Nagorno-Karabakh clashes threaten stability in the South Caucasus


Violence has erupted in the South Caucasus, with clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops along the Line of Contact around Nagorno-Karabakh resulting in a number of casualties. The military clashes began in the early hours of 2 April, while both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents were attending the Nuclear Security Summit in the US. The unresolved dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most worrying unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus region, both because of rising tension between the two sovereign states and because the three principal regional powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – all have a differing stance towards the issue. The tense situation polarises the regional powers, with Russian support for Armenia and Turkey’s strategic partnership with Azerbaijan dividing the wider Caucasus region into two blocs and raising fears that, if there was a sustained renewal of fighting, it could rapidly become internationalised. It is over two decades since a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1994, but the ensuing stalemate has brought no real peace or stability and the two countries are still officially at war over the mountainous region. Fundamental issues remain unresolved and, as the fresh clashes demonstrate, the threat of renewed hostilities remains very real.

In recent years, there has been an escalation of violence around Nagorno-Karabakh with regular exchanges of fire along the 160-mile Line of Contact (LoC) between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops and a growing number of casualties in the so-called ‘sniper war’. The outbreak of violence on 2 April is the most serious confrontation since the 1994 ceasefire with over 30 deaths on both sides confirmed. Reports suggest that tanks, helicopters and armoured vehicles were involved. A new ceasefire was announced on 5 April, but there have been reports that the violence has continued and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has warned that, if the fighting escalates, Armenia will recognise the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. The escalation in violence on the LoC over recent years has been accompanied by increasingly belligerent rhetoric from political leaders and a significant growth in defence spending by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has made it clear that he intends to pursue his father’s objectives of transforming the country into a regional power, restoring its territorial integrity and uniting the population. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan spend a significant proportion of their national income on defence expenditure, although Armenia is not endowed with the hydrocarbon reserves that its neighbour has. There has been a dramatic rise in oil-rich Azerbaijan’s defence spending from US$175m in 2004 to an estimated US$3.8bn in 2014, meaning that Azerbaijan’s spending on defence exceeded Armenia’s entire national budget (around US$3.2bn in 2014). Nevertheless, in spite of its relative lack of economic advantage, defence spending in Armenia still constitutes around four per cent of GDP (its defence budget in 2013 was US$447m), one of the highest levels amongst the post-Soviet states. Furthermore, whilst Azerbaijan’s armed forces are already almost double the size of Armenia’s, Armenia benefits from Russian political and military support. Russia is Armenia’s staunchest ally and Yerevan has sought a close relationship with Moscow to counterbalance what it perceives to be its vulnerable position between two countries that are antagonistic towards it: Turkey and Azerbaijan. Russia is its key trading partner, providing vital supplies of energy, as well as its principal source of security, providing much-needed military equipment and support. Armenia also has close relations with Iran, a relationship driven by strategic necessity: the two countries share borders and one of Armenia’s principal transit routes passes through Iran, whose southern transit routes are vital to Armenia given the closure of its border with Turkey. 

Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is similarly dominated by the continuing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: settlement of the conflict and ‘the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity’ are the country’s primary foreign policy priority. Azerbaijan has a close relationship with Turkey, a relationship based to a large extent on ethnic and linguistic similarities. In addition to strong diplomatic and economic ties, Azerbaijan also receives a considerable amount of military support from Turkey, which has been assisting the development of the Azeri Armed Forces since the country became independent in 1991. However, this close alliance, like the Russian-Armenian partnership, reinforces mutual mistrust and suspicion over Nagorno-Karabakh, hindering the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. These agreements also increase fears that the conflict could become internationalised, with Russia or Turkey being obliged to assist their strategic ally in the event of a resumption of violence. Current diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Ankara could further complicate the situation.

The rapid escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh took many by surprise: after years of stalemate and an apparent a lack of resolve in the international community to sort out the problem, the protracted conflict has dropped off the radar, despite the need for greater international involvement. In addition to the security and geostrategic implications of any renewal of conflict, there are also economic ones to be considered, particularly the region’s role as a key transit route for the export of hydrocarbons from the landlocked Caspian Sea region. The rising tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, combined with escalating defence expenditure, threaten to undermine security in its broadest sense across the volatile Caucasus region. This latest escalation of hostilities should act as a stark reminder of the need for greater international attention and the imperative of a negotiated settlement.

Image: A graffiti in Yerevan depicting the outline map of Armenia and Artsakh. The text says “Liberated, not occupied”, via wikimedia commons.

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