While the world watches the destruction in Ukraine, hostilities smolder in another corner of the former Soviet Union.
I’m not really surprised that skirmishes in the region turned deadly – they have done so many times before. But the latest escalation has taken on a new dimension with the war in Ukraine. In short, the response of both the West and Russia to the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan is complicated by their commitments elsewhere. Meanwhile, other regional powers have intervened.
The escalation of the fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but has received much less attention in the West.
A year and a half before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan and a man marked by critics like a despot”, launched a brutal attack. On September 27, 2020, Aliyev sent in his troops the small enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh – a region populated by Armenians, who know it as Artsakh, but which is located in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Cut off and besieged
The fighting shattered a shaky peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan that had been in effect ever since Moscow intervened in 1994 mediate a ceasefire.
It again ended with a Russian-backed ceasefire.
But the war never really ended.
In the period since, Azerbaijan has continued to send its troops to the Republic of Armenia amidst counterclaims of border crossings. Meanwhile, the government-backed, self-proclaimed “eco-activists” have done just that blocked the Lachin corridor, the single road that connected Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. From December 12, 2022 until now, the approximately 120,000 Karabakh Armenians have been cut off from potentially life-saving food and medicine as a result of the blockade.
The US government and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, among others, have protested against the blockade calling Aliyev to “press for an immediate reopening of the Lachin Corridor to commercial traffic.” But Washington seems impotent or unwilling to apply real pressure. to rule out – at least for now – the use of sanctions against Azerbaijan. And with the war in Ukraine driving up energy prices, Western states argue have an incentive don’t be too hard on oil and gas rich Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, mired in Ukraine’s mud, Russia has failed to fulfill its role as guarantor of the 2020 ceasefire. Putin also appears not inclined to help Armeniahis only loyal ally in the South Caucasus, aware of the need for special military assets elsewhere.
Finding regional friends, losing them
Moscow’s relative absence from the current plight of Nagorno-Karabakh breaks with nearly a century of geopolitical practice.
The pursuit of Armenians from Karabakh to secure autonomy from Azerbaijan rule may appear to some observers as an intractable struggle between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis. Yet Nagorno-Karabakh existed for 70 years within the Soviet Union as an autonomous oblast or province. During that period, the Kremlin kept the peace between the two Soviet nations that claimed the territory.
But if ethnic nationalism grew in the late Soviet decades, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms loosened Moscow’s grip on non-Russian republics, hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted.
When the Soviet Empire fell in 1991, the two newly independent republics began war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia armed both and played one republic against the other.
But of the two, Armenia has tradically closer to Russia. Relations between Moscow and Armenia have cooled down in recent years, not least because of Putin’s mistrust of Armenia’s on the road to democracy since 2018. But as a member of the Moscow-led strategic alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Armenia remains a Russian ally and has no defender other than Moscow. Which now makes her position all the more vulnerable if Putin withdraws his support.
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has seen it regional allies Israel – spurred by a shared hostility towards Iran – and Turkey step up in recent years. Both have provided Azerbaijan with advanced weapons, giving the country the upper hand in the conflict.
Great powers sit this one out
The war in Ukraine is presented in the West as one confrontation between autocracy and democracy. Yet the conflict in the far south of the Caucasus is not viewed in the same light, despite how much it has taken over a country that steps towards democracyArmenia, against an autocratic Azerbaijan.
The United States, in its muted response to the blockade, and Russia, with a cold calculation of military costs and benefits, seem content to wait to see what will happen when Armenians and Azerbaijanis kill each other.
Russia’s own actions have left it paralyzed, entangled in the swamp of Ukraine. But that of Armenia friends in Washington begin to wonder where the “indispensable nation” is, such as the US styles themselveswhen a small, besieged nation needs it most.