How Stable Are the South Caucasus? New Hostilities over Nagorno Karabakh?

01 March 2014

In a monthly Operational Environment Watch commentary, EFD Fellow Anna Borshchevskaya looks at conflicting viewpoints regarding Russia's involvement in a potential war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.


With the backdrop of the ongoing Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, a resort city north of Russia’s border with Georgia and along the Black Sea near the Caucasus, the Russian-language press discussed the possibility of a war breaking out in this neighborhood between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union crumbled, Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenians fought a war over the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh (literally, “mountainous black garden”) enclave inside Azerbaijan. The roots of the conflict are deep and go back to Stalin’s territorial divisions in the 1920s. 

The war, in which around 30,000 people died, ended with an uneasy truce in 1994, but without a formal peace treaty. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been working since 1992 to find a solution to the conflict through the so-called Minsk Group, currently co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States. The group has not reached a solution thus far. Some experts describe the situation as a frozen conflict, while others note that much is going on underneath the surface, and the situation is important to monitor. 

Russia’s role remains important. Experts disagree on Russia’s intentions and interests—some believe Russia is not interested in resolving the conflict and has effectively hijacked the Minsk Group. 

The first excerpt is from Kavkazskiy Uzel (Caucasian Knot), written by Memorial, a prominent human rights group that covered, among other things, human rights abuses in the North Caucasus. Kavkazskiy Uzel publishes viewpoints on current events in the Caucasus. In this excerpt the publication quotes political scientist Vahram Atanesyan, who believes Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed on a truce during the Sochi Olympics and that “major powers” (meaning Russia) are trying to ensure that hostilities do not break out by increasing their presence in the region. While he does not think hostilities are likely to break out soon, he adds that it is important to remember that the Olympics will end.

The second excerpt is from Erkramas, a newspaper for Armenians in Russia. Published since 1996, Erkramas won several prizes for journalism in Russia. It reprinted an abbreviated version of an article by analyst Aleksandr Khramchikhin, who believes a new war over Nagorno Karabakh is practically guaranteed. He believes Russia is ensuring that Azerbaijan gains the necessary offensive and defensive weapons to start hostilities. 

While Russia, indeed, began to sell weapons to Azerbaijan in late January, it also pulled Armenia even closer into its sphere of influence by pressuring it to join the Russian-led Customs Union. Armenia is Russia’s closest ally in the South Caucasus, and an agreement was reached for Russia to extend its military presence in Armenia until 2044. 

The South Caucasus remains a strategically important region. It is important to monitor the development of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, especially after the Olympics. 


This article was originally published here.