The recent heat up in Nagorno-Karabakh is a surprise to many. This is a conflict that has been frozen for over twenty years. As in all such cases, this is not because the conflict is insoluble. It is because everyone involved has a vested interest in keeping it that way.
Armenia and Azerbaijan don’t have much to offer each other. They are better off with friends further afield. Azerbaijan can gain more from an alliance with Turkey, and defence of a fellow Turkic nation provides the reason for ever-deepening that alliance. Armenia is better off with Russia, and the international blockade Azerbaijan and Turkey have imposed on it likewise furthers that relationship.
Far from bringing Armenia to its knees, dependence on Russia and Iran has left Armenia economically better off than many countries around it, which wouldn’t necessarily be the case otherwise. Similarly, Azerbaijan has been able to develop friendships with Western nations precisely because of this, and the efforts of the other former Soviet Central Asian republics to develop these show how much progress Azerbaijan has made through being in conflict with Armenia.
None of this is new. After the Communist takeover of China and the Nationalist retreat to the island of Taiwan, their conflict did not officially end. Taiwan gained a lot from its special relationship with the US, as the huge number of Taiwanese electronic goods available in the West testified, while China, which was also de facto supported by the West due to its strength even before the Carter administration officially recognised it, demonstrated this strength by symbolically shelling Taiwan every night, but not actually destroying this other Western ally.
So why has fighting broken out again recently? Does one of the parties involved think they are better off changing the game? With neither side having military superiority over the other, what could anyone hope to gain from reigniting the conflict now?
Tiny elephant in a big room
As several commentators have pointed out, the latest outbreak occurred when the Azeri and Armenian presidents were in Washington at yet another peace summit.
This implies one of two things: either the conflict was pre-planned by one side or the other, or both, to divert these talks, or other elements in countries have despaired of their politicians and decided to act independently to take matters into their own hands.
Both sides accuse the other of starting the fighting, and as usual both can justify that position by giving their own interpretation to what “starting the fighting” means. What is unclear, however, is the role the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” plays itself in all this?
Nagorno-Karabakh regards itself as an independent sovereign state, the NKR. This “state” is not even recognised by Armenia, which supplies it with troops and funds on the basis that it is part of Armenia, and regards the NKR government as merely wartime expediency. Despite this, it has functioning government institutions, and in 2009 Freedom House described it as more “democratic” than the states around it.
Despite the fact Armenia does not recognise it the NKR has a representative office in Yerevan, like any other sovereign state, which is staffed by its “foreign ministry.” It is not going to abandon its claims to independence overnight, any more than other countries do. Dependence on Armenia has helped it survive, but any peace talks would wipe NKR off the map if it does not legitimise itself.
Of all the parties involved in this conflict the NKR is the one with the greatest interest in changing the present situation. The NKR has its own, independent, armed forces, theoretically under the command of the “state” even though most of its soldiers and equipment are from Armenia. Open conflict involving these troops asserts the independence of this force, and therefore the country, as Armenia won’t attack it and Azerbaijan will have to accept that it exists if it suffers casualties at its hands, even if these are ultimately blamed on Armenia.
Now a ceasefire has been declared this is exactly what is being proposed. Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian (and this is the correct way to spell his name!) has warned that if there is further fighting Armenia will formally recognise NKR … and so what?
All the countries attending the peace negotiations have condemned NKR for holding elections and reiterated many times how they will not recognise the results. Force of arms is on the brink of achieving what diplomacy, theoretically conducted by the same sides, has so far refused to do.
If Armenia does recognise NKR it would be able to conclude defence agreements with it, which would ultimately mean it had obtained Russian support, as Armenia is largely financed by Russia. The only way these could be legalised is if Russia, in turn, eventually recognised NKR. This is a situation Russia has shown no interest in creating, but would suit NKR very well, even at the expense of every other party to the conflict, thus affirming the independence and viability of this “state” even more.
As many pies as fingers
However this in itself is not an explanation of what is going on. The situation in the conflict zone is being monitored all the time, and both the Azeri and Armenian defence ministries, and the peace monitors, frequently quote detailed statistics to support their assertions of what the current situation actually is, those these can vary wildly, and how the other side has violated the cease fire.
It is very unlikely that any of the conflict sides did not see the latest outbreak coming, whoever was behind it. So what interests would they have in restarting conflict at this particular time, having tried for so long to keep it frozen?
One reason was observed by my colleague Henry Kamens on the day the conflict broke out. He was in Batumi, the Turkish-controlled port on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, chasing consignments of illegal weapons. Those he has tracked going through this port come from Ukraine, and are then sent on, accompanied by fake end user certificates, to US-supported terrorist groups in Turkey and Syria, Grey Wolves and ISIS, where they are used to further US policy.
As he arrived, a huge Turkish warship suddenly appeared. This ship is not one of those which call at Batumi as part of a tour of Black Sea duty. It was however comparable in size to the Antonov plane which arrived at Tbilisi International Airport from a German NATO base just after Georgia was allowed to sign its long sought-for Association Agreement with the EU. This was heavily guarded by military personnel, and was carrying supplies which were, based on what was being loaded on and off, most probably the US-made weapons used by ISIS.
The existing, documented evidence demonstrates that Turkey is involved in illegally smuggling arms to terrorists. It has made no secret of its support for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, including when actual fighting is going on. When conflict does erupt Turkey does sometimes urge peace, but then immediately reaffirms its support for Azerbaijan, insisting it will stay with it “to the end,” whenever that end may come.
The appearance of this warship can only be connected to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as Turkey is not at war with Black Sea littoral states and is not taking part in exercises in the area. The only help it can give from there however is to send supplies. Given previous form, there is a likelihood that these are arms supplies, being bought and sold illegally.
But Azerbaijan doesn’t need Turkish arms. It obtains all it needs from Russia, which delivers them as a means of stabilising the situation: Azerbaijan is not likely to risk its arms supplies by using them against an enemy sponsored by Russia. The fact that Azerbaijan keeps accepting these arms, and not turning to Turkey as a major alternative supplier, indicates that Azerbaijan is prepared to keep its part of that bargain, at least publicly.
So it is rather more likely that this Turkish warship, other than making a political show of force, was actually transported arms to terrorists, as they were delivered two days before from Ukraine. This is based on the mechanism that has been in place for nearly 20 years and involves the usual suspects. Sooner or later, all these arms have to be accounted for. As ever, a conflict of limited duration serves this purpose. If the appearance is made that Turkey is supplying its “Azeri brethren” all these weapons will simply be declared lost in that conflict, just as weapons the Georgian Army never saw, which were likewise sold on to terrorists, were during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war.
Compromise and co-conspiracy
Azerbaijan has likewise covered its sins by this war. It is not exactly the most democratic country, as can be seen by its successive presidents’ frequent attempts to argue the meaning of the term whenever criticised.
In times of conflict, countries rally round their governments for the sake of national unity, regardless of their failings. With a sudden fall in oil price, its economy suffering from the Dutch Disease, and democratic opposition consequently rising, actual conflict is necessary to keep turning this trick in the short term.
A brief conflict suits Armenia too but not as much, as it is relatively happy with the status quo. Azerbaijan has always pumped up its population with rhetoric, blame shifting, about regaining the lost territory. It is rhetoric because it only has military resource parity with Armenia, at best, so does not have the means to achieve this. So this latest adventure would only end in the way it has, with Armenia regaining what it lost and the conflict line being in the same place. Armenia can therefore rally its own population, its massive Diaspora, around the repulsion of the assault, gaining further domestic and international support for the amounts it spends on maintaining a situation which has isolated it internationally.
Russia too has something to gain. It has long advocated a purely diplomatic solution, as has Iran, the other country which wants to be a big player in the region. An outbreak of violence which leaves the borders where they were underlines the futility of attempting a military solution. Potential recognition of NKR would harm this process, but Russia has the means of preventing it. As with Azerbaijan, it can use (legal) arms supplies as a diplomatic weapon, and buy off both NKR and Armenia with them for several rounds of negotiations into the future.
Running on the spot
The point of modern warfare is not to win or lose. It is to create headlines and political subterfuge. International communications being as sophisticated as they now are, such media spin can have as much effect, if not more than do bombs and bullets in real conflicts, especially when countries are ever more reluctant to pursue military objectives with anything more than the bare minimum of forces.
This latest conflict leaves people, and particularly the dead ones, at the bottom of the list as always. But it gains short term headlines which remind the world about this forgotten war once again. Everyone takes sides, and the powerful countries talk about what needs to be done when they don’t really care about this bunch of rocks in a place whose alphabet they can’t read. Each outbreak of conflict furthers the combatants’ interest with their friends, and this is more important in real terms than what they ae fighting about.
This latest inflammation in Nagorno-Karabakh was caused by many things: separatist ambitions, the need to disguise criminality, neutralising domestic opposition and pointing out the futility of starting it. But if it hadn’t happened, a unilateral solution would become so much easier because the rest of the world would have stopped caring who had imposed it, no longer taking more than nominal sides in the conflict. That would harm the global balance, and that would never do, and the winner would have to take the blame while the loser would lose influence with it for backing the wrong horse.
Ultimately everyone involved needs to keep this conflict frozen. Reminding the West of its existence, and thus provoking it to preach peace, is the best way in the real world of ensuring that happens.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.