The risk of military conflict is escalating in Nagorno-Karabakh, the border region claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, due to the failure of mediation efforts, increased militarization, and frequent cease-fire violations.
• The largely mountainous and forested Nagorno-Karabakh, home for some 150,000 people, is at the centre of the conflict.
• Nagorno-Karabakh is located within Azerbaijan but is populated, mostly, by those of Armenian ethnicity, and mostly Christian compared to the Shia Muslim majority Azerbaijan.
The conflict can be traced back to the pre-Soviet era when the region was at the meeting point of Ottoman, Russian and the Persian empires.
Once Azerbaijan and Armenia became Soviet Republics in 1921, Moscow gave Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan but offered autonomy to the contested region.
In the 1980s, when the Soviet power was receding, separatist currents picked up in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In 1988, the national assembly voted to dissolve the region’s autonomous status and join Armenia. But Baku suppressed such calls, which led to a military conflict.
When Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the clashes led to an open war in which tens of thousands of people were killed.
The war lasted till 1994 when both sides reached a ceasefire, they are yet to sign a peace treaty and the border is not clearly demarcated.
By that time, Armenia had taken control of Nagorno-Karabakh and handed it to Armenian rebels. The rebels have declared independence, but have not won recognition from any country.
The region is still treated as a part of Azerbaijan by the international community, and Baku wants to take it back.
Although UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the UN Security Council, and countries like the United States and Russia have called for an end to hostilities, Armenia and Azerbaijan have rejected pressure to hold talks.
Immediate Reason of Recent Clashes
In July this year, at least 16 people were killed in the clashes.
After the recent violence, Azerbaijan and Armenia blamed each other.
Baku said it was forced to respond after Armenian attacks killed and wounded Azeris.
Armenia, on the other side, blamed Azerbaijan for launching the “large-scale” attack targeting peaceful settlements.
Strategic significance of the region
The energy-rich Azerbaijan has built several gas and oil pipelines across the Caucasus.
This includes the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, with a capacity of transporting 1.2 billion barrels a day, the Western Route Export oil pipeline, the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline.
Some of these pipelines pass close to the conflict zone, within 16 km of the border.
In an open war between the two countries, the pipelines could be targeted, which would impact energy supplies.
Interests of the Turkey
Turkey has historically supported Azerbaijan and has had a troublesome relationship with Armenia.
Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia.
The main point of contention between the two was Ankara’s refusal to recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide in which the Ottomans killed some 1.5 million Armenians.
On the other end, the Azeris and Turks share strong cultural and historical links.
Azerbaijanis are a Turkic ethnic group and their language is from the Turkic family.
After Azerbaijan became independent, Turkey established strong relations with the country, which has been ruled by a dynastic dictatorship.
Reports says that Turkey was recruiting mercenaries from West Asia to fight for Azerbaijan.
This fits well into Ankara’s aggressive foreign policy, which seeks to expand Turkish interests to the former Ottoman territories.
Moscow sees the Caucasus and Central Asian region as its backyard.
But the current clashes put President Vladimir Putin in a difficult spot.
Russia enjoys good ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia and supplies weapons to both.
But Armenia is more dependent on Russia than the energy-rich, ambitious Azerbaijan.
Russia also has a military base in Armenia. But Moscow, at least publicly, is trying to strike a balance between the two. Like in the 1990s, its best interest would be in mediating a ceasefire between the warring sides.
India’s stand on this conflict
India – Armenia
Armenia is the only country in the region with which it has a friendship and cooperation Treaty (signed in 1995).
Armenia extends its unequivocal support to India on Kashmir issue.
The levels of India’s trade or investment with Armenia are, however, very low.
India – Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan not only supports but also promotes Pakistan’s narrative on Kashmir issue.
ONGC/OVL have made relatively small investments in an oilfield project in Azerbaijan and GAIL is exploring the possibilities of cooperation in LNG.
Azerbaijan falls on the International North South Transport Corridor route, connecting India with Russia through Central Asia; it can also connect India with Turkey and beyond through Baku-Tbilisi-Kars passenger and freight rail link
In light of these interests, India has adopted a balanced and neutral stance and made a politically correct statement in which it has expressed its concern, called for restraint and immediate cessation of hostilities and resolution of the conflict peacefully through diplomatic negotiations. India also do not support involvement of external forces like Turkey in this bilateral conflict.
Without successful mediation efforts, cease-fire violations and renewed tensions threaten to reignite a military conflict between the countries and destabilize the South Caucasus region. This could also disrupt oil and gas exports from the region, since Azerbaijan, which produces about eight hundred thousand barrels of oil per day, is a significant oil and gas exporter to Central Asia and Europe. Russia has promised to defend Armenia, Turkey has pledged to support Azerbaijan, and Iran has a large Azeri minority, which could escalate a crisis and further complicate efforts to secure peace in the region. It is in the interest of all involved parties that the conflict is resolved peacefully.