‘Some damn fool thing in the Balkans’: Great Power entanglement in Nagorno-Karabakh
By DOMINIC GILONIS
In one of his final speeches to the Reichstag, the German statesman Otto von Bismarck compared Europe to a powder keg. He declared that what would set it off was ‘some damn fool thing in the Balkans’. The peninsula had become synonymous with instability as both the Ottoman and Austrian Empires were forced to withdraw in the face of nationalism, which was fuelled by Russian expansionism. Eventually ‘some damn fool thing’ did set off the keg in 1914. It is tempting when we look at the current conflict in the Caucasus - a region only recently independent from the Soviet empire, and steeped in nationalist rhetoric - to see parallels with this prediction. What this modern theatre also demonstrates is how deeply entangled and engaged the great powers of our age are in regional feuds and conflicts; not just Turkey and Iran, but also Russia and to an extent the US are taking a keen interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh skirmishes, for one reason or another. This is a trap however; all conflicts are unique, of course, and as much as it may seem ready to spark a grand conflagration, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seems likely to remain de-escalated.
This is a very historically relevant conflict, dating back to before Soviet control of the Caucasus. Freshly independent from the Tsarist Russian autocracy, the three mountain nations of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan attempted to form a Transcaucasian federation in 1918. However, under the pressure of Ottoman and then Soviet invasion, nationalists broke the federation apart, and the three nations were absorbed into the Soviet Union. There had already been several violent nationalist clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over territory, especially over the Armenian majority area of Nagorno-Karabakh, which, while under Azeri governance, had declared a secession to Armenia in 1918. Stalin, then Commissar of Nationalities, came up with a compromise agreement - Armenia would gain control over several disputed territories, while Nagorno-Karabakh would gain significant autonomy under Azeri jurisdiction. There are still arguments over why this decision was reached. Was it a cynical attempt to keep the Caucasian governments in conflict, or an attempt to placate the new Turkish nationalist government in Ankara by appeasing the primarily Turkic Azeris? Whatever the case, it seemed to work for over 60 years. Then, in the waning years of the Union, conflict broke out again. Riots and skirmishes between the Azeri government and Karabakh-Armenians plagued the region and culminated in a full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1992, months after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The 1994 ceasefire left the future of the region uncertain. Armenian forces continued to occupy portions of Azeri territory, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe condemned what it called the ethnic cleansing of Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh. Skirmishes continued across the frontier despite the official ceasefire.
Yet the situation today has seen a dramatic shift since 1994. Armenia does enjoy an alliance with Russia and support from Iran, yet is now far weaker than Azerbaijan. The latter has grown extremely wealthy off its hydrocarbon industry, and trade across the Caspian Sea. While the nation might be majority Shia Muslim, the Baku government is incredibly secular, modeled in part off the Kemalist government in Turkey. Indeed, its Turkic cultural ties to Ankara have deepened cooperation between the two, especially in opposition to Iran. Turkey under Erdogan for its part, increasingly hopes to position itself as the defender of Muslims across the world - hence its condemnation of the Chinese treatment of Uighurs, while others (Tehran included) remain silent. Tehran fears the pan-Turkic nationalism that emanated from Baku following independence, especially in its calls for union with the Iranian region of Azerbaijan. Further, increasing dissatisfaction with the theocratic government has increased tensions with the seemingly secular alternative in Baku. Azerbaijan has further focused on deepening ties with Israel to counter Iranian influence and has signed arms deals with Tel Aviv and Ankara, making it one of the best-armed nations in the region. Baku has attempted to retake its territory, therefore, but in a generally piecemeal way, using a bite and hold strategy to not escalate the conflict so that Russia is drawn in.
While one might see the beginning of a new great war in this fracas, there are a number of reasons why none of the great powers is willing to join in. For all the talk of a ‘neo-Ottoman’ foreign policy for Turkey, there is extensive domestic opposition to Erdogan’s foreign adventures, especially his latest one in Syria. Russia, for its part, has been building greater ties with Baku in order to gain a land bridge to its partner in Tehran, and gain a share in its hydrocarbons. Iran’s military is more built for infiltration and insurgency than outright war, and all three are aware that escalation could bring NATO to bear on the side of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Escalation is a possibility, yet appears unlikely given the muted response for instance to Russian and Turkish interventions in Syria. For now, the conflict will most likely remain contained to Nagorno-Karabakh, and remain a ‘damn fool thing’ in the Caucasus.