The Armenian-Azerbaijanian conflict is flaring up again. How did the geopolitics of the region affect it, and what is the role of Russia and Turkey in it?
https://www.jpost.com-By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Ethnic Armenian soldiers stand in a trench at their position near Nagorno-Karabakh’s town of Martuni, April 8, 2016. (credit: REUTERS)
This week Armenia was subjected to bombardment by the forces of Azerbaijan. The attacks along the border, which Baku says were provoked by Armenia, witnessed the worst fighting since a 2020 war when Azerbaijan defeated Armenian fighters in the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan has said it is merely re-asserting its rights to its territory and that Armenia is intransigent.
However, these conflicts would not be taking place without the key role of Turkey and Ankara’s leading AKP party. Ankara has prodded Azerbaijan to fight Armenia.
Russia’s vested interests in the Caucasus
Russia, which supposedly has backed Armenia in the past, is now weaker than it was and prefers to talk up ceasefires, while not doing much to guarantee peace. This is because Moscow is not good at brokering peace, having invaded Ukraine and fueled a number of simmering conflicts.
Moscow prefers to foment endless conflicts, such as it did in Georgia, by creating breakaway separatist statelets that then require states to depend on Moscow. For instance, Belarus depends on Moscow; Transnistria depends on Moscow; Syria depends on Moscow. Any country that is stuck in Moscow’s orbit will naturally be poorer and have fewer prospects of real peace and prosperity. But these Moscow rules benefit the Kremlin.
Since Moscow cannot guarantee Armenia’s security, Yerevan becomes a victim. Armenians suffered genocide in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman empire and extremist Turkish officials. Later, what was left of the Armenian population was concentrated in a Soviet state and in the diaspora.
The roots of the Nagorno-Karabach conflict
Had Armenia had more of a chance to escape the Soviet orbit it might have become a successful small country, like Israel. Instead, it became a backwater and in the 1990s it was plunged into post-Soviet chaos.
Armenians living in an area of Nagorno-Karabakh found that their land had become part of Azerbaijan; one of these numerous post-imperial or post-Soviet situations where a large minority is inside another country. This is the same situation Kurds and other groups have found themselves in. For Armenia though, there was a temporary victory over Azerbaijan. Backed by Russia Armenia took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and a simmering unresolved conflict remained.
This continued percolating along until the last decade. Baku has become wealthy through the management of its energy resources and close alliance with Turkey, as well as in trade with Israel and the West. But Baku wasn’t ready to launch a conflict with Armenia. It was Ankara that encouraged the 2020 conflict. This was clear when Turkey’s pro-government media began spreading misinformation about the presence of “terrorists” in Armenian areas. This was the key needed to begin the conflict.
At the same time, Armenia was hampered by not seeing the winds of change. Armenians have been through many protests and political changes since the 1990s. Nikol Pashinyan, the current prime minister, came to power in 2018 and ostensibly he, like some of his predecessors, wanted an Armenia that would be close to the West.
However, Armenia largely failed to arrange closer ties with the US and EU because Russia under Putin was scheming to keep Armenia dependent and isolated. Moscow prefers Armenia to be more like Belarus. Just as Moscow punished Georgia for trying to ally with the West, it was ready to punish Yerevan.
Turkey pushes for war
Back in the early 2000s, there might have been a chance for reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey and also with Azerbaijan. But by 2020 Ankara was pushing for war.
Ankara knew that the Trump administration was about to leave office and it understood that countries that wanted to invade neighbors or settle old disputes should do it before the new Biden team took office.
This is why Ankara had taken advantage of the Trump administration to invade Afrin in Syria and attack US Kurdish partners in 2019. Ankara was also angling for an alliance with Iran and Russia; buying S-400s from Moscow and working with Iran on Syria talks.
This led to the 2020 conflict which revealed that Azerbaijan’s military had been totally modernized since the 1990s, with new drones and weapon systems. Armenia had stagnated, like every Russian partner.
It lost in 2020. But Turkey was not done. This week, as the conflict over the border escalated, Ankara put out statements backing Baku. It pushed its pro-government media to talk about Armenia’s “provocations” and has sent high-level ministers to support Azerbaijan. For instance, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar wished “God’s grace on the fallen soldiers and a speedy recovery to the wounded” praising Azerbaijan and Turkey as “one nation, two states.”
Armenia has no real choice in this issue. It has already given up parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Now the conflict appears to be over parts of Armenia itself. This is no longer about “disputed” territory, it is about more concessions. The conflict unfolded as Turkey was about to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to cement ties with Russia, Iran and China. Armenia and Azerbaijan were also supposed to attend. Turkey likely wanted to show that it could weaken Armenia and perhaps topple Pashinyan’s government.
The conflict also unfolded as Russia was losing ground in Ukraine. It’s worth noting that some observers see Armenia as a partner of Russia and Iran; and since Russia and Iran are growing closer and Iran is giving Russia drones, then the Ukraine conflict has a context here.
This puts Armenia on the wrong side of the Ukraine war, backing Russia. Therefore, countries that back Russia can be attacked, because they are seen as part of the problem. But Armenia’s situation is that it has a choice in the matter.
The wider geopolitical situation
Geographically it is between Iran and Russia; and Turkey and Azerbaijan. Its powerful neighbors oppose Armenia. But Iran is not a capable partner and Russia uses Armenia to keep it weak and isolated. For instance, Armenia’s military lacks heavy weapons because Russia starves it of equipment. The US and western powers don’t supply Armenia.
Even though Pashinyan has reached out to the US and France, as his predecessors also did, he is not able to change the geopolitics. The last US administration didn’t care about Armenia, and some powerful voices close to the White House were fanatically pro-Turkey. On the other hand, Israel is a close partner of Azerbaijan, which doesn’t help Armenia’s efforts either.
The Biden administration has put out statements to try and end the fighting. But it is hampered by the fact that Russia, Turkey and Iran all want the US to be isolated in the region.
Turkey wants the US to leave Syria and has threatened to invade more parts of Syria. Iran opposes the US, Russia opposes the US. The US is focused on Ukraine and simply doesn’t have the influence it once had in the Caucasus. Everyone knows that Georgia and other states that tried to grow closer to the US have suffered from Russia’s machinations. In Central Asia, where the SCO is meeting, the US has also lost influence. The US left Afghanistan, and the fact is that Russia and China, with Turkey and Iran, are partitioning the area into spheres of influence or outright control.
As if those problems were not enough. Armenia, is a victim of energy politics. Europe is trying to reduce energy reliance on Russia, which means relying more on Turkey and Azerbaijan.
All the energy projects bypass Armenia. Thus the conflict in Ukraine reduces Armenia’s profile even more. It is only saved by the fact it has friends in the West, including the diaspora and those with a keen knowledge of history. Congressman Brad Sherman has been outspoken in demanding the US do more.
Russia’s goal is a ceasefire so it can play the role of the broker. Turkey’s goal is to humiliate and weaken Armenia’s prime minister and cause chaos in Yerevan. The end result will be a more isolated Armenia than ever before.
This matters because it gives Turkey a potential win. NATO was formed as a defensive alliance, but NATO-member Turkey often uses its membership in NATO to cause crises and war. It has done this in Syria and in threatening Greece.
Not long ago Ankara was hosting Hamas leaders, but it has now tried to patch things up with Israel. There are other potential repercussions. A weakened Armenia may be exploited by Russia or Iran, and in general, Armenians deserve better than always being used by larger regional powers every time Ankara wants to fan the flames of nationalism for an election.
A decade ago Ankara sought out “zero problems” with its neighbors and some believed it could play a role in peacemaking in the region. There was a time, before 2009, when Ankara even seemed likely to mediate between Israel and Syria. Today the ruling party in Turkey has jettisoned most of these policies. It views diplomacy as a way to threaten others and try to make them appease Ankara.
It’s not clear that Armenia, by appeasing Ankara, will bring itself peace, because it appears to be a victim of cynical politics that links Russia, Turkey and other countries to conflict.