This piece mainly argues that the fact that with respect to the Karabakh conflict, the economic, military, and geopolitical balance of power has changed in a quarter of a century or so in favor of Azerbaijan and Turkey but at the expense of Armenia produced a victory for Azerbaijan in the war over Karabakh in September-November 2020. Thanks to its hydrocarbon resources, over the years, Azerbaijan has invested in the armed forces massively. In the meantime, both Azerbaijan and Turkey have cultivated closer ties with Russia. Armenia’s over-reliance on Russia along with its weak economic and military capabilities, on the other hand, has put it in a disadvantaged position against Azerbaijan and in the region. The color revolution, which swept pro-European Union Nikol Pashinyan into power as prime minister in Armenia in 2018 helped distance Moscow from Yerevan. Unlike in the past, the United States was disengaged from the region, mainly because of its partial withdrawal from the international stage. The European Union has been traditionally relatively uninvolved in the conflict and France preferred to remain neutral in the dispute not to jeopardize its impartiality towards the warring parties. Squeezed between the geopolitical interests in the region and its ethnic Azeris’ sympathy with Azerbaijan, Iran was unable to play a key role in the conflict. The confluence of these factors changed the hitherto prevailing balance of power and produced a victory for Azerbaijan, overturning the 26-year old status-quo in the region.
The Origins of the Karabakh Conflict
Inhabited to a large extent by the Armenians, Karabakh was granted to Soviet Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union in 1921. Towards the end of the Cold War, Karabakh wanted to split from Azerbaijan, leading to the first clashes between the parties. The first Karabakh War started in 1992 and ended in 1994, leaving 25,000 dead and 724,000 Azeris and 300,000 – 500,000 Armenians displaced. At the end of the war, Armenians seized Karabakh and all of five as well as a large part of two other districts (rayons) of Azerbaijan, surrounding Karabakh, representing thirteen percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. Following the May 1994 ceasefire brokered by Russia, the Minsk Group under OSCE led the peace negotiations, albeit with no success. Given that Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s demands were highly irreconcilable – respect for territorial integrity (Azerbaijan) and the right of self-determination (Armenia), it proved difficult to find a common ground despite years of negotiations. Ending this protracted conflict through a peace agreement was not possible also due to the fact that both sides believed that time would enhance their respective positions. Armenians in Karabakh thought that over time their self-declared de-facto independent republic will gradually gain international recognition while Azerbaijan believed that their military build-up would strengthen its leverage over the Armenians.
The Flare-up of the Conflict and the Peace Deal
Violence flared up in Karabakh on 27 September 2020 after a tense year between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Following the 44-day fighting, with the loss of the strategically important town of Shusha in Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Armenia decided to lay down its arms. The conflict left 2,425 Armenians and 2,783 Azeris dead. After the fighting ended with a Russia-brokered ceasefire, 1,960 Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the region to monitor the ceasefire. The peace deal signed on 9 November 2020 ensured the transfer of all the seven Armenia-occupied districts, adjacent to Karabakh to Azerbaijan, division of Karabakh into two parts, controlled by Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively, the right of return of internally displaced people and refugees in the 1990s to the region, opening of a corridor from Azerbaijan to its autonomous republic of Nakhchivan, bordering Turkey, connection of Karabakh to Armenia through Lachin corridor. The deal did not determine the core issue of the final status of Karabakh, which will be decided through negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan later.
Cultivation of Close Ties between Azerbaijan and Russia
An important factor that contributed to Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the 44-day long war was Azerbaijan’s cultivation of close ties with Russia. Striving for the expansion of its influence in its “near abroad” after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Russia did not want to push Azerbaijan, a geostrategically important and energy exporting country to the embrace of the West. As for Azerbaijan, even if it did not join the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), it did not turn Russia into an enemy unlike Georgia or Ukraine did. Unlike Georgia, Azerbaijan has never vocally expressed its desire to join NATO. So, even though Armenia was not an official ally of Russia, there was no reason for Moscow to punish Baku.
Aware of the role that Russia could play in the resolution of the frozen Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan courted with Moscow although it, at the same time, viewed Russia as a threat. Azerbaijan cooperated with Russia at the expense of its relations with the West, which was another factor gaining the sympathy of Russia for Azerbaijan. A watershed event in Azerbaijan’s growing cooperation with Russia was the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war that demonstrated that Russia is the dominant actor in the region and the West was not willing to counter Russia. This led Azerbaijan to increase economic cooperation with the border region North Caucasus in the Russian Federation and led to expansion of Russian soft power, including an increase in education provided in Russian language, and proliferation pro-Russia media outlets and politically engaged initiatives in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan expected that these steps as well as its multi-billion dollar acquisition of arms and military equipment from Russia would neutralize Moscow in case of flare-up of a war with Armenia as was the case in the April 2016 conflict, which Moscow did not interfere promptly.
Growing Military Disparity between Azerbaijan and Armenia
Azerbaijan has used hydrocarbon-revenues for the expansion of its weapons and military equipment massively, creating a major disparity between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces over the years. Azerbaijani military budget has started to grow dramatically in 2006 when Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline became operational. By 2010, Azerbaijan’s defense expenditure alone surpassed Armenia state’s whole budget. After the first Karabakh conflict ended, Azerbaijan’s military expenditure totalled $70 million in 1995. Over the years, however, there was a dramatic jump in its military expenditure, rising to $1.7 billion in 2018. Armenia’s military spending was, on the other hand, $50 million in 1995 while it totalled $610 million in 2018. That is, Azerbaijan’s military spending was three times higher than that of Armenia. As a result of this wide imbalance in military spending, Armenia acquired only Russian weapons at subsidized prices or second-hand arms free of charge, Azerbaijan purchased high-tech arms not only from Russia but also from other suppliers such as Israel and Turkey. Apparently, Azerbaijan military’s intensive use of unmanned drones also played a decisive role in its victory.
Shifting Armenian Position
Armenia’s shifting position was another determinant in the fate of the Karabakh war. Armenia’s asymmetrical relationship with its ally Russia has deteriorated at Erivan’s expense in that it became heavily dependent on Russia in terms of economy, security and energy supply. Its closed borders, a weak manufacturing sector, its inability to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), and its channelling of limited economic resources to military expenditure put the brakes on the economic growth of Armenia. The country did not benefit economically either from joining the EAEU since its rationale is geopolitical. By implication, Armenia did not possess sufficient military arsenal at par with that of Azerbaijan. Nor did it turn into an economic success story that could attract the attention of major powers.
Change of hands at the helm of the Armenian state after the Velvet Revolution in 2018 was another development that changed the balance of power at the expense of Armenia. Considering the new Armenian leader Pashinyan, who overthrew the old guard close to the Kremlin, as “the man of Soros”, Russia wanted to replace him with a more loyal politician. Besides, realizing that the balance in the conflict has shifted in favour of Azerbaijan in 26 years, Russia expected Armenia to be more flexible at the peace negotiations before the flare-up of the conflict in September 2020. Since Armenia did not agree to change its position, Russia did not want to assume the geopolitical cost of Armenia’s intransigence by interfering in the conflict that broke out in September 2020 in an untimely manner. That is why, Russia dragged its feet to involve in the conflict.
Turkey’s Rapprochement with Russia and Alliance with Azerbaijan
Turkish-Russian rapprochement was another factor that tilted the balance of power in the region in favour of Azerbaijan. Strained relations with the West pushed Moscow and Ankara to forge a close partnership with each other. Having competed with Russia in the first half of the 1990s in Eurasia, Turkey opted to cooperate with it after the second half of the 1990s, developing a multi-dimensional relationship with this country. The volume of bilateral trade reached $26.3 billion in 2019. Although they have some differences in geostrategic issues like in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, they both benefit from this partnership that encompasses trade, energy, investment, pipeline politics, tourism, arms supply and regional issues. In short, when the conflict broke out in September, Turkey was a partner for Russia more than a rival. That is why Russia remained silent to Turkey’s vocal support to Azerbaijan in the conflict in September unlike in the first Karabakh war at the beginning of the 1990s.
Moreover, Turkey’s unconditional support to Azerbaijan, above all its military support, including its supply of unmanned drones was instrumental in determining the fate of the conflict. They concluded a Strategic Partnership and Mutual Assistance Agreement in 2010 that foresaw mutual aid in case of an attack by a third party. Turkey’s growing support to Azerbaijan stems above all not only from its growing integration with Azerbaijan, especially, in the field of energy, including the launch of Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) in 2019, shipping more Azeri gas to Turkey and the massive investment of the Azerbaijani state energy giant SOCAR in Turkey but also from its increasing assertiveness in its neighbourhood. That is, its fierce backing to Baku in the conflict is, at the same time, a corollary of its assertive foreign policy in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. Thanks to a dramatic growth in its economy after 2000 as a result of economic policies turning it into a “trading state” and a concomitant rise in its military capabilities, Turkey transformed into a major actor in its region.
Actors that Played a Lesser Role in the Conflict
As for the Western role in the conflict, although Armenians associate themselves with the Western civilization, Armenia does not have much strategic importance for the West. It is the smallest post-Soviet republic, does not have energy resources nor does it have energy transit routes. Given the authoritarian regime that dominated in the country in the post-Cold War period, the West has lost its interest in Armenia. Overall, the EU has been traditionally relatively disengaged from the Karabakh conflict mainly because of the dominating role of Russia in the issue as well as the risk of impartiality of the EU for Azerbaijan after most of the EU countries recognized the independence of Kosovo after 2008. Drawing a similarity between their status, Azerbaijan was concerned that EU countries could also recognize the self-proclaimed Karabakh Republic like Kosovo.
As for France, despite the pressure applied by 600,000 Armenian diaspora in the country to intervene in the conflict on behalf of Armenia, it remained impartial in the conflict, justifying this attitude with its role as co-chairman in the OSCE Minsk Group. Another reason for the inactive posture of France in the issue is that the South Caucasus is not a traditional area of influence for France unlike Africa.
Likewise, the USA remained aloof from the conflict with the exception of a few statements from the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and hosting talks with Azeri and Armenian ministers of foreign affairs. The lack of US interest in the conflict largely stems from the partial US disengagement from international politics as a result of “America First” approach under Donald Trump Administration. Washington’s preoccupation with the presidential elections as well as the fight against COVID-19 pandemic also distracted Washington’s attention from the region.
Like the EU and the USA, another actor that played a little role in the conflict, if any, is Iran. Iran is divided between geopolitical interests in the South Caucasus and the sociological realities inside the country.On the one hand, Iran strives to counterbalance the sway of the Azerbaijan-Turkish alliance in the region, supporting the Armenia-Russia axis. Besides, Azerbaijan’s close relationship with Israel disturbs Iran. On the other hand, it is home to about seventeen million ethnic Azeris, who called for the Iranian state to support Azerbaijan against Armenia in the conflict. As a result, Iran remained largely impartial in the conflict apart from proposing a not-so effective peace plan.
In Lieu of Conclusion
The 44-day war overturned the 26-year status-quo in Karabakh. Now that the final status of Karabakh is to be determined following the negotiations to be held in the next weeks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the next step should be to establish a permanent peace in the region. Now, it will be much easier for Turkey and Azerbaijan to open their closed borders with Armenia. To be sure, this will boost economic integration of Armenia with Azerbaijan and Turkey, bolstering its economic development. Involvement of regional powers like Russia and Iran in this kind of initiatives is also a sine qua non for the achievement of a sustainable peace in the region.