By James Hess, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Security and Global Studies
For over a month now, a decades-old conflict has reignited into full-scale war. Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) is an ethnic enclave of Armenians living in Azerbaijan. The ethnic Armenians are Christians in a predominately Islamic country.
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Just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region demanded to be placed under Armenia’s control rather than Azerbaijan’s. In 1988, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh began conducting low-scale, guerilla warfare-type attacks against Azerbaijan.
To further complicate the tensions in this region, after the Soviet Union dissolved, Turkey tried to develop an oil pipeline through Azerbaijan, which eventually was completed by constructing it further north through Georgia known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
Nagorno-Karabakh Region Has Been a Volatile Area Since 1994 Ceasefire
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the guerilla warfare turned into a full-scale war with Armenia supporting the ethnic Armenians’ efforts. That war-like situation lasted until 1994, when Russia intervened and sponsored a ceasefire. The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been a volatile area ever since, with border clashes, occasional small skirmishes and sporadic fighting. This low-intensity conflict persisted until September 27, 2020, when large-scale combat operations flared up over the region.
It is believed that Azerbaijan intentionally renewed incursions against the NK “line of contact,” which was established in 1994 at the Russia-negotiated ceasefire. Ethnic Armenians responded with a full mobilization of military forces, and Armenians responded in kind in support of NK. Turkey has declared its support of Azerbaijan, and is providing military support to the Azerbaijani military.
NK War Rhetoric Spreads Throughout Europe and Middle East
On October 10, 2020, the International Committee of the Red Cross worked with Russia to sponsor a ceasefire. But this effort has been ignored by both sides.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called for the return of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blames Turkey for the conflict. French President Emmanuel Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have publicly criticized each other over political cartoons and the conflict.
Former U.S. vice president and now current President-elect Joe Biden has denounced Turkey’s involvement in the region. Protests over the Nagorno-Karabakh war have ranging from Iran, Georgia, France, the UK, and the U.S.
Nagorno-Karabakh Fighting Could Spark Larger Regional Conflict
During the war from 1992 to 1994, various analyses predicted that this conflict could pull in larger regional powers. As Turkey and Armenia then as now were providing support, there was concern that Russia would eventually join in by supporting the Christian minority in Armenia. But at the time, Russia was weakened by the recently dissolved Soviet Union.
Today, Russia has redeveloped much of its military capabilities and has demonstrated a willingness to deploy its military in foreign affairs, as in Syria for example. To date, however, Moscow has shown that it prefers to play peacemaker. But as tensions rise, especially with heightened rhetoric between Turkey and France, there is a potential for other countries to get involved.
Reportedly, there have been cyberattacks against Azerbaijan originating in Greece. Along with other historical disputes between Turkey and Greece, such as over Cyprus, these cyberattacks have turned into a rhetorical clash between the two countries.
With the fratricidal civil war in Syria having spawned a diaspora of refugees throughout southeast Europe, the Nagorno-Karabakh situation could spark greater involvement by countries in the region.
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