The resolution process in the Nagorno-Karabagh has been very unstable, still not giving any sustainable results almost 30 years later. April 2016, in particular, showed rising tensions, some fearing a full-on war similar to the one in the 1990s. Lately, however, it seems many have high hopes on both sides for a resolution between the two countries. Since the beginning of 2019, Aliyev and Pashinyan have been taking the negotiations more seriously (Shiriyive, 2019), although the end of year confrontations have become more prevalent. To Pashinyan’s “Karabakh is Armenia, final dot” In November 2019, Aliyev retorted “Karabakh is Azerbaijan, exclamation mark”. But does Russia have its own agenda in the region?
Today is the 20th of January 2020, exactly 30 years after the massacre of our people who wanted to take their independence from the USSR and Russian dominance. In this article, we will focus on the role that Russia has been playing in this frozen conflict that is Nagorno-Karabakh. It is not without reason that the Russian government is following the conflict so closely, nor is it simply helping when it proposes the installation of Russian troops in the region with the Lavrov plan.
A quick history of the region
The South Caucasus region is in the middle of Europe to the West, Asia to the East, and Iran to the South, and thus, has seen many territorial changes throughout the centuries. Our country alone has gone through the dominance of many different nations:
The Russian Empire and the USSR period of Azerbaijan could be interpreted as a stop in time. While all three countries of the South Caucasus had developed their sense of national identity, the (sometimes) arbitrary reattribution of the territories by the Russian rulers has led to the national security issues that we are facing today. Late 19th century, the current territories of Azerbaijan and Armenia were separated into the three “gubernii” of Baku, Erevan, and Elizavetpol (see map).
While the gubernii of Baku and Erevan were overall correctly separated, when going into more details, discrepancies are noticed. Based on the 1897 Census, Erevan, Nakhchivan, Surmalinsk, and Sharur-Daralagew all had majority Azerbaijani population but were attributed to the Erevan gubernia. The Elizavetpol gubernia itself had only one city out of 8 that had Armenian minority, the rest being mostly Azerbaijani, yet it was not attributed to Baku gubernia.
By 1940, Azerbaijan’s territory had yet again shrunk as certain Azerbaijani majority Elizavetpol gubernii had been officially transferred to the Armenian SSR (see map below).
The tensions resulting from these discrepancies led to misunderstandings, hatred, and resentment between the two populations for over a century, peaking during the Nagorno-Karabakh war from 1988 to the ceasefire of 1994. The loss of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia has led to Azerbaijan becoming one of the countries with the highest number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) as a percentage of the total population. Amounting to over 600 thousand people, the IDPs represented about 8% of the total population in 1994.
Why not a military resolution?
One could argue that the land is Azerbaijani, and our country’s military capabilities are higher than what they used to be in 1994. Why not take Nagorno-Karabakh back? The Aliyev regime has been very adamant about increasing the country’s military spendings for the last 10 years. Yet, a war with Armenia, especially right now, is unthinkable.
Armenia being part of a military alliance with Russia, aggression against Armenia would be considered an aggression against Russia as well. An aggression that is not an option for Azerbaijan whose military capabilities simply do not surpass those of Russia, which is legally bound to send its military in defense of Armenia. Moreover, if a war were to take place in the region, our country would not be seen as a “safe-haven” for international investment, especially in the oil and gas industries. A fact that our business- and corruption-savvy government officials know too well.
Because the region is of strategic interest to Russia, Turkey, the EU, Iran, UK, and the USA (De Waal, 2015), another military conflict might be an invitation to military missions from different sides just like in the Balkans in the late 1990s-early 2000s. In such a situation, the only losers would be Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Since the 1994 ceasefire, the conflict has stayed frozen although provocations from both sides have taken place throughout the years. The failure of both the political leadership of Azerbaijan and Armenia to find a compromise to this situation represents a security threat for both countries (Blahova, 2018). Moreover, the Minsk group, instead of helping reach a peace settlement that would satisfy both Azerbaijani IDPs and the Armenian population of the Nagorno-Karabakh, has not managed to create an efficient negotiation framework.
The current rise in tensions between the USA and Iran due to the assassination of General Soleimani is yet another threat in the region. Since it is “tradition” for superpowers to move their battles outside of their territories, Azerbaijan is thus in a difficult position where a small conflict with Armenia could be used as an “entry ticket” for all participating countries (USA, Iran, Turkey, Russia) into the Nagorno-Karabakh.
We would also like to note that the IDP problem in Azerbaijan has been, to some extent, underestimated. Up until now, Azerbaijani IDPs hadn’t had their say in the resolution process either. Although our government seems to present the IDP issue as a priority, as of 2019, 344 000 people were still living in an unstable situation (IDMC, 2019). In 2008, the majority of the original 600 000 didn’t yet have a “propiska” which restricted their ability to work in larger cities and to choose their residence place (IDMC, 2009). To some extent, this situation can be explained by the hopes of a rapid resolution of the conflict to the benefit of Azerbaijan in the early years, however, it cannot be excused almost 25 years after the conflict.
This is not to say that nothing has been done. In fact, many national and international projects have taken place but saying that the IDPs were a priority doesn’t sound like an honest statement considering their, still, difficult situation.
Who is winning in this frozen conflict?
While acting as a third-party in the resolution process, Russia has reportedly sold weapons to Azerbaijan despite its backing Armenia militarily in the case of a full-on war. The first of such military cooperation was the 2010 sale of 2 batteries of S-300 air-defense systems (Nicoll, Delaney, 2010). At the same time, Russia did not intervene during the Four Day War in April 2016 leading the Azerbaijani elite to believe that Russia might be more favorable towards Azerbaijan in the negotiations (Shiriyev, 2019b). Yet, in order to save its reputation in Armenia, Russia delivered a large supply of weapons after the armed conflict.
Russia has remained a weapon procurement ally, as well as military advice with both Azerbaijan and Armenia throughout the last 10 years. The only difference is that Russia has reportedly been training the Armenian military, while Azerbaijani soldiers participated in training sessions with their other “ally” in the region, Turkey (IISS, 2019). An ally, which might not stay one considering its close ties with Russia in the current conflicts in Syria.
The Lavrov Plan, while fully satisfying Azerbaijan’s wishes, shows the intentions of Russia more than ever before. Using the conflict as an excuse to “rebuild its lost empire”. The proposed military presence establishes Russia’s power in the region, pressuring Armenia to accept as a security guarantee, and Azerbaijan to follow Russia’s orders to be returned its Nagorno-Karabakh and 5 surrounding regions (Shiriyev, 2019b). To get to such a resolution, both Azerbaijan and Armenia would, of course, have to keep Russia in their camp, further strengthening their economic and military dependence on the “Big Brother”, Russia. Once their military forces installed, Russia can use its position and power to further influence the politics of both countries to their own benefit.
This view is not new, and despite the official blame being put on Armenians, it seems the Azerbaijani people assign a large part of the blame on Russia and its patronage behavior with Armenia instead (Radnitz, 2019).
The Nagorno Karabakh conflict is a complex issue, mixed up in between competing interests in the region, rising nationalistic sentiments on both sides, and an IDP issue that is yet to be resolved. What is sure is that Azerbaijan has to take the decision that will enable the resettlement of those who are willing to go back to their original lands, while at the same time ensuring peace for its people and economy, as well as its economic independence from Russia. The Lavrov plan might sound like a solution, but instead, it will be detrimental to both Azerbaijan and Armenia in the long term.
We believe that a viable and peaceful solution must be agreed upon only between Azerbaijan and Armenia, instead of inviting third-parties (e.g. Russia) that might have their own agenda for the Nagorno-Karabakh.
Author: Kertenkele Press
Altstadt, A. (1992). Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian rule, Chapter 2.
Blahova, P. (2018). Nagorno-Karabakh: obstacles to the resolution of the frozen conflict. Asia Europe Journal (2019) 17:69–85.
De Waal, T. (2015). The elusive search for resolution of the Nagorny Karabakh dispute. In “Frozen conflicts” in Europe. By Bebler, A. (2015).
IDMC, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. (2009). Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2008. Available online: http://www.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/2009-global-overview2008-global-en.pdf
IDMC, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. (2019). Global Report on Internal Displacement. Available online: http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2019/
IISS. International Institute for Strategic Studies. (2019). The Military Balance. Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia, 119:1, 166-221.
Nicoll, A., Delaney, J. (2010). Moscow plays both sides on Nagorno-Karabakh. IISS Strategic Comments.
Radnitz, S. (2019). Reinterpreting the enemy: Geopolitical beliefs and the attribution of blame in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Political Geography 70 (2019) 64–73.
Shiriyev, Z. (2019). Old Conflict, New Armenia: The View from Baku. ISPI. Available online: https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/old-conflict-new-armenia-view-baku-22206
Shiriyev, Z. (2019b). Azerbaijan’s Relations with Russia: Closer by Default?. Chatham House.