An Overview and Timeline of Events
On November 10, 2020 Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a deal to end the local conflict that flared up between the two former Soviet republics in the fall of 2020. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in southwestern Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population.
The war ended in 1994 with ethnic Armenians in control of the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh, which formed an unrecognized state called the Republic of Artsakh. Thousands of refugees on both sides were permanently displaced. The international community continues to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as a legal part of Azerbaijan. Armenia has given succor to the Republic of Artsakh and the breakaway region has been the locus of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan for a generation.
Azeri and Armenian armed forces have faced off on the de facto border of Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994. Fighting between the two sides was not unheard of in the intervening years. In 2016, hundreds of casualties were incurred by both sides as the conflict boiled over for several days.
Serious fighting flared up again on September 27, 2020. Azerbaijani forces successfully dislodged Armenian troops from large areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, representing the first real movement of the line of control in many years. The conflict did not slip past the watchful eyes of regional powers Russia and Turkey. Russia has a defense pact with Armenia, but the Azerbaijani advance into Nagorno-Karabakh, legally part of Azerbaijan, did not suffice to call Russia to arms in support of Armenia. Such support would have quickly ended the conflict on more favorable terms to Armenia, given the vast superiority of Russian military resources.
Turkey actively aided Azerbaijan, part of a trend of pan-Turkic policies and rhetoric from Ankara. It has been reported that Turkish drones, so useful to the Libyan GNA forces in defending their headquarters in Tripoli early in 2020, were being used to good effect by Azerbaijani forces. Turkey is also accused of sending Syrian mercenaries to fight for Azerbaijan. Turkish opposition to Armenia brought fresh to minds of many commentators the Armenian Genocide of the First World War era, perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire on thousands of her Armenian subjects.
Fierce fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces resulted in thousands of military casualties on both sides: 2,783 (Azerbaijani army reported deaths) versus 2,718 (Armenian reported deaths). Thousands more troops were wounded. Human rights groups have called for investigation into war crimes by both sides.
Russia has historically had closer ties to Armenia, which is, like Russia, a majority Orthodox Christian country. Russia has based troops in Armenia and maintained a defense alliance with the smaller neighbor. Russia helped broker the peace deal which resulted in realignment of the situation in favor of Azerbaijan, which would seem to be a geopolitical loss for Russia. However, the premier of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, has since his election in 2018 toed a more independent line from Russia. Armenia’s dismal failure in the war and loss of Nagorno-Karabakh is likely to fell Pashinyan’s government and may realign internal Armenian politics onto a more Kremlin friendly line.
Furthermore, by establishing itself as the military peacekeeper in the disputed zone, Russia affirmed her regional hegemony and keeps a toe in the water should she desire to intervene for or against any party. Russia may not mind Turkish aggrandizement if it means pulling Ankara further away from Brussels and closer to the Asian Heartland.
Turkish president Erdoğan has pursued a Pan-Turkic policy, attempting to establish influence in ethnically Turkic lands east of Anatolia. Toward that end, Erdoğan strongly supported Azerbaijan in the recent war, and attended the Azerbaijani victory parade. Azerbaijani military success is an endorsement of the efficacy of Turkish friendship, and will increase Turkish prestige in the region.
The devastating military success scored by Azerbaijan that resulted in the recapture most of Nagorno-Karabakh is the result of years of military and national reforms. Boosted by a hydrocarbon industry and an ecumenical foreign policy that seeks balanced relations with regional powers, and a close relationship with Israel, Azerbaijan feels confident the shame of losing Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s has been purged. Azerbaijan also gained a significant geopolitical advantage in the territorial gains, a land bridge to Turkey (which likewise benefits Ankara by providing a land route to the Caspian Sea).
Armenia defeat will be hard felt for many years. While Azerbaijan may be content with the post war settlement, Armenia will not. Armenia’s Prime Minister is facing calls for his resignation and the government may fall. Armenians will concurrently feel abandoned by Russia, hemmed in by Turkey, and angered by the loss of what they considered their rightful lands for some time.
Iran is a multiethnic empire that includes 30 million persons of Azeri descent (three times the population of Azerbaijan herself). A strong and independent Azerbaijan is a lodestar to Iranian Azeris desiring independence, and thus, a thing to be feared in Tehran. Azerbaijan now controls the entirety of her border with her larger Shia neighbor to the south. Sunni Turkish cooperation with Shia Azerbaijan and the resulting influence flowing from their shared success will comparatively weaken Iran in her struggle for hegemony over fellow Muslim nations, either Sunni or Shia.
Author: Chris Crawford.