Nagorno Karabakh, the small Thirty Years’ War in the Caucasus

Commentary: The conflict has ancient and deep roots but has many geostrategic implications that could cause extra-regional tensions which are potentially very dangerous. The situation in the South Caucasus remains in the hands of Russia and Turkey

The remains of a rocket as seen after recent shelling in Martuni, Nagorno-Karabakh, on October 14.  Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

From 1618 to 1648 Europe was shattered by the violent and relentless conflict between Protestants and Catholics. After the end of the crusades cycle that had seen the first conflict between Christians and Arabs breaking out, what historians later called the "Thirty Years' War" was the first and most severe armed conflict between the two great souls of Christianity, but it was certainly not the last religious war. The Thirty Years' War ended with the Peace of Westphalia which led to the birth of European Nation-States and - as a paradoxical epilogue to a war unleashed for religious reasons - put an end to the control exercised by the Church over Christian kingdoms and nipped in the bud any attempt by the Protestant clergy to interfere in political affairs, by crushing it well before it could be openly manifested. Since then the centers of gravity of conflicts (also) on a religious basis have shifted towards the Islam-Jewish confrontation (the Arab-Israeli wars of the second half of the 20th century) and towards the confrontation-clash between Islam and Christianity.  

Religious conflicts tend to be ferocious and bloody because none of the parties involved appears to be willing to mediate with a counterpart considered apostate or anyway "infidel". 

Faced with an international public distracted by the Covid-19 pandemic concerns, the still unresolved 30-year conflict for control over Nagorno Karabakh - a 30-year war on a small scale because it was confined to South Caucasus - broke out again violently on September 27 last. It sees the clash between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia, which claims de iure control over a region, namely Nagorno, which it already de facto controls although its territory is totally enclosed within the Azerbaijani borders and without any geographical connection with the disputed Armenian motherland. As we will see later on, the conflict has ancient and deep roots, but is full of geostrategic implications that could cause damage and extra-regional tensions which are potentially very dangerous. 

Ancient and deep roots which, in this case, can also be called the "roots of evil". In the late 1920s, Stalin - who was determined to crush all the nationalist ambitions of the various souls that made up the huge Soviet empire - took drastic measures to prevent the different pan-Russian ethnic groups from creating political problems and, with the usual iron fist, decided to transfer entire populations thousands of kilometres away from their traditional settlements to eliminate their ethnic and cultural roots. Chechens, Cossacks and Germans were dispersed to the four corners of the empire while the Soviet dictator decided - under the banner of the more classic "divide and rule" principle - to assign the political and administrative jurisdiction of the autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh - inhabited by Armenian and Christian populations - to the Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, populated by Azeri Muslims, with a view to keeping any Armenian autonomist claims under control.

As also happened in the satellite countries (see the example of Tito's Yugoslavia), the Communist regime in Russia managed to contain - even with the unscrupulous use of terror and ethnic cleansing - every nationalist claim from all the different ethnic groups that made up the empire. This operation, however, lost its momentum when, in the second half of the 1980s, the cautious campaign of modernization of the country and the start of timid liberal reforms by Mikhail Gorbachev with his Perestroika caused unexpected repercussions in the relations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Never-ending hatred and revenge spirit re-emerged due to the decrease of oppressive and repressive measures that, until that moment, had contributed to keep the Soviet regime alive. The political and administrative cohesion that had turned the Union of Republics into a unitary body began to fail and the claims for autonomy became increasingly pressing. 

Again this background, in 1988 the regional Parliament of Nagorno Karabakh voted on a resolution that marked the region’s return to the administrative jurisdiction of the Armenian Republic, the "Christian motherland".

From that moment on, the tension between Armenians and Azerbaijanis mounted progressively, with isolated clashes and inter-ethnic violence that lead to open war in 1991 when, immediately after the USSR’s collapse and dissolution, the Armenians formally declared the annexation of the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh to the Republic of Armenia, thus triggering a bloody conflict against neighboring Azerbaijan - a conflict that lasted until 1994 in which over 30,000 military and civilians died. 

Faced with the inability of Boris Yeltsin's government to bring the warring parties back to reason and to the negotiating table (which is always hard to do in ethnic-religious conflicts) and faced with the UN inability to resolve the Azeri-Armenian conflict, by any means necessary and whatever it takes, as enshrined in its Charter, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) intervened. Under its auspices, the "Minsk Group" - a permanent negotiating table managed by France, the Russian Federation and the United States - was established in 1992. 

Despite the Minsk Group’s commitment, the war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis continued until 1994, when it ended - with no peace agreement signed - after the Armenians took military control of Nagorno Karabakh and over one million people were forced to leave their homes. A double exodus reminiscent of the one which followed the division between India and Pakistan, with the Azerbaijanis who, as the Muslims and Hindus, abandoned their lands to the Armenians and the Armenians who occupied back houses and territories which they believed had been unjustly taken away from them by Stalinist maneuvers. 

The fire of conflict was still smoldering, with clashes and armed aggression, for over a decade and later broke out again, with no apparent reason or triggering factor, in April 2016. International observers were puzzled by that resumption of hostilities: dozens and dozens of soldiers from both sides died for no apparent reason or triggering factor. According to some observers specializing in this strange and archaic conflict, the causes of the resumption of hostilities were to be found in the desire of the opposing States to "gain ground" and take control of strategic areas away from the enemy. According to other probably more reliable international observers, the reason for the resurgence of the conflict had to be sought within the Armenian and Azerbaijani leadership. In the midst of an economic crisis due to the collapse of the crude oil international market (and prices), both governments gave a free hand to their respective "dogs of war", in view of bringing together again their publics who were disoriented and dissatisfied with the collapse of the economy. Islam, oil and Christianity were the explosive ingredients of a dangerous and apparently unsolvable situation. In Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, crowds demonstrated for weeks, months or years under the banner of "Karabakh is Azerbaijan". 

In Yerevan, the capital of ''Armenia'', similar crowds - albeit of a different and enemy religion - asked for "Freedom for our Brothers of Karabakh".

Meanwhile the fire was still smoldering: Armenia had de facto control of the disputed region, which was totally within the Azerbaijani borders, with no corridor connecting it to the Armenian "motherland".

The inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict is further complicated by geopolitical factors. 

Turkey is a traditional partner of Azerbaijan, inhabited by Muslims of Turkmen origin. Turkey was the first State to recognize the Republic of Azerbaijan in 1991 while, so far, it has not yet recognized the Armenian Republic, probably because it retains its name and the proud memory that links it to the Armenian genocide of 1916-1920, when the Turks - convinced of the Armenians' infidelity and of their support for the Russian Tsar - quickly exterminated about a million of them. 

Russia's position towards the conflict and the belligerents is more ambiguous: on the one hand, Russia supports the legitimate aspirations of the Armenian people while, on the other hand - in order to avoiding entering into open conflict with Erdogan, with whom he plays a complicated game in Syria and Libya - Vladimir Putin avoids using threatening tones towards Azerbaijan - to which he continues to sell weapons - and tries to maintain equidistance and impartiality between the parties to the conflict. His attitude has not yet attracted Turkish criticism, but obviously leaves the Armenians perplexed. 

As already said, the fire kept on smoldering until September 27 last when, without any apparent or evident triggering factor, Armenians and Azerbaijanis resumed hostilities using sophisticated weaponry, such as armed drones or long-range missiles, which killed dozens of soldiers and civilians on both sides. 

As said above, the reasons for the resumption of hostilities are not clear: there is no direct provocation or triggering factor.

This time, however, many observers are directly pointing fingers at Turkey and its President, Tayyp Recep Erdogan. 

He may have placed the Nagorno-Karabakh problem into the complex geopolitical chess game in which Turkey's "new" and aggressive President is engaged. The latter, aware of the weight that his role in NATO has in the dialectic with the United States and Europe - which evidently do not feel like demanding a bit of fairness from such an undisciplined and cumbersome, but rather unscrupulous and aggressive partner - does not hesitate to have his own way and do the interests of his country in Syria, Libya, the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. From control of Eastern Syrian to the search for new energy sources, Erdogan is playing recklessly on several tables, without however openly challenging Russia, but not hesitating to mock the protests of his European and American partners. 

An unscrupulous game that may have induced Erdogan to urge his Azerbaijani allies to resume hostilities against the Armenians on September 27 last, so as to later make the contenders accept the ceasefire of October 9: a move that would make him a mandatory and privileged counterpart for Russia, faced with the geopolitical irrelevance of Europe and the United States. The former is kept in check by the pandemic, while the latter is thinking only about the next elections. In this void of ideas and interventions, the situation in South Caucasus with its explosive possible implications in terms of production and export of energy sources remains in Russia’s and Turkey’s hands, free to seek agreements or mediations deemed favorable, obviously to the detriment of competition. In the past, at the time of Enrico Mattei, Italy would have tried to play its own role in a region as delicate as the Caucasus, not only to defend its economic and commercial interests, but also and above all to seek new development opportunities for its public and private companies. But Mattei's Italy, however, is far away: we are currently unable to enter a hotbed of tension on our doorstep, such as Libya, and we are unable to bring home 18 fishermen from Mazara del Vallo illegally detained by the warlord of Tobruk, Khalifa Haftar.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group

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