The Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute: A Case of Contested Sovereignty and Geopolitical Rivalry

The Nagorno-Karabakh Dispute: A Case of Contested Sovereignty and Geopolitical Rivalry

The century-outdated dispute in excess of Nagorno-Karabakh has expert over the past a few decades frequent turmoil as Armenia and Azerbaijan jostle in excess of the enclave. In latest years, the geopolitical and armed service equilibrium has swayed overwhelmingly in favor of Azerbaijan. Though Baku and Yerevan accused each and every other of breaking a Moscow-brokered ceasefire agreed in 2020, an significantly assertive Azerbaijan initiated many military services offensives in 2022, major to an extended blockade of the enclave that made a dire humanitarian disaster. Additional just lately, Azerbaijani forces released an assault on Nagorno-Karabakh in what Baku named an anti-terrorist operation, identified to conclude its secessionist aspirations and formally (and forcefully) combine the area into Azerbaijan.

The circumstance is brittle: the enclave’s stability forces have surrendered and disbanded its impartial political composition soon to be dismantled. A fragile ceasefire, yet again brokered by Russia, remains in location. The long run of the enclave, house to some 120,000 ethnic Armenians, is unsure. Fearing retribution, a swelling exodus of refugees has fled Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia by way of the Lachin Corridor that backlinks both equally territories. A hundreds of years-outdated local community is abandoning its ancestral homeland, most probably for fantastic.

The dispute is a single of quite a few so-called frozen conflicts that linger due to the fact the Soviet Union abruptly collapsed in 1991. Nagorno-Karabakh represents a advanced and unresolved situation of contested sovereignty. But the newest developments need to not only be considered as the denouement of the deep-rooted territorial feud amongst Armenia and Azerbaijan. They also reveal a weakened Russian existence that is altering the regional geopolitical get.

The Transcaucasian cauldron

Ga, Armenia and Azerbaijan are located in Transcaucasia, a location of geostrategic significance as the crossroads among Jap Europe, the Center East and Central Asia, and a location wherever Russian, Turkish and Iranian interests converge. That is why what takes place there resonates over and above its borders. Rich in all-natural resources, Transcaucasia has a extended historical past of ethnic rivalries and arbitrarily imposed borders. This fateful mix has spawned a series of territorial promises in recent a long time, some of them top to war.

Nagorno-Karabakh shares identical historical activities with other disputed territories in Russia’s “near abroad”, such as possessing been an autonomous enclave inside a Soviet republic that is ethnically, culturally -and in this situation also religiously- alien. During the Soviet era, Nagorno-Karabakh, 95% of whose populace was till now Christian Armenian, ended up currently being portion of the Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic, ethnic Azeri and Muslim. The recurring ethnic frictions among the two communities intensified as the Soviet federation disintegrated.

When Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1991, a bloody war broke out involving neighboring Armenia (which arrived to the help of the beleaguered enclave, with whom it shares close ethnic and religious ties) and Azerbaijan. The conflict left tens of hundreds useless and much more than a million refugees, with both of those sides resorting to ethnic cleansing to consolidate territories. Considering the fact that then, the border amongst the two international locations has been one of the most militarized in the earth. Armenia won that war with the guidance of Russia and took regulate of Nagorno-Karabakh, as perfectly as seven adjacent Azeri districts. Shortly just after, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh -also acknowledged to Armenians as Artsakh- was declared, which, even with proclaiming itself an impartial republic, remained intently integrated with Armenia.

The conditions and developments in Nagorno-Karabakh vary from other separatist entities in Russia’s periphery. Moscow does not have a direct influence on the territory there is no “community of ethnic Russians to be protected” -as in the instances of Transnistria in Moldova or Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia- nor does it share a direct border with Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh, while it does so with Azerbaijan. Alternatively, Russia’s strategic desire was to keep a sphere of affect in Transcaucasia, such as a cooperation and mutual guidance settlement with Armenia, even though also retaining very good relations with Azerbaijan.

The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is one particular of the most intricate frozen write-up-Soviet conflicts thanks to the range of actors and interests involved. Many peace initiatives, originally spearheaded by the now maligned Minsk Group, unsuccessful to solve the dispute, a great deal significantly less cut down the animosity amongst the parties. Ongoing border skirmishes activated a 2nd war in 2020, even further disrupting the regional purchase. This time Azerbaijan, which had applied its significant power revenues to modernize the armed forces, emerged victorious, seizing parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, and regaining adjacent territories misplaced a quarter of a century before. In the combating around the system of 2022, an emboldened Azerbaijan took more territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, and even strategic terrain inside Armenia right. Baku’s situation became military services dominant, consequently the dedication to forcefully alter the standing quo.

Russia and Turkey, allies and rivals

Of geopolitical and diplomatic desire is the job played by Russia and Turkey in the hostilities involving Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave. Ankara maintains close ethnic, linguistic and cultural bonds with Azerbaijan. Its military support (delivering weapons, education and Syrian mercenaries) was decisive in the 2020 Azerbaijani victory, projecting Ankara as a dependable ally and serving to to enrich its presence in Transcaucasia, a area in Russia’s traditional sphere of impact. Transcaucasia also serves as a strategic gateway to Central Asia, with whose international locations Turkey has deepening cultural, financial and defense ties.

Russia, for its part, opted not to brazenly help Armenia in the 2020 conflict, clarifying that its strategic safety alliance with Yerevan does not go over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave or adjacent parts. (As the region’s power-broker, Moscow negotiated the ceasefire settlement in 2020, sending Russian peacekeepers and border guards that are continue to in place.) A new, democratic, governing administration in Armenia in 2018 that overthrew a Russian-leaning kleptocratic ruling elite in a peaceful color revolution, as very well as Yerevan’s careful overtures to the European Union, may have tempered Moscow’s loyalty. Ever because, bilateral relations have frayed.

But there are also other things to consider involved. Despite the fact that Moscow and Ankara aid opposing sides in the civil wars in Libya and Syria, and until eventually lately in Transcaucasia, they share other strategic pursuits, in individual a distrust of the West -far more veiled in the situation of Turkey thanks to its membership in NATO- and the desire to retain it away from the neighborhood. Moscow almost certainly gauged the gains of permitting Turkey act freely in the 2020 conflict, and considering that, in exchange for retaining their anti-Western alliance. But this alignment of advantage does not exclude eventualities for an escalation of tensions further more on Russia and Turkey are all-natural rivals in Transcaucasia, as very well as in the Center East and Central Asia.

While the mullahs mull

A mention ought to be made of Iran, a additional discreet but crafty regional geopolitical player. Although Azerbaijan and Iran are Shiite-the greater part Muslim nations that share an intermittent border, bilateral relations are tense, with quite a few points of competition, main among the them historical grievances, and accusations by Teheran that Baku is inciting secessionist aspirations in its sizable ethnic Azeri community, whilst Baku accuses Teheran of supporting radical Islamic teams in the country. They are also at odds in the byzantine geopolitical chess board that is Transcaucasia. Iran maintains shut, and shadowy, ties with Christian Armenia and supports it in its dispute with Azerbaijan whilst Baku sustains a limited partnership with Israel, such as cooperation in the navy and intelligence spheres.

Theres’s apprehension in Teheran that recent developments have fortified Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s regional existence and weakened Armenia’s, and therefore its possess standing Ankara and Teheran are contenders in the South Caucasus, as effectively as in Central Asia. Azerbaijan and Turkey, with Russian acquiescence and oversight, are discussing the development of a transportation corridor linking the main part of Azerbaijan as a result of southern Armenia to its isolated, autonomous exclave of Nakhchivan if this occurs, it would disrupt Iran’s lively border with Armenia. The so-called Zangesur Corridor would supply Turkey with a contiguous land route to Azerbaijan -bypassing the recent routes via Iran-, and further than to Central Asia, as a result linking up with the wider Turkic planet. In any situation, the sovereignty above this corridor -irrespective of whether it will be considered aspect of Armenia or whether Azerbaijan and Turkey impose some variety of extraterritoriality above it- could come to be a future flashpoint, this time also involving Iran and Turkey.

A country that does not exist

Earlier ceasefires, and a number of mediation attempts, were being not equipped to resolve the standing of Nagorno-Karabakh. The enclave was, until eventually now, inhabited by Christian Armenians that did not take Azerbaijani rule. Though the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” experienced its have president, parliament, constitution, army, and international ministry, its existence as a de facto independent condition was hotly contested. Artsakh was in the previous intently built-in with Armenia, to the issue that they were being typically perceived as a solitary entity – the initially president of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was later the Key Minister and President of Armenia.

However, the Armenian govt resisted internal strain to formally integrate Nagorno-Karabakh thanks to ongoing negotiations to solve the dispute, and since it did not want to be perceived as an aggressor state that forcibly annexed the territory of a neighboring country.  It was also unclear whether integration was the most well-liked alternative. Whilst a couple many years back a the greater part of the populace of Artsakh favored unification, modern polls have been less crystal clear what these did expose was the absence of any bonds with Azerbaijan.

Mutual hostility and suspicion prevented a peaceful answer to the dispute earlier proposals bundled keeping a referendum to identify its upcoming, self-perseverance, and granting the enclave in depth autonomy. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan’s progressively dominant position altered the dynamics on the ground. In 2022, a chastened Armenian Primary Minister said that his place renounced any territorial claims on the enclave and, before this year, acknowledged Baku’s sovereignty around Nagorno-Karabakh, though demanding exclusive legal rights and protections for its ethnic Armenian inhabitants. Baku, for its section, argued that this is an inside subject and its inhabitants can take pleasure in the same legal rights as its other citizens. The position of the enclave’s ethnic Armenians was normally a key level of rivalry.

Neither the United Nations nor any of its member states ever identified the sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh, contemplating it an integral component of Azerbaijan beneath international legislation. Together with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, Artsakh belongs to the grandiose sounding but hollow Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations (colloquially regarded as the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States), which seeks alternatives to territorial and sovereignty disputes with the republics from which they break up.

Irrespective of the absence of diplomatic recognition, the enclave has experienced a increased intercontinental presence than other “Nations that do not exist.” It has taken care of, for example, what it calls lasting representations in Berlin, Paris and Moscow, as effectively as in Beirut, Yerevan, Sydney and Washington D.C. It also has shocking aid at the sub-nationwide amount. An Australian point out, a group of states in the United States, many Spanish autonomous communities, and the Italian region of Lombardy, among the other folks, have regarded the independence, or at least the appropriate to self-willpower, of Nagorno-Karabakh. These representations will most probably vanish with the fading of ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh.

The dispute exemplifies the arbitrariness of the previous and the prudence of the existing with regards to scenarios of contested sovereignties, and not just in Russia’s near abroad. Even though under international regulation Nagorno-Karabakh is considered portion of Azerbaijan, there is also the historic actuality that it was a reckless Soviet-period imposition that has been a supply of regional instability and wars for the very last century. Also, the rejection of Nagorno Karabakh’s sovereignty by some countries did not respond to concerns of theory and worldwide legislation, but fairly to pragmatic domestic concerns related to their own secessionist worries.

The bear stumbles

The dispute transcends the position of Nagorno-Karabakh. Equally regional and intercontinental actors are calibrating the extent of Russia’s resolve in Transcaucasia, as its underwhelming armed service functionality in the war in Ukraine has uncovered important structural failings. Azerbaijan, enriched by its oil and gas revenues, and emboldened by the assist of Ankara, exploited its military edge to impose its will in the dispute, counting, appropriately, on a diminished reaction from Moscow. Whilst the Kremlin has regularly mediated ceasefires, it was in the long run not able, or unwilling, to prevent the recurrence of hostilities, distracted and weakened as it is by the war in Ukraine.

Yerevan has voiced annoyance at the Kremlin’s inaction, and perceived ambiguity in the dispute. Vladimir Putin’s own hostility toward Armenia’s fledgling democracy has not helped. But it is not only about passions. There are indicators that Russia’s primary loyalty in the region is shifting from Armenia and converging pragmatically with Azerbaijan and Turkey, specially as the war in Ukraine has compelled Moscow to look for for choice corridors by way of Azerbaijan and on to Iran and Central Asia from regional ability-broker, Russia is turning out to be a stakeholder. No matter, modest, land-locked Armenia is however heavily dependent on Russia in strategic sectors of its economic climate.

There are, although, some signals it is a little bit tilting. More than the summertime, Yerevan sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, a gesture timed with the pay a visit to of the country’s first lady to Kiev and has said it intends to sign up for the Global Felony Court docket, which has issued Putin with an arrest warrant for war crimes in Ukraine. Latest developments in Nagorno-Karabakh have made significant protests in Armenia at the government’s deficiency of reaction, but also from Russia’s stance. In any situation, Yerevan appears to be intent on downgrading its participation in the Collective Stability Treaty Corporation, a Moscow-led Eurasian armed forces bloc, with condemnatory voices contacting for an exit from the Russian security umbrella.

Furthermore, a vacation to Yerevan in mid-2022 by a substantial-amount delegation from the US Congress served to specific help for the Armenian authorities. The formal take a look at, the most senior considering that Armenia obtained independence in 1991, was observed as a transfer by Washington to improve ties with a place that has been a staunch ally of Moscow. Very last month, Armenia hosted peacekeeping armed forces exercises with a little contingent of US troops, an undertaking that drew a rebuke from the Kremlin.

The European Union (EU) has also improved its position in the location. The deadlock in previous negotiations prompted Brussels to test its hand at mediating in the dispute, sponsoring a number of rounds of talks considering the fact that December 2021, and establishing a civilian monitoring mission in Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. Brussel’s far more assertive diplomacy also has economic overtones. Azerbaijan’s strategic location and strength creation are viewed with fascination by an EU eager to diversify its energy resources from Russia. But it also has a stability dimension, as both of those the US, the EU and Israel perceive Azerbaijan as a bulwark in opposition to Iranian regional intentions.

The countries in Russia’s periphery are having note of the switching dynamics. If free to do so, Armenia would most probably further distance by itself from the Russian orbit and look for closer ties with the West. Huge protests in Georgia are pushing back again in opposition to a Moscow-drifting govt. Iran, complacent with the earlier standing-quo, is weighing how to preserve its regional clout amidst Russia’s diminished affect and Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s strengthened presence.

Other flashes are obvious across Central Asia. Russia’s influence in the area appears to be waning, as governments battle to include restive populations, and their discontent with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, whilst maintaining near protection and financial ties with Moscow. The Kremlin was unable to mediate when clashes among Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan intensified in 2022 more than border disputes. The Kazakh president has criticized the war, and said a short while ago that his state will abide by the sanctions routine imposed on Russia. The leaders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while the Tajik president has openly castigated Putin for treating the region as if it was still “part of the Soviet Union”. Meanwhile, China has handily displaced Russia as the dominant financial electric power in Central Asia. And the US, sensing a strategic opportunity in a present-day model of the Excellent Recreation, is trying to find to deepen its engagement with the 5 Stans. Even further afield, landlocked Mongolia is also carefully trying to plot a center route concerning its two towering neighbors, China and Russia, when searching for nearer relations with Washington.

The household of cards on which Russia attempts to retrieve its dropped feeling of grandeur is not crumbling but it is wobbling.

[Photo by ԶԻՆՈՒԺ MEDIA, via Wikimedia Commons]

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