You might like to keep a map at hand whilst reading this blog, either from your atlas or from the internet.
Conflict has erupted in The Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan over an Armenian population living in Nagorno-Karabakh, legally a part of Azerbaijan, and virtually cut off from Armenia itself. There is a major pass, The Lachin Corridor, linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, which Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh do control.
You might be forgiven for having missed this news as our own media is so caught up in the Pandemic and in Brexit that there is little room left for wider issues. Yet, as Roger Boyes recently wrote in The Times, 'a full-scale war [which] could soon turn into a geopolitical flashpoint'. I am not sure that the events so far could be described as ' a full-scale war' but with approx. 1,500 killed since hostilities began at the end of September it has become more than a cross border skirmish, especially as heavy weaponry has been deployed on both sides.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were formally part of The Russian/Soviet Empire and thus a war in the region threatens the stability of Russia's southern flank, with Azerbaijan sharing a border with Russia and both countries having a border with Iran, and Armenia one with Turkey. Thus three big players, Russia, Iran, and Turkey could potentially be drawn into the conflict. The conflict has religious overtones with Armenia being Christian and Azerbaijan Moslem. In fact, Armenia was the first nation state, in 301 AD, to accept Christianity as the state religion.
Moreover Armenia has 'history' with Turkey over The Armenian Massacres of The First World War, regarded internationally as a genocide.. Some 1.5 million Armenians were killed, and many fled in what is regarded as the Armenian diaspora (to Syria and Lebanon and then beyond). Additionally, Armenia and Azerbaijan have a border with Georgia, itself not immune from conflict since the break-up of The Soviet Union.
So far, Turkey has been the one outside Power to intervene directly, providing its co-religionists in Azerbaijan with drones for military intelligence gathering and for use as an offensive weapon. If Armenia is seriously threatened then Putin may feel he has no option but to intervene on its behalf, and the escalation begins. Yet, recently, Putin has somewhat fallen out with the Armenian leadership as they have been courting The West. If there was to be such an escalation it might set the whole of The Caucasus alight. What did Bismarck once say, ' One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in The Balkans'. For Balkans read Caucasus?
The region has always proved a tinderbox for conflict from the earliest times. The Russian/Soviet Empire brought peace to the area as The Ottoman Empire declined and as Turkey, its successor state, was too weak to get involved. Those two facts no longer apply. In addition the emergence of modern day fundamentalist Iran poses a new sort of threat to political stability in the area.
This is not the first time, since The Fall of The Soviet Union, that fighting has broken out between the two countries, and over the same issue; there was a war between 1988-94, which cost 30,000 lives. A war eventually won by Armenia but with diplomatic and economic relations with Turkey only restored in 2009.
Since the collapse of The Soviet Union the population of Nagorno-Karabakh has declined to roughly 145 thousand, and is now overwhelmingly Armenian. In 1989 the population had stood at 192 thousand of whom 23% were Azerbaijanis. In 1991 the area voted to establish an independent state (unrecognised internationally). A situation Azerbaijan has never, of course, accepted. In a more recent referendum Nagorno-Karabakh voted to adopt the name of Artsakh.
Since the end of the first war in 1994, a ceasefire has held between the two nations, although there was limited fighting over four days in 2016, which saw the death toll in the hundreds. Armenian troops have remained in Nagorno-Karabakh, and adjoining areas, since the end of the war, and kept the corridor to Armenia open. It is the complete breakdown of this ceasefire which has led to the present conflict between the two countries. Opinions are divided on the reasons for this latest conflict. Azerbaijan is now, backed by Turkey, more militarily capable than before, the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, is decidedly nationalistic and populist. Russia has attempted to act as a mediator in its former territories but so far has not succeeded in the face of ramped up nationalist fervour on both sides; for example, Armenian President, Ilham Akiyev has said, 'We will continue to drive the invaders out of our land'.
Will a truce and ceasefire be achieved, and if so will it last? Will other countries be drawn into a wider conflict? Clearly Putin has other problems, such as the situation in Belarus, in Ukraine, and at home. Turkey enjoys flexing its muscles in its attempt to partly recreate the power of the old Ottoman Empire under the slogan of 'turkic peoples' (Azerbaijanis overwhelmingly fall into this category). Iran? Well Iran is a volatile and largely unpredictable element in all of this.
As they say, watch this space and pray that peace is somehow cobbled together.