RUSSIA’S CHANGE OF FACE FALLS SHORT
Written By Calum Farley
One of Russia’s best kept secrets sits nestled away in the southern Caucasus. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh has been the prize for a dispute that goes back more than a century. Just like other conflicts that filled the vacuum left by Moscow in the early 90’s, Nagorno-Karabakh is heavily influenced by ethnic divides. Although this is not to say the issue is devoid of a possible resolution, much to the contrary. A permanent solution brokered with the aid of Moscow could be the proof Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to exemplify the positive influence a global Russia could have. That is if the Kremlin would be willing for a shift in policy.
Regardless of who is at fault, what is evident is that the current simmering of the conflict will never resolve the central issues themselves.
Prior to their incorporation into the Soviet Union, Armenians and Azeris fought over three border regions that were home to a mix of populations. Once these two nations were incorporated into the Soviet Union, Stalin, looking for an equitable solution, gave one region to Armenia and one to Azerbaijan. The third and final region, Nagorno-Karabakh was awarded to Azerbaijan, but as an autonomous region, giving most governing rights to the Armenian majority. With the Soviet Union’s ability for military suppression, the conflict laid dormant, though the hatred remained.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, both countries quickly proclaimed their independence. Within days Nagorno-Karabakh seceded from Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh’s 95% Armenian population looked to join its ethnically homogenous neighbor. The result was 3 years of ethnic conflict, 30,000 deaths and at least 1 million refugees. The Azeris who still lived in Nagorno-Karabakh were either forced out or killed. Likewise, ethnic Armenians were forced from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, by the hundreds of thousands. In the chaos, Armenia was able to take 7 regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that originally belonged to Azerbaijan, creating a land bridge from the Armenian core to its ethnic claims. In 1994 Russia was able to bring forth a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan and for 20 years this became the norm. Despite hundreds of ceasefire violations annually the agreement has held up, preventing larger more deadly attacks against one another. But recently the shaky ceasefire has begun to quickly deteriorate.
Russia has the opportunity now to find a lasting solution for Armenia and Azerbaijan but it would require shifting from its willingness for standard quo politics.
In 2014, an Armenian military helicopter was shot down, requiring the attention of Putin to personally intercede and calm down the talks of war from both sides. This year though it happened again. In April, the most intense fighting since the 1994 ceasefire had erupted. Violence ended as quickly as it had started but left 30 dead. Like in 2014, Putin immediately called for calm heads on both sides and a unified step down from hostilities. Both sides have blamed the other for the escalation; Armenia allegedly fired a barrage of mortar and artillery fire while Azerbaijan was blamed for attempting to invade Nagorno-Karabakh with a force of aircraft, tanks and artillery. Regardless of who is at fault, what is evident is that the current simmering of the conflict will never resolve the central issues themselves.
Azerbaijan in the past decade has become the beneficiary of a massive oil boom. Today 37% of Azerbaijan’s GDP is involved with the oil industry, including 90% of its exports. Absurd growth in the mid-2000’s, including a 34.5% economic growth rate in 2006, gave the Azeri government an influx of cash likely never seen before allowing for a massive military expansion. Despite oil plummeting in price since 2010, Azerbaijan has doubled down on military spending, seeing a 249% increase in weaponry imports from 2010 to 2014. 85% of these imports have come from one source, Russia. This is not to say that Putin is picking sides. While Armenia does not have similar capital to invest in military technologies, Moscow is more than willing to accommodate in the form of $200 million in Russian credit for long range offensive and defensive weaponry. Therefore it’s highly likely that during the short conflict in April that Armenians and Azeris were using Russian tanks and Russian artillery against one another, just like it’s likely that in 2014 Azerbaijan used a Russian rocket to shoot down a Russian built, Armenian helicopter.
Azerbaijan’s oil money will eventually run out and when that happens the Azeri government may very likely be forced to devolve to nationalism to galvanize its population.
What is evident is that the ceasefire does not hold. Russia has the opportunity now to find a lasting solution for Armenia and Azerbaijan but it would require shifting from its willingness for standard quo politics. Each time Armenians and Azeris have erupted into conflict, it has been Russia, whether in the form of the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation, who has been able to achieve a ceasefire between the two. Yet each time the Kremlin has shown its unwillingness to move forward. Both during talks and during times of perceived peace, Putin has shown disinterest in a solution and he is quickly running out of time. Azerbaijan’s oil money will eventually run out and when that happens the Azeri government may very likely be forced to devolve to nationalism to galvanize its population.
If Putin truly is looking for an opportunity to show that Russia is ready to lead in the 21st century, then it should start here and he should start soon. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, unlike other regional conflicts, is uniquely Russian. And it will require Russian assistance for lasting peace. But if Putin decides not to step up to the challenge, if instead he chooses to continue the current strategy of arms sales and porous ceasefires it will only be a matter of time before a violation becomes a conflict and a conflict becomes a war.
Cover photo credit: Prime/Brendan Hoffman