Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian announced Thursday that he would personally be on the first civilian flight from Armenia into the newly rebuilt airport in Nagorno-Karabakh when it opens in May. (Nagorno-Karabakh is an Armenian-backed secessionist region enclosed within Azerbaijan.) Azerbaijan had earlier announced that it would shoot down any plane over its occupied territories. For now, the issue is at a standoff as both sides have laid a challenge that could not only propel the region back into the brutal war of the 1990s, but could also pull in some global heavyweights. That said, STRATFOR is looking beyond the political theater that normally, and incessantly, takes place between Yerevan and Baku to whether this has been orchestrated by the country that has held the peace between the two, Russia.
The southern region of the Caucasus has seen countless struggles in the past century, though one of the most enduring is between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis over Nagorno-Karabakh. Soviet rule from the 1920s onwards stifled these battles for the most part. But as soon as the Soviet Union’s disintegration looked imminent, conflict flared up when Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan, with intention to unify with Armenia. Free of being restrained by Moscow, Azerbaijan defended its territory and a full-scale war erupted, stretching across Armenia and Azerbaijan until Russia brokered a cease-fire.
“Both Ankara and Moscow know that any Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict would not remain contained within the region.”
Though simmering hostilities have continued, there are two reasons the conflict has remained frozen. First, beginning in the mid-1990s, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan had the resources to continue fighting. Armenia’s economy was, and is, non-existent for the most part. Without the financial means, it would be impossible for Armenia to launch a full-scale war. At the same time, Azerbaijan’s military has been too weak, thus far, to assert control over the occupied lands.
After nearly two decades, the issue is beginning to thaw again as the balance betweenArmenia and Azerbaijan is beginning to change. Baku has grown exponentially stronger in the past six years. Rich with energy-wealth, Azerbaijan has started creating a modern and competent military and the largest out of the Caucasus countries. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s close ally, Turkey, has renewed its commitment to defend Azerbaijan in any conflict withArmenia, recently signing a strategic cooperation agreement to this end. On the other hand,Armenia has been reduced to a satellite of Russia for the most part, with little independent foreign policy, politics or economy. Being folded under Russia’s wing, Armenia feels protected against its rival. These two shifts have led to an increase in tensions betweenBaku and Yerevan over whether either is bold enough to revive hostilities.
The involvement of Turkey and Russia is the main cause of deterrence that is holding the two sides back. Both Ankara and Moscow know that any Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict would not remain contained within the region. Each power would be expected by Baku andYerevan to defend their respective ally — whether they actually would is unclear. Therefore, the standoff has become more about Moscow and Ankara holding back each side and not allowing the instability to become exacerbated to the extent of an open conflict or war.
However, two other issues are also evolving. First, Baku is becoming more powerful thanMoscow is comfortable with. It is not that Russia is concerned it cannot handle Azerbaijanon its own, but Russia is attempting to maintain a regional balance by dominating each of the three Caucasus states in its own way. Baku’s resource wealth and hefty foreign connections are beginning to tip those scales in comparison to the other two states. Still,Russia has held back as to not launch a larger conflict with Turkey, which Moscow is wary to provoke.
This is where the second development comes in. Turkey is engulfed in other large conflicts and is one of the key members in the Middle Eastern theater helping the United Statessuppress the instability. Turkey is struggling within NATO to carve out a leadership role and is embroiled in a standoff with some European NATO members over how extensive the Libyan intervention ought to be. Ankara is also using its influence in the Iranian-Saudi struggle over Bahrain and the Arab world in general. There are also domestic politics to consider, with important elections coming up in June for Turkey. Such a string of endless conflicts also has the United States, which has deep relations with both Yerevan and Baku, preoccupied.
On the other hand, Russia isn’t wrapped up in any of those issues. Moreover, Moscow feels pretty confident these days with its position globally. First, Russia has been largely successful in its resurgence into its former Soviet sphere. Second, as of the past few months, it has even more room to maneuver now that the West is dealing with the instabilities in the Islamic theater. Third, Europe is torn over taking part in those conflicts and its need to focus on its own set of domestic challenges, both economically and politically. Lastly, the conflicts have caused energy prices to soar and many countries to demand more supplies — of which Russia is the winner. Russian international reserves crossed over the $500 billion mark on March 18 for the first time in two and a half years. The last time Russian reserves were in the $500 billion range, Moscow confronted Georgia in August 2008.
If there ever were a time for Russia to look at the more difficult issues it has avoided — like the standoff between Azerbaijan and Armenia or challenging an ascendant Turkey that does not seem to be slowing down, it would be now. It is most likely that Russia is not looking to launch a new conflict, but instead it wants to test how assertive Azerbaijan feels with its strengthening position against Armenia and just how willing Turkey is to dance with the bear. It is easier to feel such things out when the rest of the world is looking elsewhere.