In the city of Baku, in the small Caucasus nation of Azerbaijan, three futuristic glass towers dominate the skyline. At night, they are lit up with thousands of LED lights portraying dancing flames, an allusion to the country’s name, which translates to “land of fire.” These ‘flame towers’ are symbolic of Azerbaijan’s pride in its newfound prosperity, largely driven by profits from its oil reserves. However, a booming economy is not Azerbaijanis’ only source of pride in the current moment. Today, their focus is on the small, mountainous territory they captured from neighboring Armenia last fall, which surrounds the long-disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Conflicts like last fall’s have been ongoing for over 25 years, meaning finding a path towards peace is imperative. However, it may be wishful thinking to believe that either country will take the first step on that path; instead the process must start with the war’s more powerful supporters, Russia and Turkey. In order for peace to be possible in the region, the international community must pressure these two rising powers to cease fueling the conflict for their own geopolitical aims.
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is several decades old and has been one of the world’s most intractable due in part to a deep rivalry between the two ethnic groups. International groups such as the United Nations recognize the region as falling under Azerbaijani sovereignty, but is majority-Armenian and administered by Armenian officials. Those officials consider themselves independent, and until last year’s war, Armenia had occupied the surrounding regions to protect that claim.
Last October, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale attack on the occupied regions around Nagorno-Karabakh, starting a six-week war that brought Azerbaijan to the brink of capturing the Armenian region’s capital, Stepanakert. Seeing no other option, Armenia’s Prime Minister Pashinyan negotiated a ceasefire and agreed to cease occupying seven districts around the region, a move that provoked widespread protests back home. The war cost over 5,000 lives and displaced tens of thousands.
As long as Armenia and Azerbaijan can continue to rely on the support of their more powerful allies, the conflict will likely persist. The geopolitical situation in the region is such that both have reasonable claims to the territory and the people of both are enormously invested in the outcome. From Armenia’s perspective, they are surrounded on two sides by historical foes, and the legacy of the genocide that the Ottoman Empire perpetrated against them in 1915 still looms large, even while Turkey still denies that it occurred. Ottoman authorities killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians in the course of five years, serving as a haunting reminder of the danger of lacking national sovereignty. Many Armenians view Nagorno-Karabakh as the “front line” against Turkic groups and believe that if they budge now, they will once again be at risk as a people.
Azerbaijan feels similarly vulnerable, as losing Nagorno-Karabakh might compromise their territorial integrity. Their history as an independent nation is also very short, and for 25 years, they have had sovereign territory occupied by another state. These circumstances mean that as things stand today, Armenia and Azerbaijan will continue to violate ceasefires until either of them secures an undeniable victory, or until they lose the support of their more powerful backers. Therefore, Turkey and Russia are crucially important to the fight: their actions can have larger ripple effects in a conflict as stalemated as this.
Turkey has openly sided with Azerbaijan in the dispute because Azerbaijanis are historically descended from Turks and remain ethnically and culturally close to them: even the Azerbaijani language is about 60% similar to Turkish. Turkish drones played a decisive role in the conflict, vastly overpowering Armenia’s relatively outdated weaponry. Turkey also reportedly sent thousands of Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan’s aid, though they deny this officially. All this is part of President Erdogan’s plans for a pan-Turkic alliance, which some have labeled “Neo-Ottoman.”
Russia did not directly support Armenia during the war itself, but under the ceasefire they have established 2,000 peacekeepers in the region, ensuring Armenia is more dependent on them than ever. Russia historically backed Armenia in the issue, and in the 1990s it was caught smuggling munitions into the country. Now, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh say they could not imagine continuing to live there without Russian protection. Otherwise, Azerbaijan would likely be able to violate this ceasefire as it has others, using its strategic position near Stepanakert to sweep through the rest of the region and assert unconditional control. Indeed, many Azerbaijanis wanted that very thing last fall, before Russia negotiated the ceasefire. These peacekeepers mean that Russian President Vladimir Putin has a major bargaining chip with Armenia, and could use it to pressure Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to compromise and forge a lasting solution. However, some say Mr. Putin has an incentive to prolong the conflict so that he can project power in the region. Thus, the international community must step up pressure on Mr. Putin to use the “peace”-keepers toward an actual sustainable peace.
This is not Russia and Turkey’s only point of contention. They also back opposing parties in Libya and Syria, the latter of which almost became the site of a major crisis in 2015 when Turkish fighters shot down a Russian fighter jet. Both countries are attempting to fill the gap left by the retreating United States after President Trump began a policy of avoiding involvement in conflicts abroad. Both want to become the new regional superpower, and the theatre of Nagorno-Karabakh epitomizes that struggle. The conflict between these global powers fuels the regional conflict, in Turkey’s case directly and in Russia’s case implicitly. Therefore, the UN’s most likely route to a solution must involve pressuring these countries to use their leverage for peace instead of power, going so far as to employ sanctions if necessary. Many potential compromises have already been proposed, such as making Nagorno-Karabakh an autonomously administered region under Azerbaijani sovereignty.
Russia and Turkey have internal reasons to seek peace as well. Mr. Putin is certainly no stranger to foreign adventurism, but in this case, he has started to realize that directly funding Armenia’s war effort is much more fraught than similar efforts in Syria or Libya, because this conflict has dragged on for decades. He is already losing patience with Mr. Pashinyan’s inflexibility, and might, if pushed by the international community, threaten to withdraw his peacekeeping support entirely unless Armenia agrees to compromise. At this point, Putin is likely allowing Armenia to continue its claims only so that he does not appear to have lost a proxy war against Turkey.
Turkey is also facing both economic and political woes, as the Turkish lira depreciates against the dollar and students protest en masse against the government’s authoritarian encroachment. Amid all this, Putin and Erdogan might question why they should spend continued military funding and their public image on this seemingly endless war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Interventions might boost a leader’s approval ratings in the short term, but when an issue remains unresolved for 25 years citizens may question what they’re paying for. For this reason, international pressure for peace may actually influence these countries. Of course, Russia and Turkey’s actions alone cannot ensure peace from start to finish: Armenia and Azerbaijan must also start cooperating on humanitarian efforts and begin talks to restart trade relations. If that is accomplished, however, the stage will be set for an enduring cessation of hostilities.
The ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is tragic and needless. For much of the last century, Azerbaijanis and Armenians maintained friendly ties, engaging culturally and economically without issue. Such a moment can come again, but first Russia and Turkey must urge Armenia and Azerbaijan to begin serious negotiations. The international community at large should use any and all tools at their disposal toward this end. If Armenia and Azerbaijan feel they may become diplomatically and militarily isolated, the stage will be set for compromise and maybe eventually even peace.
Image from Oleksii on Adobe