Crisis in the Caucasus: how Nagorno-Karabakh poses a challenge for Nato

The flare-up demonstrates what some will characterise as the obsolescence of Cold War era military alliances.

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The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a longstanding dispute over a mountainous sliver of land between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been simmering for over 30 years, since before the fall of the Soviet Union. But this week’s flare-up in the South Caucasus between Armenian forces and Azerbaijan is likely the most violent since the war of the 1990s, which killed tens of thousands and saw ethnic cleansing committed by both sides. As evidence mounts of direct Turkish involvement – a new development – so too are the risks of a sharp escalation that could draw in more regional powers.

The conflict has its origins in the Stalin era, when the South Caucasus – today, the independent countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – was part of the Soviet Union. The borders of Azerbaijan were drawn to include majority-Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh, which didn’t much matter while both Armenia and Azerbaijan were part of the same state. When the USSR collapsed, however, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence. Armenian forces and Azerbaijan fought a brutal war over the territory which ended in Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognised as Azerbaijani territory, gaining de facto independence as the Armenian-sponsored Republic of Artsakh. Negotiations to solve the conflict have never made much progress and there are frequent skirmishes between the two sides. 

The renewed conflict is a tragedy for civilians on both sides, including Armenian civilians settled in Nagorno-Karabakh who bear no responsibility for the political situation in their statelet, and Azeris expelled during the 1990s who dream of returning to lands they had lived in for generations. Regardless of the legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh (inherited from arbitrary Soviet-era administrative divisions), any attempts to disrupt the uneasy status quo antebellum other than through negotiations will harm tens of thousands of civilians living in the territory.

There is some evidence that this latest bout of fighting was planned by Baku, as Eurasianet reports. Azerbaijan has been offered unequivocal support from Turkey, a regional power many times larger than the two Caucasian rivals combined. Ankara is providing political backing to Turkic Azerbaijan and, according to some reports, organised the transfer of Syrian mercenaries to the Caucasus to fight Armenia. The Armenian Ministry of Defence even claimed on Tuesday (29 September) that a Turkish fighter jet had shot down an Armenian plane inside Armenian airspace, though this should be treated with some scepticism. Still, Turkey’s newfound assertiveness in the conflict, possibly spurred by its recent adventurism in Syria and Libya, threatens to internationalise what had for 30 years been a fairly localised land dispute, Vahe Gevorgyan, an advisor to the Armenian Foreign Minister, told the New Statesman

This latest flare-up also demonstrates what many will characterise as the obsolescence of the Cold War era military alliances. For perhaps the first time in recent history, western European countries such as France have begun offering cautious political support to the same side of a military conflict as Russia and Iran (both allied with Armenia) against the ally of a Nato member (Turkey).

The conflict could end in the absurdity of aligning Nato members with different sides, or even Nato members against each other – though not for the first time, as the ongoing stand-off between Turkey and Greece in the eastern Mediterranean reminds us. Yet again, a conflict in Nato’s back yard positions Turkey against much of western Europe. The US, meanwhile, is consumed with a debasing presidential election campaign and has been largely absent, a state of affairs which is unlikely to change with the country's commander-in-chief now taken ill with coronavirus. “It is not at all a coincidence that fighting broke out just a month before the US presidential election,” said Carey Cavanaugh, a former co-chair of the Minsk Group, the international body charged with resolving the conflict peacefully. “We can see that with the American response, which has not been swift or very strong.”

Emmanuel Macron was widely criticised for terming Nato “brain dead” in an interview last year. Macron’s reasoning was that there was no coordination of strategic decision-making between the US and its Nato allies, in addition to “uncoordinated aggressive action” by Turkey. Who, looking at the debacle in Nagorno-Karabakh, could claim that Macron’s logic has not held up?

As Gevorgyan put it: “The division between East and West is not there. The old world no longer exists.”

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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