It is now becoming clear that no quick victory will emerge in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite Baku’s modern weaponry and political determination to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh. The breakaway enclave, legally part of Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenians for the past three decades, has seen frequent military flare-ups. In that sense, this was no “frozen conflict.” Despite this frequently used description – hated by both sides – there is nothing “frozen” about the conflict. In Nagorno-Karabakh, said one news report, “people plan their lives through the prism of the conflict, around the conflict and within the conflict.” Of all the territorial disputes of the post-Soviet space, the one between Azerbaijan and Armenia is the most dangerous one for three reasons.
First, is the clear potential for a local ethnic conflict to escalate into a larger confrontation between a revisionist Nato member, Turkey, and a revanchist Russia that wants to reassert itself in its “Near Abroad.” While Turkey clearly is behind Azerbaijan, Russia has a military base in Armenia and considers the country a client state. But, in typical Russian imperial fashion, Moscow also sells arms to the Azeris, playing both sides.
The risk of an all-out Russian-Turkish war over Nagorno-Karabakh is, however, highly remote. Despite Turkey’s increasingly bellicose attitude in support of its Azeri brethren, neither Ankara nor Moscow considers the region worth investing their own blood and treasure. Since Turkey apologized for downing a Russian jet on its border with Syria five years ago, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to be friendly and in constant communication.
Yet, it is also abundantly clear that they are on the opposite side of every regional issue of strategic significance to their individual country. In addition to being behind two proxy wars in Syria and Libya, Ankara and Moscow strongly differ on Crimea, the Black Sea, Cyprus, Eastern Mediterranean gas exploration, the Balkans, Egypt, Israel, the Kurdish question and the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, with conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh flaring up with a vengeance, a third proxy-war dynamic where Ankara and Moscow are on opposite sides has emerged.
The second reason why Nagorno-Karabakh is an exceptionally dangerous conflict is religion. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan pits a “Muslim Azeri-Turkish” bloc against a “Christian Armenia.” Last week, Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister democratically elected in 2018, described the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan to The New York Times as a “civilizational frontline.”
He may have a point. France, Russia and the United States are home to millions of diaspora Armenians. Public opinion and political establishments in these three countries have clear sympathies for Yerevan and the plight of Armenians in Turkish hands. France, Russia and the United States also happen to be co-chairs of the Minsk Group, where a diplomatic resolution to the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh within the framework of the European Security and Cooperation Organization has so far proved elusive.
Ironically, the one Muslim country that challenges this familiar religious pattern of a clash of civilizations is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran has traditionally supported Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan, due to its aversion to Azeri nationalism. About one fourth of Iran’s population is Azeri. Machiavelli would be proud of the pragmatic mullahs in Tehran.
Finally, there is the bloody nature of the conflict itself. Armenia prevailed in the 1991-1994 war at great cost. Twenty thousand people died, and more than one million were displaced on both sides, the majority of them Azeris. Tragic events in which atrocities were committed are commemorated by both Armenians and Azeris to this day.
For Armenians, the key moment was the pogrom in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait near Baku, where an Azeri mob killed dozens of Armenians in 1988. For Azeris, the worst moment came in 1992, when Armenian forces massacred hundreds of Azeris fleeing the town of Khojaly. To this recent history of mutual hatred, one should add the historic fact that the nation of Armenia is defined by a single event: the 1915 genocide where more than 1.5 million Armenians perished.
When we look at current dynamics, what makes the current conflict even more dangerous is Turkey’s determination to militarily support its Azeri brothers who are already armed to the teeth by Turkish, Israeli and Russian weaponry. Yet, while the Azeris have technology and money on their side, geography clearly favors the Armenians, who can defend Nagorno-Karabakh from higher ground. With military victory proving elusive, the best the Azeris can achieve would be the liberation of some regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh that are on lower terrain.
The risk of military escalation at this point is not a Turco- Russian faceoff, but an all-out war between a heavily armed Azerbaijan and a determined Armenia, both targeting urban areas and civilians. A frustrated Azerbaijan already is waging a military campaign targeting the Armenian regional capital of Stepanakert. Armenia is threatening to do the same in Ganja, the second largest Azeri city after Baku.
Should large numbers of civilians be threatened, Russia will intervene directly to establish a lasting ceasefire. Despite the much-deserved criticism of Moscow for playing both sides, the world should find some comfort in the fact that Putin, unlike Erdogan, prefers the status quo, which suits Russian hegemonic interest in this post-Soviet zone perfectly.
Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.