Outsiders often view political crises through an external prism while those on the ground view them through an internal lens. Without understanding key internal and external dynamics, an accurate assessment of events becomes difficult. The ongoing clashes in Armenian occupied Karabakh are no different.
Regarding the current situation, it is important to first understand the internal political dynamics in Azerbaijan and Armenia. While it would take much space to explain these in detail, only some of the key and non-disputed factors in both countries which have contributed to recent clashes will be discussed.
One of the key facts that has been ignored so far is that in addition to Karabakh, Armenian nationalist militias have occupied and ethnically cleansed seven other regions of Azerbaijan that border Karabakh. The ongoing clashes are mostly taking place in these additional regions.
Border clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia have occurred almost daily since the late Geidar Aliyev surrendered Karabakh through the Bishkek treaty in 1994. Since then, Karabakh has been a major thorn for the Aliyev regime. On the domestic front, the Aliyevs could not conceal the reality that they eliminated all prominent leaders of the 1990s Karabakh war and at times even cooperated with Armenian nationalists against the interests of Azerbaijan. This amounts to treason.
For the opposition and the society at large, the ongoing occupation of Karabakh has been a political and moral pressure point. It was used as an insult poster to wave in the face of the regime to expose its weakness and incompetence.
For the regime, it was a potential gold card to prolong its stay in power if it manages to liberate at least some of the occupied regions. At the same time, the regime has used it as leverage against the opposition and the broader society. The Aliyevs have frequently propagated the narrative that if they are toppled, the Armenians would use the power vacuum and with Russian assistance, launch an attack.
Aware that Russia is a strategic and historic geopolitical ally of Armenia, the regime in Baku would shut down societal demands to liberate occupied territories through force, by often making the claim that such a move would end in military defeat. The regime argued that it could trigger direct military confrontation with Russia. This could potentially result in the permanent loss of Karabakh due to direct Russian interference, as Georgia lost South Ossetia in 2008.
In Armenia, the successful occupation of Karabakh is a matter of national pride. Deep seated and reactionary Armenian nationalism sees it as a historical “justice” against Turkic Azeris whom Armenians associate with what Yerevan claims was their genocide in the early 1900s.
Prior to Nikol Pashinyan’s rise to power in Armenia, the overwhelming majority of leadership comprised leading figures of the 1990s war in Karabakh. Many entered politics after the war and were not from Armenia proper, but Karabakh. Technically they were Azerbaijani citizens. This created some resentment in Armenia towards the Karabakh clan which became too powerful.
The Karabakh war veterans who led Armenia prior to Pashinyan’s rise were imprisoned or eliminated from the political scene. These politicians were Russia’s trusted allies for decades. Instead, Pashinyan infused the Armenian political establishment with pro-Western politicians. While Pashinyan’s connection to George Soros is exaggerated, there is much truth to Soros-related individuals and organizations exerting influence in Armenia since 2018. This has irked Russia, the traditional political and military patron of Armenia.
To properly understand the external dynamics of the ongoing clashes in Karabakh, we must refer to history. In 2008, Georgia’s then President Mikhail Saakashvili did something similar to what Ilham Aliyev is doing today in Karabakh. Saakashvili launched a military operation to establish Georgia’s territorial integrity in South Ossetia. This triggered a Russian military response. Moscow attacked Georgian troops in South Ossetia and recognized the region as an independent state.
Russian reaction was the direct result of the support NATO allies and the European Union provided to Georgia. Moscow declared its own actions legitimate, as NATO was being too active in Russia’s privileged sphere of influence.
Azerbaijan is far more important to Russian geopolitical and economic calculations than Georgia. It has significant energy resources, borders Dagestan and Iran, and can be an energy corridor to cut Russia out from the profitable Western energy market. And its population is far more anti-Russian than is the case in Armenia or Georgia. Why is this important? Moscow’s relatively passive, almost wait-and-see approach to the major escalation in a crucial region, with significant Turkish (NATO member) and Israeli roles, makes no geopolitical sense.
Thus, Turkey’s active engagement in the current clashes can be best explained as an agreement between Turkey, the Aliyev regime and Russia. This would enable the Aliyevs to extend the shelf-life of their regime through a controlled victory, Turkey would gain prestige in the Muslim world and Russia would bring Armenia back into its political control by forcing Pashinyan to turn to Moscow for help.
The longer the war drags on, the greater the chances of political instability increasing, first in Armenia, then in Azerbaijan, and then in Iran and Russia. Pashinyan is a novice in Armenian politics. He has no military experience and the military establishment has little respect for him. With the deployment of Turkish drones and Turkish officers commanding them, Armenian militias have suffered significant losses in manpower and territory. Even Pashinyan has admitted this. Thus, if a ceasefire is established with Azerbaijan’s current gains, Pashinyan’s career will be over.
Occupation of Karabakh is a major political achievement of contemporary Armenian nationalism. Conversely, Armenians will not forgive a loss on that front. At best, Moscow may allow Pashinyan a face-saving exit from his position as prime minister.
In Azerbaijan, the people see this as a unique opportunity for their military, with Turkish help, to liberate all occupied territories. If Ilham Aliyev agrees to a ceasefire which the people of Azerbaijan will view as robbing them of the opportunity to liberate occupied lands, internal unrest cannot be ruled out.
On the domestic front, a prolonged war may project frontline military commanders doing the fighting as potential political challengers to Aliyev. This outcome cannot be dismissed no matter how tightly the regime controls domestic affairs. The wider population is noticing that the super-rich political class watches the war from their luxurious houses, while ordinary Azeris do the fighting and dying.
While instability can negatively affect Russia as Azerbaijan borders Dagestan—Russia’s volatile region—it could potentially serve Moscow’s energy interests. At the end of November 2019, Turkey and Azerbaijan formally marked the completion of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) that will bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe bypassing Russia. This could negatively affect Moscow’s earnings if other Central Asian states link their pipelines to TANAP. So, through the Karabakh card Moscow might be ensuring its primacy in the European energy markets.
Prolonged war in Karabakh would also present NATO regimes an opportunity to keep Iran’s northern borders tense. Considering that this border is the only front the Western regimes have not been able to ignite over the past decade, additional instability is a potential NATO leverage against Iran.
Israel, along with its Western patrons, is greatly interested in portraying Iran as pro-Armenian in order to trigger ethnic tensions inside Iran which has a significant Azeri population. While Azeris are probably the best accommodated and the most integrated ethnic minority in today’s Islamic Iran, Israel seems to still cling to the hope that some disturbance inside Iran can be created.
Overall, after Russia, Turkey is probably the second strongest player in the ongoing Karabakh saga. Ankara’s soft power appeal has increased dramatically in Azerbaijan. If it plays its cards right, Turkey has a real chance to establish, for the first time in 100 years, a solid political and military presence in the South Caucasus.
While most observers are focused on standard geopolitical actors and events, it should be kept in mind that as the war in Karabakh drags on, the biggest certainty that emerges from it is uncertainty. It will continue to increase and most probably open socio-political space for actors that are not clearly visible now.
It was exactly a century ago that Turkey and Russia were involved in similar events in the South Caucasus. In 1920, the Turks were in Azerbaijan taking on the decaying Russian empire. When the Bolsheviks took over, despite being new to global politics, they were able to expel the Turks, ended the independence of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and ruled the region for over seven decades. Back then Bolsheviks were discounted as political newbies, and no one saw them as serious contenders for regional hegemony. Who could be the new “Bolsheviks” of the 2020? Time will tell.
And [remember, O Prophet,] how those who were bent on denying the power-presence of Allah conspired to capture, kill, or exile you. Thus, have they [always] schemed, but Allah brought their scheming to naught—for Allah is above all schemers (Surah al-Anfal:30).