By George Friedman
Summary The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has been simmering since 1994. The area may seem of limited importance, but the Caucasus has strategic value to surrounding powers like Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Over the last few days, fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan along their ceasefire line in Nagorno-Karabakh. There has been a long-standing dispute between the two countries over an area that was part of Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but claimed by Armenia in a war that reached stalemate in 1994. It has since been one of numerous frozen conflicts in the area. The freeze thawed rapidly late last week as Armenian and Azerbaijani troops engaged in the heaviest fighting since 1994. There has been fighting along the line in the past. This time, it was reported that weapons such as multiple rocket launch systems firing Grad rockets were used along with helicopter gunships. This was obviously not an isolated incident because use of weapons of this sort would have to be authorized by much higher command echelons. With over a dozen dead and many wounded on each side, this is the most substantial breach of the ceasefire since 1994.
Wars in faraway places are of little interest to many, but it has to be remembered that all the wars the United States has been involved in since World War II have been in faraway places of little interest. Understanding Nagorno-Karabakh is important, not because the U.S. will become involved, but because the United States tends to become involved in just this kind of conflict.
The Caucasus is both strategic and volatile. The northern or High Caucasus is under Russian control, but includes Muslim regions like Chechnya and Dagestan, where stability is a relative term. The southern Caucasus is made up of former Soviet republics, independent only since the fall of the Soviet Union. Armenia is said to be the oldest Christian polity. Azerbaijan is majority Shiite. The majority of Azeris (a Turkic people) live in northwestern Iran and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is an Azeri. Georgia, which went to war with Russia in 2008, is Christian and, worth noting, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin.
The borders of these countries are inherently arbitrary, set first by the czars and then reset multiple times by the Soviets. The borders that emerged were designed to be fought over. This is a region where memories are long and tempers can be short. Each country’s claim and resentment has a degree of legitimacy. The land ranges from arid plains to high and snowy mountains. It is a place where wars go on for a very long time because the terrain makes it very difficult for any wars to reach a conclusion. This is particularly true with these three states and the multitude of clans that live there. You can think of Nagorno-Karabakh in those terms. It’s a small part of small countries, but it cannot be forgotten or negotiated away.
When the region is at peace, that peace is imposed from the outside. The most recent imperial experience was with Russia and then the Soviet Union. The Caucasus was important for strategic reasons. It blocked Turkish and Persian access to the Russian heartland. Since the Soviet withdrawal, the region has had its traditional internal quarrels, but outside powers have also manipulated the region and sought to spread their influence. The Turks have a long-standing dispute with the Armenians over the latter’s charge of genocide after World War I. The Iranians unsuccessfully sought to increase their influence in Azerbaijan, which is as secular as Iran is religious. And Russia feuded with Georgia over small regions such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The wild card in the region is the United States. It backed Georgia prior to the 2008 war with Russia, but had no forces available in time to block the Russians. The United States objects to Armenia’s close ties with Russia, but has a major Armenian community that limits U.S. action on what is an issue of secondary importance. It objects to Azerbaijan’s human rights record but uses Azerbaijani facilities for transporting troops and supplies to Afghanistan.
Each great power has its strategic interests in the region. For the Russians, holding the High Caucasus is a strategic imperative, but one built on the volcanos of Chechnya and Dagestan. To assure that it is secure in the north, Russia has to keep the south in balance and counter Turkish and Iranian – and above all American – influence.
For the Iranians, Azerbaijan is a threat and opportunity. It is a threat because it can be used as a base against Iran. There was talk a few years back about the Israelis staging an attack out of Azerbaijan on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whether true or not, Iran needs to keep pressure on Azerbaijan.
For Turkey, Armenia is an enemy with which it cannot reach accommodation on its terms. With the Russians there, it cannot effectively undermine the regime. So its relations with Azerbaijan become critical. While Azerbaijan is largely Shiite and Turkey mostly Sunni, there are ethnic Turkic as well as linguistic links between the two people. Azerbaijan is a key partner for Turkey, although the Azerbaijanis play Americans, Russians, Iranians and Turks against each other to maintain freedom of action.
For the United States, the region is either of no importance or of rare importance. If the United States is to execute a containment strategy on Russia, it cannot be confined to Central Europe. It must extend this strategy to the countries surrounding the Caspian Sea. Until recently, that was hard to imagine because Turkey physically blocked the line from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian Sea. But with the collapse of its relations with the Russians, the U.S. can potentially revive its relations with Turkey – the chaos in Washington last week not withstanding – and then the region will become a vital asset, particularly Georgia and Azerbaijan, the only country bordering Iran and Russia.
In terms of the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, for Azerbaijan – oil rich and therefore suddenly cash poor – a success in Armenia would be a symbol of the state’s competence in the face of economic problems. I have no evidence that the Azerbaijanis started it, but either way it gave them an opportunity. In engaging Armenia, they are engaging a Russian client and Turkish enemy. Therefore, Turkey jumped in quickly to assure Azerbaijan of its support. What form that support might take is unclear. However, Turkey is not without resources so this shouldn’t be disregarded. The Russians immediately offered to mediate. They are repositioning themselves as a stabilizing force in the world. Their offer makes sense, leading one to wonder if they had a hand in it. Meanwhile, the United States is standing back and issuing platitudes. It has no interest in the outcome yet.
Indeed, no country but Azerbaijan and Armenia has an interest in Nagorno-Karabakh. I was once in Baku and asked by a reporter what the United States’ position was on Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s right to recover the territories. I responded by saying that the United States ultimately doesn’t care who owns Nagorno-Karabakh, and therefore has no objection to Azerbaijan recovering it – or not recovering it.
My response was clever but not necessarily smart. While few outside the two countries care about Nagorno-Karabakh, the region itself has been historically vital. The fall of the Soviet Union created three states, two of which had weak economic foundations and the third, Azerbaijan, has suddenly become weaker. A conflict could draw in Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States. “Could” is not equal to “will,” but it is enough to take this situation seriously.