The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not a ‘proxy war’

The U.S. Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, criticised the Trump administration on Tuesday for failing to make diplomatic efforts to quell fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory of the South Caucasus that is disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“(The Trump administration) must stop coddling Ankara,” he said in a statement. “Turkey’s provision of arms to Azerbaijan and bellicose rhetoric encouraging a military solution are irresponsible.”

Turkey’s involvement has captured some attention in Washington by raising concerns that the fighting in Karabakh, which began on Sept. 27, could draw other regional powers including Russia and Iran into a larger conflict.

Ankara has played a role in enabling Azerbaijan’s military offensive, but geopolitics are not the key to understanding the decades-long dispute, which has remained unresolved since the fall of the Soviet Union. The conflict may appear forgotten in time to those outside the Caucasus, but the current fighting is just as destructive as any modern war between conventional armies.

Missile barrages and shelling have caused military and civilian casualties on both sides. Thousands have fled their homes, the memory still fresh that hundreds of thousands were permanently displaced in the 1990s. Of particular concern is Azerbaijan’s targeting of civilian areas with cluster munitions, which kill indiscriminately and scatter unexploded bombs that continue to maim and kill for years.

In the past, Turkey limited its intervention in the South Caucasus, careful to avoid what Russia considers its sphere of influence, but it has stepped up support for the Azeri government this year, including holding joint military exercises with Azerbaijan in August.

Russia, the United States and France, co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group tasked with reaching a peaceful solution to the conflict, immediately called for a ceasefire and for negotiations to resume.

In contrast, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tweeted: “Armenia once again showed that it is the biggest threat to peace and tranquillity in the region. As always, the Turkish nation stands by its Azeri brothers with all its capabilities.”

Turkey’s increased support for Azerbaijan and Russia’s mutual defence treaty with Armenia have raised the concern that Karabakh could become a new front in a Turkey-Russia ‘proxy war’ that already includes Libya and Syria. Turkey and Russia are both consequential players in the Karabakh conflict, but framing it as a ‘proxy war’ only serves to obscure the local dynamics that remain the conflict’s core drivers.

Russia, which has effectively managed the conflict in the past, was slow to engage in conflict resolution this time around. Because the fighting is occurring outside of what is formally recognised as Armenian territory, Moscow says it is not obliged to intervene in defence of Armenia. It also has no compelling reasons to punish Azerbaijan, which it sees in many ways as a model post-Soviet state.

The United States has very little leverage in Karabakh. Its ability to contribute to negotiations as a co-chair of the Minsk Group may therefore be diminished if it focuses criticism on Turkey and Azerbaijan, while taking unprecedented steps that side with Armenia.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Adam Schiff and the co-chairs of the Armenia Caucus introduced a resolution on Oct. 1 “condemning Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh and denouncing Turkish interference in the conflict”. Fifty Democrats and six Republicans sponsored the resolution.

Schiff went even further in support of the Armenian position by stating on Friday: “The United States should make clear to Azerbaijan and Turkey that if they persist in this violence instead of embracing a peaceful settlement of the conflict, we are prepared to recognise the Republic of Artsakh as an independent nation and to work with the international community to achieve the same.”

U.S. recognition for Artsakh would be welcomed by most Armenians, but at this stage it would only complicate efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement. Although the idea has entered the discussion in Washington, it is unlikely to be acted on while American politics is focused on the contentious presidential election.

Artsakh is the name given to Nagorno-Karabakh by its de facto government in Stepanakert. Last year, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said, “Artsakh is Armenia, and that’s it.” But no state, not even Armenia, formally recognises Artsakh as an independent nation. Doing so would be seen as a major provocation by the Azeri government in the capital Baku, which has always claimed that Karabakh remains Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.

The fall of the Soviet Union produced a number of localised self-determination conflicts in the Caucasus and elsewhere. As many remain unresolved, with de facto governance structures a feature in several locations including Karabakh, these disputes are often labelled ‘frozen conflicts’.

Soviet legacies certainly played a key role in the origins of the Karabakh dispute, but labelling it a ‘frozen conflict’ also undermines the unique realities that distinguish Karabakh from the other post-Soviet conflicts.

Laurence Broers, Caucasus programme director at Conciliation Resources, helpfully redefines the Azerbaijan-Armenia relationship an ‘enduring rivalry’. Over time, the relationship has not remained ‘frozen’; animosity and prospects for conflict resolution have ebbed and flowed over time.

To understand the current rupture, the worst since a 1994 ceasefire established the Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azeri forces, requires understanding why the two countries maintain maximalist positions in the dispute.

Karabakh, which was then populated by a majority of ethnic Armenians, was allocated to the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1920s. The Karabakh Armenian population petitioned Moscow concerning repression of Armenians in Soviet Azerbaijan, and a self-determination movement gained steam in Soviet Union’s final years before war erupted between newly independent Azerbaijan and Armenia from 1992 to 1994.

Karabakh’s status is, however, not a clear-cut case of self-determination by the territory’s Armenian population. The 1994 ceasefire left seven other Azeri districts that completely encircle Karabakh on the Armenian side of the Line of Contact, giving credence to Baku’s characterisation that Armenia is occupying its sovereign territory. Azerbaijan’s ‘occupation’ rhetoric is further fuelled by Armenian settlers moving into districts previously inhabited by the hundreds of thousands of Azeris displaced by the initial war.

Brief but heavy fighting along the Line of Contact in July roused the Azerbaijani public, leading to major protests in Baku and elsewhere. Fearing the stability of his dictatorship, exacerbated by the economic and health crises of the pandemic, it was in President Ilham Aliyev’s interest to escalate the conflict to shore up his nationalist support.

In the past decade, Azerbaijan has gained a military materiel advantage on nearly every metric through arms purchases from Israel, Russia and Turkey. With Armenia holding the mountainous terrain of Karabakh, however, Azerbaijan has been unable to make significant gains. The war of attrition rapidly broadened to involve missiles, artillery and drone attacks far from the Line of Contact, which increases the devastation of civilian life and property.

On the Armenian side, hostilities have also buoyed support for Pashinyan. On the outbreak of the fighting, he said in an address to the nation: “The Armenian nation is ready for war, because they have always clearly realised that Armenophobia, enmity and hatred with which the Azeri dictatorship has been feeding its people for decades could not lead to any result other than war.”

The hardening of nationalism only serves to push the two countries’ negotiating positions further apart, reducing the likelihood of an effective ceasefire, let alone a renewal of productive peace negotiations. Members of the Minsk Group, Russia and Turkey chief among them, will need to contribute to de-escalation, but the struggle over Karabakh is ultimately in the hands of the two countries fighting the war.

Biden’s latest statement suggests he is aware that both sides need to compromise to get back to a peace process. He said the Trump administration must make clear that it will not tolerate Azeri efforts to “impose a military solution”, while also telling Armenia “that regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be occupied indefinitely”.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for a ceasefire and the cessation of targeting civilian areas in a tweet, but Biden criticised Trump and Pompeo for failing to place a single phone call to the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed the conflict by phone on Wednesday.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.