Frozen conflicts dot the space created in wake of the USSR's disintegration, with republics' borders not reflecting ethnic homogeneity and resulting in competing territorial and national claims. Nagorno-Karabakh's Armenian population has gained de facto control and ceded from Azerbaijan; despite continued Russian interest here and recent intervention in Ukraine, sea change remains unlikely.
In the late 1980s, the majority ethnic Armenians of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) waged an undeclared war with the forces of Azerbaijan. Designed to suppress the secessionist movement spurred by the Armenians and boycotted by the Azeris, the conflict rapidly descended into accusations of ethnic cleansing by both sides. By the time the dust settled in 1994, 30,000 lay dead and nearly all of the NK region as well as 9% of Azerbaijan’s territory were under Armenia’s control.
To this day, Armenian and Azeri soldiers regularly break an uneasy Russian-brokered ceasefire by staging incursions into hostile territory. These skirmishes, although resulting in yearly double-digit casualties, have yet to initiate a full-scale war between the countries and are often used as political leverage within the international community.
The Current Situation
The NK conflict propelled the two countries towards polar opposite sides on the international spectrum. While Azerbaijan is trying to move towards an alliance with the West without endangering its position, Armenia has strongly aligned itself with the Russian Federation. Armenia is currently protected by a Russian garrison of over 3,000 troops equipped with far more military hardware than could ever be operable by a garrison that size, but political differences between the host and its protector have begun to arise. Having sacrificed its European Union ambitions to join the Eurasian Union, Armenia assumed Russia would support its position in the conflict. Russia, however, continues to fall short of flexing its military muscle at Azerbaijan, prompting Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to publicly criticize the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in one of the most direct indications of internal conflict to date. Even worse, Sarsgyan railed against statements made by CSTO members Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan that supported Azerbaijan’s position.
NK itself remains an independent territory and is not recognized by the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), CSTO, Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), or the UN; however, it is under the de facto control of the Armenian government. More significant, though, is that as a result, NK is not subject to international treaties, nor military inspections, enforced by these organizations. While the CFE restricts both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the amount of military hardware each can possess, Armenia can effectively circumvent the treaty through its alliance with the NK Self Defense Forces (NKSDF). Although both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been repeatedly accused of not fully declaring their military hardware, the extra forces under the control of the NKSDF could grant Armenia an edge in the event of an open conflict.
The recent conflict in Ukraine recast the international spotlight on NK and is no doubt responsible for the recent flare in tensions and casualties. Azerbaijan, upon seeing Russia under heavy international pressure, no doubt wanted to test the willingness of Russia to intervene in escalated conflict as well as draw media attention towards the situation in hopes of gaining international sympathy. Although Azerbaijan’s willingness to escalate the situation defines NK as a potential flashpoint for the near future, Azerbaijan will likely revert to the status quo after noting the West’s muted reaction towards the issues of non-NATO members, as well as its willingness to accept the legitimacy of Scotland’s vote for independence had it gone that way.
What Comes Next?
Given that: Russia has been, and will almost certainly continue to be, the driving force behind a resolution to the conflict. Russia will act in accordance with its own interests, and that neither country will risk large-scale military conflict due to fears of international intervention, there exist three feasible resolutions to the conflict:
Most Likely Scenario
Russia stops short of effectively moderating a peace accord and NK remains an autonomous region. Armenia will continue hosting Russian troops and will likely agree to host an increased number of Russian missile defense systems in tandem with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Azerbaijan will similarly maintain its shaky alliance with Russia, acknowledging the necessity of Russia’s protection and the consequences of allying itself too strongly with the West. Although tensions will remain high and cross-border incursions will no doubt continue, Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus will remain strong enough to counter Georgia’s pro-Western sentiment, effectively securing its southern border.
A Russian-mediated peace accord grants Armenia territorial sovereignty over NK. A victorious Armenia becomes a stalwart ally of Russia and the Eurasian Union, which it depends upon to ensure its protection against a spiteful Azerbaijan. Even so, its relatively small economy and population severely impact its status and ability to contribute to the Eurasian Union. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, will quickly sever many of its remaining ties with Russia to pursue more promising guarantees of security from the West. Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus will be severely limited, and the West will have made significant progress in its efforts to contain Russia.
Least Likely Scenario
A Russian-mediated peace accord grants Azerbaijan territorial sovereignty over NK. Chances are better that Azerbaijan, satisfied that its territory has been restored and no longer dependent on Russia, will pursue closer relations with the West. Furthermore, a defeated Armenia, having realized that Russia is unable or unwilling to guarantee its security, will quickly distance itself from the Eurasian Union. Whatever Armenia’s decision, Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus will essentially end, making this the least likely scenario.