The global sphere is no stranger to ethnic or territorial conflicts. In its vast history and evolution, it has witnessed many disputes concerning such issues. In September 2023, attention was once again called to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict after a large-scale attack launched by Azerbaijan against the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh.

The disputed area of Nagorno–Karabakh is officially located in Azerbaijani territory, however, the existence of a large percentage of ethnic Armenians, who comprise most of the people living in the region, has long given way to tensions and disputes between the two countries (Armenia and Azerbaijan). Baku seeks to protect what it sees as its territorial integrity. At the same time, Yerevan is propelled by its concern for the ethnic Armenian population residing in the area, which seeks its independence, an act they see as their right of self-determination. Both sides have used violence and have witnessed a significant loss of human lives, in their attempt to control the area.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s marked the decisive point of escalation for what was to be a long and bloody conflict. The Armenian majority of Karabakh demanded its unison to Armenia with a message to Moscow.  Instead, as the conflicts rose in intensity, the local government declared itself autonomous with a referendum in 1991. The creation of the self-proclaimed “Republic of Artsakh” sparked the first major war between the state of Nagorno–Karabakh and Azerbaijan, with the former being supported by the government of Armenia.

The “first war of Nagorno-Karabakh”, as it came to be known, ended with a ceasefire treaty (Bishkek Protocol) in 1994, facilitated by Russia, and signed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. The ceasefire acted as a temporary fix, putting the conflict “on ice” until 2020 when the second Nagorno-Karabakh war erupted.  The second war ended once again with a Moscow-backed ceasefire. By facilitating the ceasefire, Russia also achieved significant involvement in the area, with the stationing of almost 2000 Russian peacekeepers, reaching the Lachin corridor, the small strip of land connecting Nagorno–Karabakh to Armenia. The corridor was later regained by Azerbaijani forces, during the blockade of Artsakh in 2022.

Following the second Karabakh war in 2020 was a significant Azerbaijani victory. The border conflicts continued to escalate, with Azerbaijan blockading Artsakh in December 2022 and finally dealing the final blow in September 2023, through a large-scale military attack. Following the attack, the government of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, issued a decree announcing its dissolution, starting in January 2024. This, along with Azerbaijan’s former operations in the area, has resulted in a massive wave of ethnic Armenians flooding the Lachin corridor to flee to Armenia, unwilling to live under Azerbaijani rule.

At this stage, it becomes imperative to examine foreign involvement in the conflict and how it affects its trajectory. Russia’s involvement is clear, being the main power regulating peace talks, but also the main supplier of arms to both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Moscow’s position is rather contradictory, as both a peacekeeping and arm-supplying force for both sides. While it holds strong ties to Armenia, with the latter being a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia is also largely interested in Azerbaijan’s economic capabilities, seeing as it presents a large market for Russia’s arms exports. Overall, Russia has been vocal about wanting a peaceful resolution to the conflict and has urged both sides to stop fighting, stressing the importance of protecting civilians.

Another major power with a significant role is Turkey. While Ankara has called for a truce, their stance has been clear in fully and consistently supporting Azerbaijan, based on their socio-cultural similarities and economic ties. Azerbaijan is a major external investor in the Turkish economy and is important to its energy security.  Turkey also supplied Azerbaijan with drones, which played a decisive part in its victory over Armenian forces in 2020. Turkey’s closest allies, like Pakistan and Qatar, also support Azerbaijan. With such an evident stance in the conflict, Turkey seeks to gain significant influence in the region, in an attempt to counter-balance Russia and, potentially, gain leverage over future negotiations.

Following Russia’s more diplomatic approach is Iran, a neighbor to Armenia and Azerbaijan and host to large communities of people from both countries. Iran’s position is delicate, as it can’t risk rising tensions from either minority. Tehran has favored negotiatory strategies and peaceful conflict resolution in line with international laws. As mentioned above, Iran is a host of a substantial Azerbaijani minority. Azerbaijan’s reclaiming of Nagorno-Karabakh creates fear of a spillover on Iranian Azeris, who might demand their autonomy or even reconnection with Azerbaijan. The Iranian government is also monitoring Azerbaijan’s plan to build an overland corridor linking its mainland with the cut-off region of Nakhichevan, a move that would compromise Iran’s access to Yerevan. Such strategic issues can explain why, even though it officially holds a neutral position, Iran is leaning towards Armenia’s side.

Having mentioned Iran’s subdued favoritism of Armenia, it becomes evident why its primary opponent, Israel, has expressed its support for Azerbaijan. The two countries share strong military ties, with Israel being a major arms-supplying partner to Azerbaijan. Israel’s own conflicts with Iran would likely propel it to adopt an antagonistic stance on the issue, as it could benefit from potential unrest in its opponent’s internal structure.

After examining the conflict from different regional points of interest, it would be wise to mention where major Western countries fall. The US has pushed for a peaceful resolution and dialogue, an opinion the European Union shares. However, western involvement has been meager, as territorial actors have taken a more aggressive approach. The conflict poses a big dilemma especially for Europe, as the region is technically a part of the continent. The flee of Armenians from Karabakh poses great threats to Europe’s ideals of state and self-determination; however, most countries do not want to get directly involved, or break their ties with Baku. The West has contented itself by condemning Azerbaijan’s actions and requesting an end to the hostilities.

Ultimately, Nagorno-Karabakh might now be under Azerbaijani rule, but the conflict is far from over. Ethical dilemmas, the humanitarian crisis, regional interests, and political gains play a major role in the resolution of the issue and tensions are running high. It is doubtful that Armenia will sit by and watch, as its population is driven from their homeland. It is also doubtful that Azerbaijan will cede its territory and compromise state integrity. Ethnic conflicts are rarely a black-and-white issue, especially from a global perspective, and this one is no different.

Author:  Έλλη Ματθαιάδη


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