By Maya Sgaravato-Grant
After 32 years of resilience, it took less than 24 hours from the first shell fired by Azerbaijani forces for Nagorno-Karabakh to fall. The casualties reached the hundreds as at least 100,000 people from the self-declared republic’s formerly 120,000- strong population crowded onto the road to Armenia, bidding goodbye to what they had just a few hours ago called their home.
In Azerbaijan’s eyes, the events of 19 September 2023 did not constitute an invasion at all. Indeed, Nagorno-Karabakh, despite being overwhelmingly ethnically Armenian, was internationally recognised as constituting a province of Azerbaijan, indeed having been founded as an ostensibly autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. However, since 1991, at least a large part of the area had been governed by ethnically Armenian separatists, who had declared it the Republic of Artsakh, with the support of Armenia. Although a short-lived war in 2020 resulted in the separatists losing control of seven adjacent territories and a portion of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, the situation over the last few years was regularly described as ‘stagnant’. Nevertheless, the discourse regarding the territory within Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to become more polarised, with both Armenians and Azerbaijanis regularly depicting Nagorno-Karabakh as within the jurisdiction of their respective territories. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani media began to refer to large parts of Armenia as ‘Western Azerbaijan’, drawing on the myth that Armenians only arrived in the Caucasus in the nineteenth century.
One aspect of the 19 September attack that international spectators found most striking was the complete absence of a response from Russia, Armenia’s long-term ally and long the most influential actor in the region. The Russian Federation had been responding to numerous violations of Armenian territorial sovereignty on Azerbaijan’s part with indifference since May 2021, despite formal obligations to intervene. Indifference was again the response when Azerbaijan blockaded the Lachin Corridor, the sole supply artery between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and upon which 2000 Russian troops were stationed, in a clear violation of the 2020 peace treaty. In the months preceding September 2023, it became known that Russia had ceased providing weapons to Armenia, despite the latter’s continuing payments.
The EU and the US, on their part, demonstrated support for the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh by donating millions to Armenia to aid with their accommodation of recently displaced people. However, as Azerbaijan has become a key supplier of fossil fuels to Western countries due to a boycott of Russian providers, and as it counts the EU as its largest trading partner, European and US leaders have refrained from going beyond verbal disapproval of the attack in their dealings with Azerbaijan, in order to protect their economic interests. Sensing a weakening of Russia’s hold on the region, the US and the EU have tried to assert greater influence through holding talks between the two countries and presenting themselves as neutral mediators; though the talks in question have since stagnated due to Azerbaijani concerns.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been committed to maintaining influence over the independent states which emerged from its body- or what it calls the ‘near-abroad’. For decades it has achieved this through a combination of incentives and threats, as well as through the deliberate promotion of ethnic conflict. While it is formally aligned with Armenia, having used the promise of subsidised energy to pressure it into joining the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (Russia controls on gas imports to the country), and equally dominating the Collective Security Treaty Organisation of which Armenia is a member, it sells arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Russia’s inaction with respect to Nagorno-Karabakh has been widely interpreted as evidence of its declining international influence. Indeed, with Russia’s attention on Ukraine, it simply lacks the military resources and political will needed to engage in a conflict with Azerbaijan, even if in other circumstances it would possess the desire to do so. However, other motives for its passivity have been posited. With the Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan being perceived as ‘pro-West’ by the Kremlin, Russia may be wagering that Pashinyan would not be able to survive a defeat politically and such a loss may lead to him to subsequently be replaced by a more Russia-inclined leader. Furthermore, with Azerbaijan becoming an increasingly powerful economic and political player in the region, Russia may be deliberately attempting to foster closer ties with the country for strategic purposes. Some have argued that Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan may play a role, given that the former is a crucial player in the Ukraine war, and that the proposed Zangezur corridor through Armenia, which would connect mainland Azerbaijan to an Azerbaijani exclave bordering Turkey, would prove a highly profitable new transport route.
Whether more violence is likely to erupt between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the near future has been a frequent topic of discussion for analysts around the world. Armenia and many Western countries have warned of the possibility of another Azerbaijani incursion into Armenian territory to secure the Zangezur corridor. Azerbaijan has rejected the allegations, with academics pointing to the fact that it is also in talks with Iran about a possible alternative route as proof that it is developing alternative plans should the proposal not have success. Armenia, for its part, has declared no interest in engaging in conflict over the territory.
The diffuse idea that swathes of Armenia rightfully belong to Azerbaijan shows little sign of dwindling, potentially heralding violence in the near future. On the other hand, with Azerbaijan finally achieving its decades-long goal of gaining full control of all exclaves within its territory- to great human cost- and with regional power shifting towards it, the next few years could at best see a sort of stability in the form of a long-awaited normalisation of the relationship between the two countries, although with no justice for the former and current inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh in sight.
Image: Wikimedia Commons