The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is an ethnic and territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two states that won sovereignty from the former communist Soviet Union after its break-up in 1990. The conflict started soon after independence, over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts, which constitute the de-facto self-declared Republic of Artsakh (virtually controlled by Armenia), but is internationally recognised as de-jure part of Azerbaijan.
Since this geographical region is inhabited by ethnic Azerbaijani people who are mostly Muslim and their claim on the region is traced back to hundreds of years BC as the original inhabitants, the area has been recognised as belonging to Azerbaijan and 8 United Nations resolutions stand in support of Azerbaijan. But Armenia, a South Caucuses Euro-Asian neighbouring state, refuses to concede to the international resolutions and continues with the occupation of the territory.
Border skirmishes between the two hostile nations have been mundanely prevalent over the past several years, particularly after 1984 and 2016 when major armed combats erupted and ended without an outcome. This has now turned into a full-scale war. During the past week or so, casualties on both sides have resulted, albeit Azerbaijan forces have pushed back Armenian forces from at least 7 villages and the onslaught is continuing with a heavy loss of more than 1,000 Armenian and Azerbaijani army personnel. A Russian Su 25 fighter aircraft and S-300 antimissile system belonging to Armenia has been destroyed by Azerbaijan according to reports pouring in from Armenia.
Armenia is largely blamed by Azerbaijan for the persecution of Karabakh native Muslims. The strip of Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by landlocked Armenia is not mere than a land with hilly terrain but it means more than that to the regional contenders and the neighboring Caucasus countries. The region is a source of natural gas and oil resources, like several other places in Azerbaijan, which makes it a bone of contention. Moreover, the disputed territory is also rich in minerals like cobalt, lithium, gold, and silver, worth billions of dollars in the international market. Azerbaijan is one of the major producers of natural gas, which forms the spine of its national economy. The country supplies gas to Europe and neighboring states including Russia.
Turkey throwing her weight behind the Azerbaijani side is explained in terms of the gas resources in Azerbaijan and Karabakh region. Erdogan has unequivocally supported the military campaign launched by Azerbaijan against Armenia, emboldened by the UN resolutions supporting Azerbaijan claims. Ankara and Azerbaijan also pushed for Pakistan’s support, which was diplomatically reciprocated. There have been allegations of Pakistani troop engagement in the ongoing fighting but it is not substantiated with evidence. Tehran has chosen only to push for mediation for peaceful resolution of the crisis. Baku (capital of Azerbaijan) has close relations with Ankara, well established since her independence. Both the nations are supposed to be all-weather friends. Turkey’s major gas demands are met by Azerbaijan.
Turkey is blamed by Armenia to have been actively engaged in providing Azerbaijan the logistic support, quoting the recent presence of F-16 Turkish fighter fleet on Baku’s military airbase. It has blamed Turkey to have downed its Russian SU 25 aircraft and to have destroyed its S-300 antimissile system. Though the claims are yet to be substantiated, what has become crystal clear is that Armenia has pleaded for support of CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation), an alliance of erstwhile Soviet Union independent states of Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, in the war against Azerbaijan. This alliance is on NATO pattern of which Turkey is a member state. Thus it would be CSTO versus NATO, which presents very horrific prospects.
Armenia believes that the longer the de-facto situation continues in Karabakh, the harder it would be to reverse it. Whereas in Azerbaijan there is a growing sense that expanding its wealth and population in the region will eventually place her in the advantage. Beyond doubt, Baku’s growing wealth is making Azerbaijan increasingly resistant to any possible pressure from Russia, the United States, the European Union, and other non-state actors. It is a major Eurasia Caucasus oil and gas producing state.
Even though Pakistan pledged diplomatic support to Azerbaijan, it has little political advantage in backing Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s retrieval of the region of Karabakh will ensure increase in Baku’s oil and gas depots that reach Europe through Turkey. The Caspian Sea route from Azerbaijan to Europe is long and tedious, even though Baku is situated on Caspian Sea bank. Turkey may use it as a bargaining chip with the western European countries with which Ankara is experiencing strained relations, like France, England and Greece. Tehran seems to have been inclined to adopt equilibrium in its policy of relations between the two warring nations, for she construes that diplomatic and logistic support to Baku would benefit only Baku and Ankara. Having said that, France and the US have full opportunity to jump to Armenia’s support. But Russia, who has maintained its balanced relations with both the countries, along with China would prove to be a deterrence.
Russia must be weighing options and mulling to prevail upon the situation in the region where her military hegemony rules the roost, even though France has expressed her volition to support Armenia and chances of her logistic support to Armenia are quite real. Secondly, China would not like to see Russia supporting either of the rivals diplomatically or militarily. Turkey has already defeated the designs of Greece backed by France and Egypt in the Mediterranean waters where it drilled out huge gas and oil from deep waters held disputed by Greece, which initiated a naval war threat to Turkey’s oil drilling company. Ankara’s naval troops eventually neutralised the situation. This has fuelled the fire of hostility between France and Turkey, who are already engaged in confrontation in Libya.
Understandably, Pakistan’s geo-political and economic position for sure does not allow her to get mired in any military conflict in the region that is unlikely to yield any gain for her. If both the two Caucasus neighbours manage to have logistic support from the outside world, the war situation would worsen and another Libya or Ukraine may emerge.
—The writer is Professor at SKUAST-K. [email protected]