The Long, Forgotten War in Nagorno-Karabakh

The past year’s headlines have been hijacked by global conflict. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Israeli reaction to Hamas in Palestine. These two major wars have dominated. Yet a major, long-running war that has endured for 35 years came to a head in September 2023 when the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh officially ended. This Armenian enclave in the midst of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus mountains has been a hot warzone from the final days of Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev started to notice the uneasy tensions in the self-governing oblast and as the USSR collapsed in its entirety the loose bonds of Soviet comradeship disintegrated. The first war in Nagorno-Karabakh between the Azeri and Armenians was between 1992-4 when fierce fighting was decided in favour of the Armenians. Tit-for-tat fighting has continued ever since with both sides accusing each other of ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide. A further mass outbreak of war occurred in 2020 with the Azeri coming out on top and at that point Russian intervention prevented all-out catastrophe but eventually, with only the Lachin corridor providing a bridge for the remaining Armenians, Azeri pressure led to a final military assault in September 2023 where the Armenian fighters were totally crushed and which led to the spontaneous migration of 100000 refugees, joining the previous 40000 who had fled in 2020. Only a fragment of the population remained and the territory, in effect, ceased to exist.

I campaign regularly here in Newport East for my local Labour political representative, Jessica Morden MP. Jessica has been out to the region and takes to heart the plight of the Armenians. She recently addressed the issue in Parliament. I was talking at length with Jessica and she said she takes a keen interest in that part of the world. The post-Soviet states are very much a hot topic in foreign affairs. I’ve been a member of Chatham House, a thinktank on international issues, for over a year now and we have touched upon this ‘frozen conflict’ several times. I thought that was long overdue an article so thought that I would do some research into Nagorno-Karabakh and try to pay scrutiny as to what lessons can be learned from this four decade war and to investigate how peace in the region can be effectively upheld.

The conflict has all the causal ingredients of what made it such a prolonged bloody affair. There are historical, ethic and territorial complexities. Territorially, Nagorno-Karabakh (Nagorno = Russian for ‘highlands’) is a mountainous regional isolated territory geographically within Azerbaijan yet the predominantly ethnic Armenian population identify with Armenia and sought protection from their ancestral root country which led to the international dispute when Azeri attempts to integrate the former oblast caused an Armenian military response. Armenia is the oldest Christian country and although it has a history of suffering, its people are strong and steadfast, a unique ancient tribe. The hurt of the Armenian genocide of 1915 when a million or so were brutally massacred by the Turks in World War I, leads to ongoing suspicion and tensions, in particular with Muslims. On the whole, throughout the conflict, Armenia has had the favour of Russia with a larger supply of materiel from the former Red Army. The Azeris have had influxes of foreign Islamic Jihadists from Afghanistan and also Chechnya, both areas who have had military disputes with the superpower Russia. We have two religions of the book, two distinct ethnic peoples, two different poles of support fighting it out. It seemed understandable with such varying beliefs that the conflict should be drawn out over a long period. Reconciliation has not been easy and this region is oft a forgotten corner of the Earth.

Cold War watchers have kept a close eye on affairs as it is a situation where Russia got to test its conventional weapons. Seemingly, the Russians have been in no rush to close down the war and although they favour the Armenians the have readily supplied both sides. It is a hot zone away from prying Western Eyes and as long as it never tumbled over into other post-Soviet territories it was like a post-Red Army playground. Only when they stepped in during the bloody conflagration in 2020 did they force a peace upon the conflict. When you look at the situation in Ukraine it is seemingly ironic to hear the phrase ‘Russian Peacekeepers.’ In witnessing the treaty at that time as a third party they were committed to providing a peacekeeping force which as we will see later contained mainly merits of its own. The withdrawal of tacit Russian support weakened Armenia and lent the impetus to the Azeris in concluding the war against Armenia with one final push in September 2023. The mass exodus of refugees and fragile peace leave a lot of unanswered questions.

Azerbaijan was the military strong side after the dissipation of previous Russian military support for Armenia. The problem now is whether the Azeri will settle on just freeing the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. As the fleeing Armenian refugees cleared out of the mountainous enclave, focus turned on a second Russian-guaranteed corridor. The Azeri, since 2020, had ceded the Lachin corridor for humanitarian reasons to the Karabakh Armenians, to link them with their ancestral homeland. There is a mirror dispute of an Azerbaijani enclave within Armenian territory. The ‘Zangezur Corridor’ links Azerbaijan with its exclave, Nakhchivan. This route passes along the border with Iran and enters Armenia. The Russians, in acting as peacekeepers, aren’t stupid. Their military ‘peacekeeping’ forces are doing opportunist business and in protecting the area they gain access direct to Iran for their oil pipelines and also have a free reign of movement for other trade in a contested territory. Even down to black market boiled sweets, made by Russian soldiers, for fleeing refugees, these Russian soldiers are capitalizing on the refugee market.

Russia usually back the underdogs, ‘de facto’ State, in post-Soviet conflicts (with the exception of Chechnya). Here they have eventually backed the strong man. In accepting the military victory of Azerbaijan, they ease tensions with NATO Turkey who have supported Azerbaijan throughout. Indeed the U.K. government have been heavily criticised by Armenia and the Armenian diaspora for their own siding with Turkey. It is diplomatically awkward for London to recognise the tragedy of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and to commemorate it properly as it irks the Erdogan regime, and they value trade over historical justice and human rights  for a massacred people. Will the Karabakh Armenians in exile become a Palestine-like people, seeking out a return of their displaced homeland? Unless the international community sort it out the Caucasus will not see a lasting peace.

The West and the United Kingdom can seize on the status quo and bring Armenia away from the CTSO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) and Russian sphere of influence and towards the EU or NATO. Armenia could be a vital strategic ally for the West in any potential conflict with either Russia or indeed Iran as it is so strategically located. It is tricky to diplomatically negotiate with Turkey due to the historic enmity, yet it is wall overdue that the U.K. government recognise the Armenian genocide when Turks massacred the traditional Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, one of the slurs cast upon their enemy by Azerbaijan was that Armenia is not a true Nation-State as it has ceded its traditional land already. Jessica spoke of the cultural genocide in the disruption of ancient religious buildings and artefacts by the conflict and indeed important cultural treasures were destroyed by both sides during the conflict. Displaced persons have been the result of the many years of fighting again in tandem with civilians feeling the brunt of the ethnic cleansing. How can trust be built for the Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh and will the Azerbaijan government’s security guarantee stand tall in the test of time? I would argue that the presence of an international Peace force under the UN could be the only real lasting solution to peace as it could be quite easy to completely isolate the native inhabitants as was shown in the cutting off of the Lachin corridor preceding the final assault of September 2023. Indeed, the Karabakh Armenians demonstrated that they would prefer to starve to death than deal with their Azeri territorial masters. The spontaneous evacuation and migrant train also showed the solidarity and strength of unity by this struggling, war-ravaged population.

France have contributed 27.5 million Euros in humanitarian aid to the displaced Armenian population. The European Union has matched this with a further 17.5 million Euros. Britain has coughed up a measly £1 million pound for the humanitarian cause. This was brought up in the Parliamentary debate. Indeed, it has been mentioned that perhaps we should be offering a Ukrainian style resettlement program to victims of the conflict, offering resettlement schemes for refugees in the United Kingdom.  Most certainly, an impoverished Armenian State is struggling to bear the burden of the refugee influx. About 1 in 30 of their population is now a Karabakh Armenian conflict refugee and the weak economy is struggling to absorb the newcomers and life seems very bleak. To return to a questionable security in a damaged homeland – is this the only option open to these people? Maturity in diplomacy will be essential in order for a lasting peace yet the democratic forces may call into question the final outcome of the conflict and with Azeri pressure on Armenia itself now it is unsure exactly how fragile peace actually is. Should the Ukrainian conflict continue to rage and maybe expand the Nagorno-Karabakh war is a tinder box, just waiting to burn back into action.

The U.K. government needs to up its game and offer a sensible amount of money to the humanitarian crisis. Diplomacy can advise on securing lasting peace in the Caucasus. The aftermath of conflict is never easy and often it is difficult to extinguish the lasting animosity between enemies. Any peace will be drawn out as, for one, the minefields separating both sides render much land totally unusable. An international force needs to assist in dismantling this human rights risk. An adult approach is required to gently seek the necessary rapprochement between former enemies. Does hope exist for Nagorno-Karabakh? It is our duty to keep a watchful eye on this forgotten zone in order to deescalate future risk.

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