AMHERST, MASSACHUSETTS – Not everyone can find the Nagorno-Karabakh region, where military clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan have resumed, on the map. Yet the ripple effect of the crisis in the hinterlands of the Caucasus can be felt far and wide.
That kind of connectivity was hardly the case 25 years ago, when the conflict started. For the great powers of East and West, the 1989-1994 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan looked not like a geopolitical challenge but a humanitarian catastrophe: 30,000 people died and 1 million were displaced in the fight over a meager 4,400 sq. km (roughly twice the size of Tokyo).
The origins of the tragic conflict were far from extraordinary: post-colonial tribalism. Within the Soviet Union, the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region had been a province of Azerbaijan, and with the Soviet empire crumbling, the exclave developed a robust secessionist movement aspiring to join Armenia.
In the course of war, the coalition of the Karabakh paramilitary units and Armenian regular troops crushed the Azeris. Not only did Azerbaijan de facto lose Nagorno-Karabakh province; Armenia occupied vast territories it deemed as “historic” Karabakh, procuring a land connection to an important neighbor — Iran, a counterbalance to Armenia’s traditional nemesis, Turkey.
After five years of war, the so-called Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the United States and Russia, mediated a truce. The deal did not legitimize Armenian gains or Azerbaijan’s losses; it just stopped the hostilities. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic established by Armenian separatists remained an unrecognized state — little more than Yerevan’s protectorate.
Internationally, Karabakh was relegated to the category of “frozen conflicts.” That’s what it could have remained indefinitely, had the Caucasus remained a geopolitical backwater. But circumstances changed.
At the time of the 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh settlement, the core of world politics was still in the North Atlantic. The Minsk Group that handled the truce represented none other but the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In hindsight, that Eurocentric presumptuousness looks incredible because almost nothing connects Armenia or Azerbaijan to Europe — most of their allegiances, grievances and roots are in the Middle East.
In strategic terms, the Caucasus is a fat, 600-km-wide isthmus between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea — a link in the East-to-West transportation corridor. As Eurasian centers of power such as China, Iran and Turkey claimed more agency, the Caucasus grew in importance. Two pipelines — Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (natural gas) and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (oil) — running parallel to each other, bring fossil fuels from the Caspian Sea to Turkish and European customers. With the hostilities in the Karabakh area on again, the front line is just about 50 km away from both — the operational range of the Russian-made Scud missiles deployed by Armenia is at least 150 km.
Another jeopardized transit corridor is the New Silk Road initiative conceived and promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. His ambitious plan is to create a pan-Eurasian infrastructure network, and one of its cornerstones is bypassing Russia. The Caucasus potentially provides one such shortcut — from Central Asia to Mediterranean.
In January, the first cargo train accomplished an incredible journey from Ukraine to China — granted, on an imperfect and problematic schedule because it had to catch two ferry rides, one across the Black Sea, another across the Caspian Sea. The trial took 15 days — a cumbersome journey, no doubt, and perhaps not the most cost-effective — but a breakthrough nevertheless, if not in technology, then in determination and political will. Now the nascent project is all but derailed by instability in Karabakh, with the war zone uncomfortably close to the only usable railway.
In a striking contrast with the early 1990s, Russia and NATO are adversaries again. Manifesting itself in proxy wars and, sometimes, direct annexations, the new Great Game for the spheres of influence in Eurasia has become a defining feature of 21st century geopolitics. In the Caucasus, Russia has already fought a war against a West-leaning nation. It defeated Georgia in 2008 and carved two faux states — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — out of its territory.
Another big change occurred south of the Caucasus. What used to be the stagnant dictatorships of Syria and Iraq are now battlefields of nation-building and social revolution. The Mideast turmoil is inseparable from that of Karabakh. Look at one of the most explosive matters in the area: statehood for Kurds, a vast group of people mistreated by every country they happen to live in. Guess what? The Kurds of Nagorno-Karabakh were among the first victims of the 1989-1994 conflict, kicked out of their homes indiscriminately — unnoticed collateral casualty of the “bigger” conflict. Times have changed, the nationhood for Kurds being, possibly, the biggest and the most urgent issue in today’s Middle East. What separates the Armenia-occupied Karabakh from Syria? Kurdistan — the swath of diverse territories, where Kurds struggle for recognition.
Armenia and Azerbaijan currently have a shaky ceasefire in place that may or may not hold. The question — who is responsible for the current crisis — remains unanswered. Unsurprisingly, Baku and Yerevan apportion blame as suits their needs.
In the past two years, Eastern Europe and the Middle East have seen more proxy wars than in the previous two decades, and analysts have been looking for the possible puppeteers of the escalation in Karabakh. Unsurprisingly, the first name to come up was Vladimir Putin, who, after a series of stealthy invasions in neighboring countries, has become the usual suspect in everything unseemly happening between the Indian Ocean and the North Pole.
So far, no evidence has emerged to support the theory — though, in principle, the Russian president shouldn’t be averse to an escalation in Karabakh — if not out of the sheer meanness of his heart then in order to disrupt the flow of oil and gas from the Caspian, and also China’s plans of laying a transcontinental route that bypasses Russia.
Also, Armenia is Russia’s last remaining ally in the Caucasus. A member state of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, it hosts a contingent of Russian troops. In the past decade, despite its commitment to Armenia, Moscow has been selling arms to Baku to keep a foothold in the regional energy hub. Now, after the two bitter enemies came to blows again, Russia might have no choice but to side with Armenia — particularly since Kremlin nemesis Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced his unequivocal support for Azerbaijan.
It doesn’t really matter who, strictly speaking, fired the first shot in the Karabakh flare-up. Tensions on the frontier had been mounting for the last six months, since the Russian military intervention in Syria threw the whole region off balance.
The tectonic changes underway in the Middle East encouraged the protagonists of the Karabakh drama to tackle their own “unfinished business.” Relegated to the icebox of international diplomacy for more than 20 years, the conflict is not “frozen” anymore.
Russian-American writer Constantine Pleshakov’s books include “The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima.”