The forgotten conflict of the Caucasus

Author : Guillaume LANG. Translation by : Chloé BLANCH.

The Caucasus is a region of the world landlocked between Russia, Turkey and Iran. Due to the isolation of these three great powers, the Caucasus has always been influenced by other countries and has never managed to create a true Caucasian identity. Yet, an attempt at unification brought by the committees of the Caucasian peoples, in response to the October Revolution, led to the creation of the Federal Republic of Transcaucasia on November 15, 1917. The achievement that represents this ephemeral republic lies in the creation of a single republic by the three main peoples, even though it was based on a federal regime. Never before in Georgian history, had Georgians, Armenians and Azeris agreed to unite. Nonetheless, the geopolitical situation of the world at that time did not allow this federation to continue and on May 26, 1918 Georgia proclaimed its independence. The new republic wanted to influence the Turkish invasion that was spreading all over Transcaucasia at that time. The republics of this federation then became members of the USSR and ethnic tensions began again. In fact, during the unification of these peoples under the aegis of the USSR, different oblasts were created for each people in order to avoid any interethnic tensions within the oblasts themselves. However, these same oblasts are today the most prominent source of tension in the Caucasus. In fact, the unequal distribution of territories according to ethnic groups under the USSR led to violent conflicts after the fall of the Soviet bloc, conflicts which still have not disappeared today.

On 21 September 1991, Armenia became an independent republic, following the example of Azerbaijan, which became independent of the USSR on 30 August 1991. However, a third entity declared its independence, Nagorno-Karabakh. This territory between Armenia and the present-day Azerbaijan was composed of 80% Armenian, before the oblast was added to the Azeri oblast by the Soviet Union. If during the cold war this change was not questioned by the Armenian populations residing in this oblast, the Azeri declaration of independence questioned the righteousness of these borders. Thus, to avoid a situation in which the Armenian population would be in a minority, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence on 2 September 1991 following a referendum organized by the authorities at that time. This referendum was then not recognized by the international community, nor was the declaration of independence resulting from this referendum. At the time of Armenia’s declaration of independence, the goal of this region became clear, to reintegrate Armenia as soon as possible. On the Armenian side, the ghost of « the Great Armenia » pushed the new government to support this demand in order to restore some of the past Armenian power. On the Azeri side, this declaration of independence was not taken seriously and troops were quickly sent to regain control of this region. The Azerbaijani state’s plan was yet strongly hurdled by both the mobilization of the Armenian population and the presence of the Armenian regular army, sent to counter it. Between January 1992 and May 1994, the « Nagorno-Karabakh War » took place. Although the two countries were newly created states, Azerbaijan was initially able to count on many assets. Indeed, Azerbaijan was considered the reserve of man and ammunition by the Red Army, while the Armenian region was seen as a combat zone in case of an attack by Turkish army. This had resulted in a massive settlement of the Red Army in the Azeri region while the Armenian region had welcomed only one regiment on its territory. At the independence of these countries, military equipment was divided between the regiments of the former oblasts and Russia, while a large part of the remaining soldiers was recruited as mercenaries by the opposing forces. However, Azerbaijan was not able to take advantage of these assets. Indeed, very quickly and to put an end to the Azeri bombings, the Armenian forces launched an operation on the city of Chouchi, which turned out to be a total success. The fall of the Azeri army began with this defeat. Although enjoying a numerical and material superiority, the Azerbaijani army was never able to regain the advantage, as emphasized by the number of Azeri governments that were set up to solve this issue during the war. The lack of morals in the army cost the victory to Azerbaijan. This can be explained by a difference in each country’s motivations: as Andrei Sakharov, a former Russian specialist, puts it, « For Azerbaijan, the question of Karabakh is a question of ambition, for Armenians in Karabakh it is a matter of life and death ». A ceasefire was then negotiated by Moscow and the Minsk Group and signed on May 16, 1994.

However, since signing this ceasefire, no efforts have been made to improve the situation, and the Nagorno-Karabakh border still remains one of the most dangerous borders in the world today. The animosity between these two peoples continues to grow and the voices of pacifists in both countries are inaudible. For Azeri, the recapture of 2000 hectares of land since 1994 is an illustration of a shift in power in Transcaucasia and paves the way for an armed resolution of the conflict. On the other hand, the situation in Armenia, despite significant growth, did not improve. The lack of natural resources and the country’s isolation have prevented Armenia from remaining at the level of Azerbaijan, which has benefited from its oil resources. This imbalance of forces is offset on the Armenian side by the alliance with Russia and the participation of the country to the collective security organization that allows Russian troops to patrol on the Armenian borders. This alliance thus allows Armenia to compensate Azerbaijan’s alliance with Turkey and to secure the Armenian-Turkish borders. More recently, the creation of an Armenian-Russian armed group has enabled Armenia to ensure the security of its territory. These alliances are the real reason this conflict is not over. Indeed, each side being assured of the support of a great power, no real attempt at reconciliation has emerged. The last real peace movement dates back to 1998 and led to the resignation of Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian.

The real problem in this part of the world, however, is Russia’s desire to bring the Caucasus back into the Russian sphere of influence. Indeed, Russia has always been ambiguous when it comes to the territorial issues affecting this region since the disappearance of the USSR. Whether it was applied to the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia in 2008 or more recently to the resumption of conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh in August 2016, Russia’s geopolitical strategy has always consisted in using these issues to extend its power over the region, with the risk of sometimes creating them deliberately. Indeed, the fights beginning again in this disputed region was not an uncertain maneuver triggered by a border accident. The geopolitical maneuver of this conflict was in 2016 the biggest one of the year and, if it had been successful, it would have led to an unprecedented rebalancing of forces in the Middle East, in favor of Russia. On March 9, 2016, a magazine close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the « Military-Industrial Courier » published an analysis of the Armenian forces and their locations. This publication was seen as a betrayal by the Armenian government, which was offended by the disclosure of its state secrets, according to Armenews: « If an Armenian journalist or officer presented 10% of what the Russian expert revealed he would have been trialed for high treason « . This statement shows the importance of the information revealed by the Russian newspaper. Moreover, besides the message of weakness sent by the Russian newspaper through the publication of this information, Russia also sends a second more implicit message « Russia does not care so much about the security of Armenia and will not intervene « . The double Russian speech bore its fruit and the offensives against Nagorno-Karabakh began again. At the same time, Putin had been withdrawing his troops from Syria. In fact, the actions of Russia in the Middle East served, since the destruction of a Russian aircraft by Turkey in November 2015, to obtain a casus belli to punish Turkey for the actions that were committed by Russia. By poisoning the situation in the Caucasus, Putin hoped to start a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. By putting Armenia in direct jeopardy, Russia could have justified to the international community a rule-abiding intervention in relation to the objectives of the CSTO, the collective security organization that Armenia is part of. Thus, Russia could have sent its well-trained troops freshly returned from Syria to reverse the trend and hurt Azerbaijan, by inflicting to its army a real military correction. Consequently, keeping in mind the links maintained with Azerbaijan and obligations resulting of agreements signed beforehand, Turkey would have been forced to intervene. This would have allowed Russia to militarily defeat a NATO member, which would have been a total humiliation for the transatlantic north alliance. However, Turkey is the only Muslim country as well as the only one member really outside the West. This difference thus prevents the creation of a sense of solidarity between other NATO members and Turkey. In consequence, if Putin had succeeded in bringing Turkey out of his soil, it would have been very unlikely that the rest of transatlantic alliance would have approved and have followed Turkey in this operation. Moreover, Article 5 obliging NATO members to support a member in a war only regards a war occurring on the member’s territory. Without the support of NATO, the fate of Turkey would have been clear and would have allowed Russia to extend its influence over the Caucasus and, more generally, to strengthen the Russia-Iran axis without having to suffer from Turkish influence on the region.

However, several factors have failed in this maneuver. Firstly, contrary to the Russian’s expectations, the Armenian army and the militia present in Nagorno-Karabakh were much more efficient than expected and were able to contain the Azeri invasion. Then, the failed coup in Turkey marked the Turkish return to geopolitical realism. The Turkish government became more open to Russian proposals for the Middle East, and Russia was the only country to strongly condemn the coup and support the Turkish people and President Erdogan at the beginning of the crisis. This warming of relations between Russia and Turkey thus put Russian plans for the Caucasus on hold.

Consequently, although no major offensive by both sides has taken place since 1994, the conflict remains frozen and no normalization of the relations is to be expected, with Azerbaijan seeking the return of its lands, meanwhile Armenia wants recognition of Karabakh independence. This status quo is likely to break out at any moment and the Russian influence in the region risks making things worse. However, this conflict only concerns the Caucasus and nothing is being done by Western governments to really put an end to it, which does not suggest a close end to this forgotten war.

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