We saw an unexpected war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region between April 2nd-6th, 2016. This unexpected conflict has gone down in history as the “Four Day War”. Now, a year has passed since then and there is no sign of war again on the frontline. The only noticeable things are daily clashes between the sides.
The conflict between the two South Caucasus countries began in 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a result of the ensuing war, in 1992 Armenian armed forces occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts. The 1994 ceasefire agreement was followed by peace negotiations. Armenia has not yet implemented four UN Security Council resolutions on withdrawal of its armed forces from the Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts.
We discussed this topic with George Niculescu who is the Head of Research at the European Geopolitical Forum.
"Last year, in April, Azerbaijan and Armenia had the 4 days war. Can we expect this again? Are there any links between elections in Armenia and the possibility of a short-term war?
GN: Unfortunately, since the April 2016 Azerbaijan-Armenia war, there has been no real breakthrough in the negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict. On the contrary, the situation on the front line remained tense, and most experts believed that the risk for renewed short-term military operations is quite high.
However, I do not foresee the outbreak of a large scale long-term war between the two Caucasian neighbors since none of them would actually gain from it. Such a war would be a shear "lose-lose situation", where Yerevan would run against the high risk of having the current territorial "status quo" broken down, while Baku would run against the risk of seeing its highly prosperous energy business coming to a catastrophic grinding halt.
Eventually, Russia, whose strategic interests in the South Caucasus are related to maintaining a tense relationship between Baku and Yerevan, without having to bear the dangerous consequences of a large-scale, long-term war there, might be prepared, and able to "twist the hands" of both conflicting parties by using political, economic and military means.
The elections in Armenia on April 2nd are unlikely to dramatically change the current strategic context around the NK conflict. Consequently, while they might precipitate some small-scale short-term border skirmishes among the parties, it is unlikely they would lead to the outbreak of a major war in the region.
During his visit to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian president said that we can use “Iskandar” missile systems any time and our neighbors know this. Is this a provocation? What is your position about Russia's supply of arms to Armenia and Azerbaijan?
GN: I don't think this was a provocation. It was rather an electoral campaign message to Armenian voters that he holds a tough stance on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict aimed at maintaining the territorial "status quo".
It might have also been a deterrent warning against Baku, aimed at preventing the outbreak of a new April 2016-like short-term war in the run-up to the elections in Armenia. Russian arms supply to both Azerbaijan and Armenia seems to be an integral part of Moscow's strategy to maintain tension among the two countries by feeding the security dilemmas in both Baku and Yerevan, without running the risk of having to intervene to quell a long-term war in the South Caucasus.
Both Azerbaijan and Armenia seems to be an integral part of Moscow’s strategy to maintain tension
Of course, Russian arms supply works like a vulnerability for both Baku and Yerevan, but apparently neither of them has better arms supply alternatives, on the one hand, because of their inherited dependence of Russian arms supply in the post-Soviet times, and, on the other hand, since few significant arms producers have been ready to break the 1992 OSCE arms embargo against both countries.
In addition, Armenia has been bound by its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) membership obligations to maintain a higher level of technical interoperability with Russia, which makes her even more dependent on Russian arms purchases than Azerbaijan.
As we notice, Iran and Russia are close over the last years due to common interests in Syria. What are their interests in the region? What is their role in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
GN: For some time now, Iran and Russia have become strategic partners who are sharing strategic interests in the Middle East. The Russian involvement in the ongoing conflict in Syria has just strengthened this strategic partnership, which many see as heading towards a strategic alliance. Their common interests in the South Caucasus are driven mainly by the prospects of joint economic and trade projects.
In geopolitical terms, the Caucasus region, as a core part of the broader Caspian region, is a connecting corridor for trade, energy transit and transport between Russia and Iran. This is why both Russia and Iran share, also, a high interest for maintaining regional stability. However, the big difference between the two is that while Russia is institutionally involved in European and Eurasian efforts to maintain regional stability, not least as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, and a leading nation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the CSTO, Iran is just loosely institutionally connected to the South Caucasus region.
However, Tehran has tried to compensate for this handicap with strengthening bilateral relations with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, in particular on common economic and infrastructure projects. In this context, although Iran doesn't have any formal role to play in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution, both Baku and Yerevan are strongly engaged in buying Iranian political support for their respective positions.
Such efforts will most likely have only limited effects on Iranian position against the NK conflict, on the one hand, since the Caucasus is not a priority area for Iranian geopolitical expansion, and, on the other hand, since Russia (and the West) would be wary of a deeper Iranian engagement in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. In conclusion, while Iran might play a significant role in post-conflict regional cooperation in the South Caucasus, its role in NK conflict resolution is bound to remain very shallow.
What is the role of Turkey in this conflict?
GN: For a longer time during this century, Turkish foreign policy, crafted by the former prime-minister Ahmet Davutoglu, focused on engaging in all neighboring areas as a means for gaining recognition as simultaneously a European, Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Caspian, Mediterranean, Gulf and Black Sea power.
In fact, these multiple regional identities have driven Turkey towards a multifaceted foreign policy aiming to seek innovative mechanisms and channels to resolve regional conflicts, to encourage positive regional change, and to build cross-cultural bridges of dialogue and understanding. In the views of a significant number of experts, by pursuing a constructive peace building policy, Turkey would have actually claimed (and should have deserved) a bolder regional role in the resolution of the protracted conflicts.
On the other hand, Turkey has only marginally involved itself in NK conflict resolution so far, partially to protect its strategic partnership with Russia from potential contentious issues, partially because Turkish involvement was not welcome by all, or even bluntly rejected by some local, regional or international actors.
However, over the last few years, Turkey has seen itself deeply entangled with the Syrian conflict, not only for fear of worsening its own Kurdish problem, but also exerting its new role as an emerging regional power in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA).
This geopolitical dynamics has actually moved Ankara's focus even farther from the Caucasus region, while its capability to shape the Caucasian strategic environment has significantly diminished, to the largest extent, for the benefit of Moscow. It is perhaps just president Erdogan's eventual realization that Turkey's strides towards regional influence in the Middle East have in fact endangered Turkey's internal stability and security, and increased its strategic vulnerability in the Black Sea region, the decisive factor that might shift Turkey's policy towards a return to the Wider Black Sea region, including a deeper involvement in NK conflict resolution. However, given Turkey's apparent higher stakes in the Middle East the odds of such a shift remain rather thin."