The Upscaling of Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict


Photo source: Foreign Policy

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan gave the strongest signal in April 2023 of accepting Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan amid escalating tensions. While saying this, he also urged the European Union and Russia to prevent a ruinous new conflict in the South Caucasus.

The move effectively accepts Baku's sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, two and a half years since a brutal war ignited in the breakaway region that is home to tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians, who have, for decades, refused to be governed by Azerbaijan. In September 2022, however, Pashinyan was forced to deny that he in his mental capacity was ready to recognise Azerbaijan's borders after mass protests broke out on the streets of Yerevan. The protestors accused him of hanging Karabakh Armenians in suffrages.

Armenia, on the other hand, denies it maintains a military presence in the region, and has previously insisted Karabakh Armenians have the right to maintain their own voluntary self-defense forces. The Karabakh Armenian administration has repeatedly warned that, were Azerbaijan to take control of the region, the dwellers living there would be forced to exile, or worse.

According to Pashinyan, discussions over the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh can only be had once both sides accept it is legally Azerbaijani territory. In a much-quoted comment, he lamented: ‘if our region explodes again, at least in terms of energy, it can become a problem for both Russia and the West.’

In late 2020, the two countries fought a bloody war over Nagorno-Karabakh, but a Moscow-brokered cease-fire put an end to the fighting. The war saw the Karabakh Armenians give up swathes of territory, leaving them connected to Armenia by a sole highway under the protection of Russian peacekeepers, after a ceasefire agreement.

Then, in December 2022, self-declared Azerbaijani activists, operating with government support, set up camp on the single road in or out, effectively blockading the mountainous region. Since then, only Russian convoys and Red Cross aid workers have been able to get through, carrying food and other supplies to those living there. Meanwhile, a series of clashes in April 2023 along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan had left more than a dozen soldiers dead and sparked fears of a new conflict.

Under the terms of the United Nations charter, Nagorno-Karabakh is an Azerbaijani territory. After the first war in the province in the 1990s, which ended in Armenian victory and the expulsion of the Azeris, support from Yerevan allowed the separatists to enjoy full independence even though no country in the world, not even Armenia itself, officially recognised them.

The cease-fire was, in all percepts, meant to make room for a formal peace agreement between the two neighbours. However, many experts suspect that Russia, which has a strategic alliance with Armenia, wanted to keep the conflict frozen, with a fragile cease-fire, and being dedicated to no durable peace settlement. Any peace treaty was likely to favour Azerbaijan and weaken the Kremlin’s influence in the South Caucasus.

On the other side, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had been telling the Armenian population of this remote enclave in August 2023 to accept political control of Azerbaijan or leave the territory.

In an apparent effort to enforce sovereignty, Azerbaijan has been blockading the road from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, known as the ‘Lachin Corridor’ since June 2023. Without this route, the Armenian population has lost access to food, fuel, medicine and other essential supplies. The Azerbaijanis say they are ready to ship food from Azerbaijan, but Armenians fear it might be a trap, and a first step toward integration by force. That’s why, they have blocked the Azerbaijani entry routes with concrete barriers. Arayik Harutyunyan, the president of ‘Artsakh,’ as Armenians call this region, invoked international support against what he called a ‘genocidal policy’.

The plight of residents there has raised growing international concern for the welfare of Nagorno-Karabakh’s one hundred twenty thousand residents.

American officials believe that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are managing to survive only because of backyard gardens and other home-produced food. They fear that in the near future, the population could face starvation. Armenians dread a repetition of the Ottoman genocide of 1915, an ever-present historical memory for Armenians that defines their identity.

The humanitarian crisis surrounding the Lachin Corridor is the latest chapter of a decades-old struggle over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Armenia won control in 1994, but skirmishes continued for the next twenty years. Moscow’s ability to maintain peace and stability has been severely weakened by the Ukrainian conflict.

In an Oped by David Ignatius in Washington Post, he wrote: ‘When I visited Stepanakert, the de facto Nagorno-Karabakh capital, in April 2016, I saw a monument to the spirit of resistance there that Baku evidently wants to break. On the road to the airport stood an immense stone statue of an old man and woman, seemingly buried in the hillside. The name of the monument was “We Are Our Mountains.”’

When it comes to Iran, they see a strong and stable Azerbaijan as a threat. Tehran is concerned with military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel, the strengthening of its regional competitor Turkey, and the potential of an Azerbaijani role in a secessionist movement of its own sizeable Azerbaijani minority.

As per analysis done by Mat Whatley in Foreign Policy: ‘As Europe’s energy needs increase, and with Russian supplies shut off, more capacity from the east will be needed. New pipelines, with their potential to later transport Caspian green hydrogen, a potentially renewable, green gas, to a more climate-conscious Europe, could run directly and more logically through Armenia from Azerbaijan—earning it the healthy transit fees that Georgia currently enjoys.

The same political logic applies to freight lines. The only viable overland route runs through the South Caucasus; the others being through Iran and Russia. Cheaper and faster than shipping, train-freight capacity will need to be vastly expanded to deal with the growing trade.’



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