In the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan have a long-running conflict over several disputed regions, but the fight over Nagorno-Karabakh is perhaps the most pressing fight. According to CNN, Azerbaijan has moved a significant amount of military force to the borders of the disputed region, despite the existence of a 2020 ceasefire agreement and the presence of Russian peacekeepers.
Though Russia and Armenia are allies, Armenia has expressed frustration with Moscow over the lack of support against alleged Azeri provocations. Recently, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian stated that relying solely on Russia was a “strategic mistake” according to Reuters, while other members of the Armenian government have made similar claims.
Across the border in Azerbaijan, the Azeri government in the capital city of Baku issued a statement on recent elections held in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine, calling them a “sham.”
Moscow is certainly irritated with the language coming from both nations. However, there is little that Russia can do because of its self-inflicted problems in Ukraine, and both Armenia and Azerbaijan know it.
War over Nagorno-Karabakh is never too far away. But with Russia unable to respond to provocations from both countries, a changing dynamic is occurring in the region.
Moscow’s Historical Influence on the Caucasus
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is complicated, to say the least. But to understand the standoff between the two nations, we have to leave the Caucasus and look to Moscow.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of various empires until their annexation by the Russian Empire. Following the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the Russian Revolution led to the Soviet Union.
In the interim, the nations of the Caucasus forged the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic during their short-lived independence from Russia. Knowing that Russia could not survive without oil from Baku, Vladimir Lenin sent troops into the Caucasus to seize the entire region.
During its brief independence from Moscow, Azerbaijan attempted to formalize its borders, bringing it into conflict with ethnic Armenians. Once the Soviets seized the region, the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Josef Stalin, led the Kavburo committee and redrew the borders of the region.
His intent was to cause political strife and keep non-ethnic Russians fighting each other as opposed to making trouble for Moscow. Stalin used this approach in Central Asia, instigating battles between several nations over the Fergana Valley and water rights and scattering the Tartar people. These issues remain in existence today.
In the Caucasus, Stalin drew the borders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. He gave the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia, since there were primarily ethnic Armenians in the area.
A day later, Stalin reversed his decision and placed Nagorno-Karabakh under Azeri-Soviet leadership, setting the stage for future conflict. Upon Stalin’s death, the problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan only worsened, leading to eventual independence, war, and several ethnic massacres.
In late 1987, there were claims of forced expulsions of over 250,000 people according to the United Nations, which then led to open interethnic violence between the two countries. By 1988, Azerbaijan and Armenia were in a state of war that became focused on the Nagorno-Karabakh region, despite Moscow’s best efforts to end the crisis.
When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, so did any external peacekeeping operations led by Moscow. By 1992, extra-regional troops returned to the area under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
It was not until 1994, however, that mediators reached a ceasefire deal between the warring factions. By the time the ceasefire took hold, about 30,000 people had died in the conflict and a million people were displaced, according to the Council of Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker.
Armenia won the war, seizing Nagorno-Karabakh and occupying a significant portion of Azeri territory beyond the borders of the disputed region. However, bad blood remains all around, and skirmishes between the two countries have flared up on occasion.
Since 1994, the military situation has shifted decidedly in favor of Azerbaijan, and Baku took the initiative in 2020 to seize numerous disputed regions and approximately one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh before another ceasefire took hold. Despite ongoing talks between the two neighbors, military posturing continues to take place.
Escalation or Détente?
In December 2022, Azerbaijan closed the Lachin corridor – the sole roadway into Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia – despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers. When Moscow failed to respond to Armenia and reopen the corridor, Baku began the process of moving more military assets to the borders of the disputed territory.
Azerbaijan justified the move by stating that humanitarian aid can flow into Nagorno-Karabakh, according to AP News. However, Azerbaijan also stated that the aid must go through Azeri territory to ensure that prohibited items (such as weapons) don’t make it into the hands of the separatist government.
This standoff continued until September 2023 when Baku agreed to reopen the corridor on humanitarian grounds. This shift in policy occurred during talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan that were mediated by the EU and the U.S. without a Russian presence, and this shift is noteworthy.
The US and the EU May Have Offered Financial Assistance to Stop Violence in the Caucasus
The governments in Yerevan and Baku have some economic needs that the West can provide. Coupled with the anti-Russian rhetoric coming from both capitals, it stands to reason that Washington and Brussels offered economic assistance to at least delay a new round of violence.
If that assistance is indeed the case, then we’ll likely see details of any financial assistance leak to the press in the coming weeks. However, violence in the Caucasus has an unfortunate tendency to develop rapidly. However things work out, it will be the first time in over 100 years that Russia, at the very least, will be a small part of the equation.