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Fighting in Nagorno Karabakh: A Headache for Moscow

Russian diplomatic intervention in an area of strategic importance to Moscow is likely to prevent escalation.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

News of a flare up in fighting in the Caucasian territory of Nagorno Karabakh will cause the Kremlin serious worry.

Nagorno Karabakh is a small territory which before 1988 was largely Armenian but which is now entirely so. 

For complicated historical reasons, whilst the USSR was in existence, Nagorno Karabakh, despite being predominantly Armenian, instead of being incorporated in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic (one of the 15 constituent republics of the USSR) was incorporated in the Azerbaijanian Soviet Socialist Republic instead.

There is much argument about the reasons for this, with the Azeris claiming that Nagorno Karabakh was always historically part of their territory, the Soviet authorities in Moscow saying it was done out for pragmatic reasons to develop a small and poor region by attaching it to the richer of the two Caucasian republics (Azerbaijan) rather than the poorer (Armenia), and some scholars saying it was the result of Stalin’s divide and rule policy.

I do not have the necessary knowledge of Caucasian history to say who is right.   What I will say that what I have heard is that Nagorno Karabakh was incorporated in Azerbaijan rather than Armenia not by design but by accident - and I strongly suspect that is the truth.  

The territory was apparently occupied by the Red Army and administered from Bolshevik controlled Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) during the Russian Civil War before the Red Army conquered Armenia - which enjoyed a brief period of independence following the Russian Revolution. 

This arrangement was then left unchanged even after Armenia was forcibly incorporated into the USSR because of bureaucratic inertia.  This was true even during the period of the Transcaucasus Soviet Socialist Republic when all these territories (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh and also Georgia) were supposedly administered jointly.

That is not to say that there were not other factors.  Over time it became politically increasingly difficult to change the arrangement because of hardening Azeri opposition to any change.   Apparently there were also objections to any increase in the USSR’s Armenian administered territory from Turkey’s leader, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk.

Kemal was one of Moscow’s few friends during the inter-war years and the Soviets were unwilling to offend him.

What I have also heard is that after the Second World War, following Armenian complaints, Stalin decided shortly before his death to revisit the whole issue, and was prepared to look into the possibility of having Nagorno Karabakh transferred to Armenia from Azerbaijan.  Supposedly he appointed the powerful Central Committee Secretary Georgy Malenkov to carry out an inquiry to look into the question and to report back to him.  

By this point relations between Russia and Turkey had all but broken down after Turkey joined NATO, so the need to appease Turkey no longer existed.

Stalin however died before a decision was made.  This removed the one person with the power and authority to solve the whole problem by transferring Nagorno Karabakh from Azerbaijan to Armenia at the stroke of a pen.  

Following Stalin's death Malenkov’s inquiry was left to lapse.  With the situation in the Caucasus firmly under control the Soviet leaders in Moscow were far too absorbed in their own power struggle to worry about a local dispute in the far off trans Caucasus.

Though Azerbaijan and Armenia for the remainder of the Soviet period remained constituent republics of the same country - the USSR - the Armenian inhabitants of Nagorno Karabakh continued to resent their rule from Baku and still hankered for union with Armenia.

Though the fact is sometimes denied, I have no doubt that the quarrel between Armenians and Azeris over Nagorno Karabakh has at least at some level also been coloured by the greater quarrel between the Armenian people and Turkey.  

Azeris are a Turkic people speaking a language similar - though not identical - to the Turkish spoken in Turkey, though unlike the Turks of Turkey - who are Sunni - the Azeris are Shia.  

Though the Azeris were not involved in the Armenian Genocide, Armenians in my experience tend to conflate them with Turks, and it is in fact the case that relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey have become very close since Azerbaijan achieved independence after the USSR dissolved in 1991.  

Turkey has sided strongly with Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia and has imposed an economic blockade on Armenia to support Azerbaijan in the conflict.

The conflict exploded in 1988 when the local authorities in Nagorno Karabakh voted to secede from Azerbaijan and to join Armenia  The action triggered protests in both Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as in Nagorno Karabakh itself.  It also led to the ugly murder of a large number of Armenians by an Azeri mob in the town of Sumgait in Azerbaijan.

As the protests in Azerbaijan became increasingly violent they triggered a mass exodus of Azerbaijan’s previously large Armenian population to Armenia and Russia.  Most of the small Azeri population of Nagorno Karabakh in turn fled to Azerbaijan. 

The protests eventually led to fighting and outright war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which Azerbaijan eventually lost.  

Nagorno Karabakh has been under Armenian control ever since, though it is not formally incorporated in Armenia and Azerbaijan continues to claim it.

Though the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is now a largely forgotten part of the story of the USSR’s collapse, I will here state my own personal view, which is that Gorbachev’s failure to end it by reasserting Moscow’s control was a major cause for the collapse of his authority in Moscow.

The conflict has festered ever since with attempts by the Russians and other parties to broker a solution getting nowhere and with Azerbaijan investing much of its oil wealth in an arms build-up that has the Armenians understandably worried and which they see as intended to put Azerbaijan in a position where it can reverse the outcome of the war.

In the meantime relations between Russia and Armenia have grown steadily closer, with Armenia joining the Eurasian Union and positioning itself as Russia’s key ally in the Caucasus.  

This builds on a very long history of intense cultural interaction and friendship between the Russian and Armenian peoples, with each traditionally harbouring strongly positive feelings towards the other.

Armenia is now also the host of an important Russian air base, which the Russians have recently reinforced with MiG29 fighters.

Azerbaijan for its part has been careful not to break its ties with Moscow completely.  

Though the Azeris have on occasion tilted towards the US, and have flirted with the various gas and oil pipeline schemes intended to reduce Europe’s energy dependence on Russia (the subject of the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough), they have up to now shown a keen understanding of the local geopolitical realities, and realise that Russia is and will remain for the foreseeable future the dominant power in the Caucasus. 

The steady build-up of Russian naval power in the Caspian Sea, and the network of Russian air bases in Armenia and in the northern Caucasus, have effectively sealed Russia’s overwhelming military advantage.

It is this overwhelming Russian power that in the end makes it unlikely the present fighting will escalate into all-out war.  

With Armenia in firm alliance with Russia - which would come to Armenia’s aid in the event of an all-out war - Azerbaijan knows it would quickly lose such a war, and that is a powerful deterrent against Azerbaijan deciding to start one.

As for Armenia, it has no claim on Azerbaijan and merely seeks to preserve the status quo in Nagorno Karabakh and elsewhereIt therefore has no interest in starting a war.  

Since neither side (probably) wants a war why is fighting taking place now?

Reports suggest the latest bout of fighting was started by Azerbaijan.  

Most probably the Azeris want to remind the Russians that the Nagorno Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, though it is possible that the Azeri government - under severe domestic pressure because of the oil price fall - is using the fighting to strengthen its popularity in Azerbaijan.

There is also always a possibility in this sort of conflict that the fighting is the work of local commanders acting on their own initiative.  The area is heavily mountainous, communications are poor and it is not impossible that the political leaderships have a less than complete control of the situation on the ground.

Lastly it is not impossible that Turkish meddling has played a part.  With Turkey now under severe pressure from Moscow it is not inconceivable that the Turks have used their influence in Azerbaijan to stir up trouble for Moscow in its Caucasian backyard.  It is important to say however that there is at present no evidence for this and any theorising to this effect remains for the moment pure speculation.

Though it is unlikely the fighting will escalate further, the fighting nonetheless serves as a pointed reminder to the Russians that the situation in the Caucasus remains fragile and that peace there cannot be taken for granted.

Though Russia’s alliance with Armenia is not in doubt, it is in Russia’s interests to retain at least a dialogue with Baku.

Russia does not want to lose Azerbaijan entirely, as it might do if matters were allowed to get so bad that Russia was obliged to come to Armenia’s rescue.

The Kremlin’s diplomats in the Caucasus will be working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.


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