Ethnic Conflict or Proxy War in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Ashley Rosenberg

Recently catapulted into the spotlight, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh stretches back centuries and highlights the continuing influence that Russia has when it comes to navigating foreign policy and peace-keeping in the Caucasus, even after the Soviet collapse. 

Occupying a mountainous swath of Azerbaijan close to the Armenian border, Nagorno-Karabakh has long been a region embroiled in conflict, with Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkic forces grappling for power. For the majority of the 20th century, Soviet repression and the establishment of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, which had an ethnic Armenian majority within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan,  quelled the violence that had plagued the region through the early 1920s. However, as with the Eastern European states, the loosening of restrictions and subsequent fall of the Soviet Union launched the region into a state of unrest, with the low level Armenian-Azerbajaini conflict exploding into all out war. Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself a part of Armenia, and the subsequent fighting resulted in more than 30,000 casualties, also displacing more than a million people. After over three years of fighting, the Bishkek Protocol, a peace deal brokered by Russia in 1994, left the region in de facto Aremnian control, but a formal peace treaty was never signed. 

For the following two and a half decades, the border region, called the “line of contact,” became increasingly militarized, with each side being emboldened by the support of their respective influential geopolitical allies: NATO member Turkey for Azerbaijan and Russia for Armenia. Turkey, in particular, seemed to be challenging Russia’s dominance in the Caucuses through its support for Azerbaijan, representing a possible reshuffling of power in the region. Then, in September 2020, Azerbaijan launched an offensive into the Karabakh region, with Turkish President Erdogan publicly declaring support for the attack.

As the fighting continued, Erdogan repeatedly positioned himself as a legitimate power broker for the conflict, attempting to force Russia to abandon its policy of relative neutrality in the region. Despite these attempts by Turkey to expand their sphere of influence, in the end it was a Russian sponsored peace agreement that brought an end to the six week long war.  The miscalculated attempt by Turkey to increase their own geopolitical standing has left the region even further under the control of Russia and President Putin. Azerbaijan, where prior to the November peace deal there were zero Russian troops, will now have at least 2000 Russian peacekeepers stationed in the country for at minimum 5 years. But when has Russia ever withdrawn troops from a strategically advantageous location? And Armenia, where there was already a Russian military base, has lost any strategic influence it held in the region. Now that Russia has troops in Azerbaijan, Armenia holds significantly less value as a military outpost, leaving the nation with no choice but to answer to Russia in terms of its foreign policy towards Azerbaijan lest it anger its most powerful ally. Russia, on the other hand, secured access to strategic oil and gas pipelines in the region and reaffirmed dominance over Turkey. It remains to be seen if this peace will last, but in its current state, the real winner of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was Russia and President Putin.

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