Wednesday, 03 September 2014

Resurgence of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict - A Russian Move on the Ukraine Chessboard

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By Avinoam Idan (09/03/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The return of open fire in the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict recently brought about a meeting between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Sochi, under the auspices of President Putin, on August 10, 2014. The growing tension in the conflict and the Sochi meeting take place against the background of the crisis in Ukraine. The Karabakh conflict serves as Russian leverage in influencing and promoting Russia’s geostrategic aims in the Caucasus and beyond, and Russia’s new initiative in the conflict meant to improve Russia’s stance in its confrontation with the U.S. and EU and its hegemony over the gateway to Eurasia.

BACKGROUND: The NK conflict developed from an internal conflict to a war between two independent states in 1991, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Azerbaijan and Armenia as independent states. The cease-fire achieved in 1994 with Russia as mediator froze this conflict. Armenia, supported in the war by Russia, took control of the disputed territory as well as additional neighboring areas, in total about 17 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has been at the helm of international mediation efforts for years, in the framework of the Minsk Group, whose co-chairs are France, the U.S. and Russia, to no avail.

Armenia, landlocked and suffering from a weak economy and a precarious security situation, is entirely dependent on Russia, which has military bases deployed on Armenian soil. Azerbaijan, a country rich in oil and gas, is endeavoring to establish its own military option in order to regain control of areas lost during the war. The rise in energy revenues, especially since the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in 2005, had allowed Azerbaijan to institute a defense budget greater than Armenia’s entire annual budget.

However, Azerbaijan is also landlocked, borders Russia and is in need of Russian good- will in order to sustain the regional stability needed for its energy export infrastructure. Both Armenia, dependent upon Russian support in the conflict, and Azerbaijan, whose military and policy options in the conflict are not obtainable as long as Armenia enjoys Russian support, consider Russia a key state in any future settlement.

Both states are aware that U.S. and EU efforts to broker this conflict will come to nothing unless Moscow agrees. Under these circumstances, the conflict serves as effective Russian leverage in order to further its geostrategic objectives. The location of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Caucasus, and the location of the Caucasus as a vital bottleneck, underlines the conflict’s geopolitical significance in Eurasia. As a result, the latest development in the conflict cannot be separated from the present crisis in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian crisis exceeds its local context and is an expression of the struggle between the West and Russia over hegemony in the Eurasian sub-continent. Therefore, one should consider the renewal of hostilities in Karabakh and the meeting between the heads of states of Azerbaijan and Armenia and the Russian president as a development connected to the intensification of the conflict in Ukraine.

IMPLICATIONS: Ukraine and Azerbaijan are two pivotal states in the Black Sea–Caspian region, strategically located at the gateway to Eurasia. U.S. geostrategic thinking defined them as geopolitical states of critical importance at the end of the 1990s. Moreover, Russia sees Azerbaijan as a target of high priority, whose subordination to Russia would help seal Central Asia off from the West. This attitude has been further validated since the Russian-Georgian War in 2008, given that Russia established its position vis-à-vis Georgia, Azerbaijan’s neighbor in the Caucasus.

The future of the conflict and the possible return of territory Azerbaijan lost during the war is of particular importance to Baku. Russia, which Armenia is entirely dependent upon, has decisive influence over these territories. In light of Russia’s desire to improve its position in the current Ukrainian crisis, it now perceives the time to be right to use the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict as leverage for influence over Azerbaijan. In parallel with Russia’s actions in Ukraine, its latest complementary activities aim to tighten control over Azerbaijan. The renewal of tension in the conflict hence does not stem only from the bilateral relations between the two countries directly involved in the conflict, but should be seen as a combined Russian move, as part of the Ukrainian crisis.

The Ukrainian crisis erupted following the EU’s initiative to promote the Eastern Partnership, intended to include Ukraine in the EU’s framework. The source of Russia’s reaction, therefore, is the perception of its most vital geostrategic interests coming under threat. In due course, Russia devised countermeasures by accelerating the establishment of the Eurasian Union. The inclusion of additional countries in the Eurasian Union from among the CIS countries is intended to consolidate the CIS members in a political and economic framework that would block EU and NATO expansion eastward.

The more entangled the Ukrainian crisis becomes, the more likely it is that Russia will make use of its options to exert leverage over countries in the region in order to block what Russia sees as a U.S. geopolitical threat in a region that it considers its own backyard. The current flare-up in Karabakh can be understood in this light. Using the conflict as leverage against Azerbaijan is a preventive measure on Russia’s part to prevent a similar development of U.S. and EU tactics in the Ukraine.

Russia chose to take extreme steps in order to block, as it saw it, the West from taking control over one of the most vital pivotal states in the Russian sphere. Using Karabakh as leverage is meant to ensure that Azerbaijan will not join the EU framework, but also to convince it in the long term to consider joining the Eurasian Union. As long as the confrontation between the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine continues, we can expect the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to intensify.

CONCLUSIONS: The future of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is not only in the hands of the two sides directly involved. From the very beginning, the outcome of the conflict has largely been dependent on outside players, predominantly on Russia and the U.S. The interests of these two powers are influenced by the competition between them, which transcends regional dimensions. The crisis in Ukraine is defined by competition between Russia and the West over preserving or changing the geostrategic balance of power in a region of geopolitical importance. The reappearance of tensions in Karabakh at this time is closely connected to the crisis in the Ukraine. Russia is taking advantage of the conflict in order to solidify its hold on Azerbaijan and to improve its stance in the confrontation with primarily the U.S. over Ukraine. This confrontation, in effect, is over geopolitical superiority in the Black Sea-Caspian region, which is the key to the gates of Eurasia.  

AUTHOR'S BIO: Dr. Avinoam Idan is a political geographer and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, based in Washington DC. Prior to his academic career, he served in the Israeli Embassy in Moscow during the break-up of the Soviet Union.

(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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