As people watch violence in real-time unfolding in various parts of the world, another historically embedded conflict has recently sprung up in the lesser-known region of the Caucasus.
The What, Where, When, Why and by Whom
On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan launched an assault on the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave that it claims is part of its own territory.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are neighbours in the mountainous region of central Eurasia. Both states received independence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Historically, Nagorno-Karabakh has been inhabited by a majority ethnic Armenian population but is internationally recognised as a part of Azerbaijan.
Separatist movements from the ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan have become a point of unrest between the two neighbours.
During September 2023, Nagorno-Karabakh suffered an acute shortage of food and medicines as Azerbaijan tightened its control over the region and blocked its lifeline road connection with Armenia. This led to an offensive attack on the region, with millions of people migrating in fear of war.
Tensions had started before the dissolution of the USSR when, in 1988, ethnic Armenians in the region voted to leave Azerbaijan and join Armenia. As soon as the USSR fell, the two states declared independence, and Nagorno-Karabakh became a battleground for a full-scale war.
A ceasefire was signed in 1994 with Russia’s assistance, and Armenia gained control of the region. However, Azerbaijan could not let go of its claims over the territory that easily.
Over the years, the adversaries have had multiple strifes, such as in 2016, 2020 and now in 2023, when they are again at the brink of a full-scale war.
An Open Call for Ethnic Cleansing?
Amping up its military spending, Azerbaijan has formed military alliances with Israel with a budget of Baku estimated at $3 billion, twice as much as Yerevan's. This military strength has given Azerbaijan an advantage in launching its offensive.
A crackdown by Azerbaijan on ethnic Armenians called for international intervention, both from Russian peacekeeping forces and the United Nations Security Council.
The mass exodus of Armenians from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh meets the conditions for the war crime of “deportation or forcible transfer” or even a crime against humanity.
Ceasefire and What Comes Next
A ceasefire was initiated as any further fighting would have increased the risk of a bigger war between the two neighbours. After reaching an agreement proposed by Russia, Karabakh forces have agreed to disband and disarm. Talks about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh between ethnic Armenians in the region and the Azerbaijan forces started on September 21, and are still continuing.
When Azerbaijan blocked the road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, Russia did little to help its long-time ally Armenia as it was preoccupied with its war against Ukraine. Russia’s relations with Armenia have been declining, leaving Armenia with no strong ally. On the other hand, Azerbaijan has the military and security backing of Turkey and Israel, among others.
With Christian-majority Armenia on one side and Muslim-majority Azerbaijan on the other, the strong mutual distrust and insecurity from both factions stem from ethnic, political, and territorial disputes.
The issues of territorial integrity and the protection of ethnic Armenians in Karabakh become a bone of contention with Armenia's persistent demands for the same and Azerbaijan’s insistence that this would amount to interference in its internal matters.
What's India's Stance on this?
India has signed a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty (1995) with Armenia, which prohibits it from providing military or any other assistance to Azerbaijan in case the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict spills over to the Armenian territory. Moreover, Armenia unequivocally supports India on the Kashmir issue, whereas Azerbaijan aligns with Pakistan.
Even though India has emphasised a peaceful resolution of the issue through diplomatic negotiations, India cannot openly endorse Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination as it can have repercussions such as fueling secessionist movements in Kashmir and reigniting them in other parts of India.
Questions to ponder upon:
Will this overlooked ethno-geopolitical issue be resolved anytime soon? Or is an asymmetrical, full-blown “war” like that seen in Gaza inevitable?
If a war does happen, will Russia step in and balance the equation? Or will other regional actors have to take the lead?