On September 15, a new round of military clashes erupted on the Armenia-Azeri border. While both sides claim to be responding to the other’s aggression, Azerbaijan has crossed the border into Armenia, strategically taking control of the high ground. The nearly 300 deaths that have occurred since, no small part of which are civilian casualties, represent the latest crisis in a three decade long struggle between the two nations over a border dispute. The division appears unsolvable, but the question must be raised as to what the world’s powers are doing, what should they be doing, and what will become of Armenia?
The conflict comes as a result of an ethnic tension complicated by a border dispute, which creates a cycle of retributive violence. Since the dissolution of the USSR, Azerbaijan has held an exclave in Southern Armenia, which is currently difficult to access due to the restriction of trade across Armenian borders. On the other hand, Armenia holds control over a former Soviet oblast in Azerbaijan’s de-jure borders, which is a particularly sensitive point of contention. The Nagorno-Karabakh oblast is ethnically Armenian and is administrated by the self-proclaimed independent state of Artsakh, and has fought to remain so since the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1988. Armenia has an artery of trade to the oblast through the Lachin corridor, a travel lane protected by Russian peacekeeping troops since a ceasefire agreement of 2020. Azerbaijan feels it has a distinct disadvantage in this regard, as it lacks a similar corridor to trade with its exclave. Azerbaijan does not recognize the independence of Artsakh, making it difficult for the two countries to reach an agreement. Both points of contention would require territorial concessions from both Azerbaijan and Armenia, which appears unlikely to happen without the use of military force.
The new offensive into Armenian territory likely reflects a desire to secure such territorial concessions: specifically, a western “Zangezur corridor,” which is an often repeated objective of Azerbaijan. This hypothetical land passage would join the two Azeri landmasses, and create an uninterrupted line for trade from Turkey to central Asia. In April of 2021, Azerbaijan state media warned that the country would acquire the passage by force if it had to, and it appears that now is an apt time for Azerbaijan to attempt such a manoeuvre due to the fact that Russia is unlikely to intervene due to their preoccupation with the war in Ukraine. What’s more, the European Union is in no position to press Azerbaijan due to their current energy crisis. The EU needs Azeri co-operation, and the Azerbaijan government is planning on increasing its oil exports to the EU by 30%. Possibly the only power capable of responding with strength then is Iran, who has made a show of force after deploying 50,000 soldiers to the Armenian-Azeri border and proclaiming that it would strongly oppose any change in territory. Iran traditionally supports both Armenia and Russia in opposition to the block of Turkish countries, however, they are unlikely to take any major actions to protect Armenia, as starting a war on the doorstep of Turkey and Russia would upset the balance of power too much. It looks as though, for the immediate future, Armenia and Azerbaijan are going to fight without intervention.
Since its inception as an independent state after the fall of the USSR, Armenia has fallen under the Russian sphere of influence, and has greatly benefited from the partnership. On military matters, Russia has been an invaluable aid to Armenia, securing a ceasefire in 2020, providing materials and tactical support through Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), patrolling the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and protecting the Lachin corridor. They are also Armenia’s most vital trade partner on virtually all economic aspects. Alongside Iran, Russia keeps Armenia alive in more ways than one.
Despite this historically strong pact, this conflict represents a subtle but possibly critical point in Armenia’s political history, which will inform not only the peacekeeping methods available to other powers, but the entire balance of power of central Asia. This point of tension is the possible “flipping” of Armenia to the western bloc. How exactly can this happen?
Over recent years, Armenia has had reason to be displeased with Russian guardianship. Under the OSCE Minsk group, which regulated multiple ceasefires and peacekeeping attempts, Armenia lost a great deal of land it had previously won. Moreover, the recent and intensifying conflict with Azerbaijan has provided an opportunity for Russia to prove the CSTO keeps its promises. So far they have done little due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, which provides a unique opportunity for American diplomacy. According to the RAND corporation, the situation presents two possibilities: firstly, that Russia engages itself against Azerbaijan, and is extended into another costly ground war, or secondly, that Russia does not engage, and leaves Armenia unprotected. In the first case, Russia would be significantly weakened and suffer the attrition of two wars. In the second, Russia would lose a key ally in the Caucasus and be almost entirely encircled by NATO-friendly powers on its western borders. Therefore, according to the RAND group, any attempt to seed discontent and extend Russian commitments should be taken.
Nancy Pelosi’s landmark visit to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and diplomatic tour-de-force should be seen in this context. Condemning all violence, paying homage to the Armenian genocide, and encouraging the development of several NGOs on Armenian soil are all elements of a strong soft-power overture. Some American NGOs such as the Human Rights Watch, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the National Democracy Institute have all started working with the Armenian government. For instance, Alen Simonyan, president of the national assembly commented that the CSTO had failed Armenia in attendance of a National Democratic Institute meeting. Armenia is being given an implicit invitation to leave the CSTO, forsake a relationship with Russia, and ossify its bonds with the west. Such an alienation of Russia would be catastrophic for Armenia, as they are far too dependent on the country to risk damaging their relationship. In addition, American support for Armenia will not go far enough to demand that Turkey or Israel stop arming Azerbaijan, or that Turkey engage in normal economic interaction with the country. Most of all, Armenia should not expect significant support from the west, and at best, they can hope for free weaponry, however this is not a long-term solution.
Seeing as Russia is impotent, Iran is impassive, OSCE Minsk is incapable, and USA is too far away, what is to be done for and by Armenia? In the short-term, it would be ideal for another peacekeeping mission to become possible – a strong Russian presence in the Lachin corridor and Nagorno-Karabakh region has been successful in reducing immediate violence and ensuring regular flow of goods. As this can most likely not be achieved by Russia any time soon, a diplomatic conference on the matter could attempt to station troops in key urban areas and arteries of trade, preventing atrocities and economic devastation.
In the long-term, the Armenia-Azerbaijan situation can only be understood as a boiling cauldron of exterior pressures – and for the conflict to end, these pressures must let up. Chiefly, the economic partnership between Azerbaijan and Turkey to asphyxiate Armenia’s trade routes must be stopped. For such purposes, a normalization of economic relations between Armenia and Turkey is critical. Once steady exchange is achieved, a means of economic interchange must be created through Armenia. Unfortunately, this is highly unrealistic. To the west and its allies, Armenia and Azerbaijan are merely competing to see if Russia can maintain its sphere of influence or lose yet another formerly-Soviet ally, and the west has bet on its failure.
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