russian support as a condition for its own survival.
On the regional scale, it is worth noting that Baku benefits from an almost unconditional support from Turkey, its strategic partner, in the name of Pan Turkish ideology. Pakistan and Israel also support Azerbaijan, though more modestly. Turkey and Azerbaijan talk about themselves as if they were two states that ruled a same nation. The Caucasus is generally seen as of Russian strategic influence, and any strong role for Turkey could turn upside down an already fragile situation. As for Azerbaijan, it decided to trust fully Turkey. But Ankara supervises now up to the strategy that is deployed by the Azeri air forces.
Why did Turkey send Syrian Jihadi mercenaries to Azerbaijan?
This is indeed a serious matter and it can generate instability on the short and middle run. In addition to this, the Azeri army is literally over-equipped in Israeli, Russian and Turkish military material, and the country’s defense budget equals more or less Armenia’s GDP.
I think that by sending Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan, Turkey seeks three main objectives. Firstly, it wants to minimize the impact of the important losses that the Azeri army has suffered during last summer’s fights. Secondly, it wants to create tensions in the Caucasus. And finally, it wants to get Russia to intervene on the ground and to side officially with Armenians: indeed, by doing so, Russia would not be able to try and appear as an honest broker anymore. The fact is that Baku has clearly shifted in Turkey’s direction. Following the combats of July 2020, pro-Russian Elmar Mamediarov, Azerbaijan’s minister of Foreign Affairs since 2004, was replaced by an ultranationalist and Pan Turkish former minister of Education. A few days after, less than 40 km from Armenian capital Erevan, in the enclave of Nakhichevan, the Turkish and the Azeri armies organized impressive joint military maneuvers.
Mercenaries from Syria came via Turkey to Azerbaijan, while at the same time, Turkish-Azeri propaganda criticized the presence of Kurdish combatants next to Armenians. Moscow saw in this escalade a Turkish attempt to try and step directly in its traditional sphere of influence. Russia does not want to see Turkey act in the Caucasus the way it did in Libya, Iraq, Cyprus and the Aegean Sea; Moscow may be selling weapons to both Azeri and Armenian belligerents, but it also wants to appear as a possible mediator. Still, from where we stand, what we can see is that Erdogan’s adventurism may have very disastrous consequences for all the populations of the region.
What can Russia do?
Russia can contain Erdogan without having to lose Baku. It can also get Armenians to make painful concessions, despite them feeling that they were left alone during the Velvet Revolution (2018). Russians have a military presence in the Southern part of Armenia, they are near the military front and they have deployed anti-missile shields there. They are way more active on the ground than what appearances suggest. The fact that Turks make use of provocative methods in Ukraine, in Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere, could end up turning against them. Russians are now ready to reconsider the almost one-century long 1921 Treaty of Kars (a treaty that established the borders between Turkey and each of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia).
Israel has been providing the Azeri army with military material for years now. What is the role of Israel in this conflict?
Relations between Israel and Azerbaijan are ancient and strong. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Azerbaijan and to establish diplomatic relations with Baku, in April 1992. During Nagorno-Karabakh’s 1988-1994 war, Israel was already providing heavy military material to Azerbaijan. Back then, Baku was looking for ways to outweigh Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Israel on its side saw a good opportunity to implement its Periphery Doctrine, a theory that is meant to help it overcome its surrounding by hostile Arab and Muslim countries, and to allow it to build relations with a second circle made of non-Arab countries such as Shah Pahlavi’s Iran, Ethiopia, and the Iraqi Kurdistan. Besides, there is a Jewish community in Baku that is relatively important, while Israel also imports around 40% of its gas directly from Azerbaijan.
Since the beginning of this decade, Baku has also seen in its relationship with Israel a way to counter Iran and its project of Shiite proselytism. Azerbaijan is a country with a Shiite majority, but it is hostile to the Iranian regime; it looks negatively at Tehran’s regional expansionist strategy. Also, there are around 18 million Turkish-speaking ethnic Azeris that live in Iran today.
Israel has been providing lethal weapons to Azerbaijan for years, but it kept a low profile on the current conflict, and it avoided communicating about it. At the same time, most of the damage that is caused to civilian and military objectives in Artsakh is carried by Israeli-made drones. As far as I know, there have been no calls for a ceasefire or for returning to the negotiations table under the supervision of bodies such as the Minsk group for example. We cannot deny that, in the current conflict, Israel as well as Azerbaijan finally found a common ground in keeping their cooperation as close and as discrete as possible.
To quote this article, please use the following reference: Tigrane Yégavian (2020), “Where do we stand from Nagorno-Karabakh?”, https://crisesobservatory.es/where-do-we-stand-from-nagorno-karabakh/