Definitely Not a Proxy War
On the morning of September 27, 2020, there was a clash along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, established after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War from (1988-1994). The Republic of Artsakh, situated in Nagorno-Karabakh, is a breakaway state supported by Armenia that is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan.
The region, which has been predominantly populated by Armenians, was claimed by both the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the First Republic of Armenia when both countries became independent after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1918. A brief war broke out over the region in 1920 until the Soviet Union regained control over the area. The Soviet Union then established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) within the reacquainted Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923. During the fall of the Soviet Union, from 1988-1991, conflict over the region reemerged. In 1991 a referendum was held in the NKAO with the region declaring independence. At this point, the region was still predominantly populated by Armenians. In the same year, we would see the First Nagorno-Karabakh War.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet Republics, would engage in violent conflict until 1994. International mediation by several groups including the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) failed to bring a resolution that both sides would agree upon. In early 1993, Armenian forces would capture seven Azerbaijani-majority districts outside the enclave itself. By the end of the war in 1994, Armenia was in full control of the enclave, in addition to surrounding Azerbaijani territories. Russia would ultimately step in again and establish a ceasefire that would be signed in May 1994.
Approximately one million people were displaced and 150,000 have died as a result of the conflict, with Azerbaijan taking the significant majority of the damage. After the end of the war, regular peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan were mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group in a vain attempt to establish a peace treaty. The Nagorno-Karabakh region was left in a state of limbo, with the Republic of Artsakh remaining independent but internationally unrecognized. Armenia had won the war but was never allowed to formally claim the land. The tension remained since the region, which was historically heavily populated by Armenians, was still recognized as a part of Azerbaijan under the previous declaration by the collapsed Soviet Union. With the land supported and heavily occupied by Armenia but recognized under Azerbaijan, it was ultimately inevitable that conflict would remerge, and it did in 2020.
In 2018, seven Armenian soldiers were killed by Azerbaijani gunfire. In July 2020, thirteen Azerbaijanis, five Armenians, and one civilian would be killed in clashes near Tavush. On September 16, an Armenian soldier would be killed along the border, and five days later an Azerbaijani soldier would also be killed. On September 27, serious clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh would re-erupt resulting in Armenia declaring martial law and military mobilization. On the same day, Azerbaijan’s Parliament would also declare martial law. It is believed that Azerbaijan took the offensive intending to take the less fortified regions in the south. There would be heavy deployment of drones, sensors, and missile strikes. Azerbaijan would take control of the city of Shusha, the second-largest settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh. After this, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, and the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Azerbaijan would gain the five cities, four towns, 286 villages, and the Iran border that it gained during the conflict, and all Armenian occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Direct land access to Nakhchivan via a land corridor through the Armenian providence of Syunik would also be granted. In addition, Russia would issue two thousand troops to maintain peace, though the country was later reported to have violated the agreement with the arrival of 5,000 peace-keeping troops.
After the extensive breakdown of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it’s time to analyze the third parties that were at hand. Turkey heavily supported Azerbaijan as expected. The two countries are often referred to as “two states, one nation.” Many attribute Turkey’s involvement as a revival of Neo-Ottoman policies which are defined as the attempt to recreate the reach the Ottoman Empire once had. Turkey’s role was also described as the continuation of the Armenian genocide, the mass murder of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. Turkey provided military support to Azerbaijan along with military experts and mercenaries. On top of this, the corridor granted to Azerbaijan would provide both countries with trade access to Central Asia and China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Another country under criticism is Israel. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published bank reports that revealed money transfers between the Israeli defense giant Israel Aerospace Industries and two companies suspected of money laundering for the Azerbaijani government. The transfers allegedly began a few months after a $1.6 billion arms deal was signed with the Azerbaijan regime in 2016. This relationship stemmed from an agreement that would allow Tel Aviv to use Azeri airports should it decide to carry out a military attack on Iran's nuclear installations. As we know the countries Iran and Israel are currently engaged in a proxy conflict and a cold war. With Iran being used by Russia during the conflict to import arms to Armenia it is easy to see why Azerbaijan would align with Israel.
China was actually an unseen breadwinner with this conflict. On April 25, 2019, China and Azerbaijan signed a document worth $821 million with the co-chair of the Azerbaijan-China Intergovernmental Trade and Economic Cooperation Commission, also the head of the Eurasia Department of the Ministry of Commerce. There was even a ceremony between Azerbaijani and Chinese companies held at the “One Belt One Road” international forum in Beijing. Looking back at what Azerbaijan earned from this conflict, we remember that they were granted land access through the Armenian Syunik province to Nakhchivan. This allows them to capitalize off of China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative.
There could be more to China’s interest. What we do know is that the Syunik province, where the land corridor will be constructed, is extremely mineral rich. Russia has been attempting to establish a uranium mining project with Armenia for the past two decades. Soviet era studies of the region estimated there could be approximately 60,000 tons of uranium within the landlocked country. In 2011, uranium fields were found in the Syunik region by Armenian-Russian Mining Organization CJSC. Mining projects never got off the ground due to heavy pushback by the inhabitants of the region concerned about the dangerous environment that mining would create. The company would face lawsuits and protests by independent organizations ultimately giving up and liquidating in 2015. The knowledge of the substantial uranium stores in the region remained. This means that the Syunik mine is a significant asset to whoever dominates the region.
Another coincidence is that the mandated 2,000 Russian peace troops, reported 5,000, secured the Syunik province according to Armenia’s Defense Ministry. Specifically, the statement says they will be securing a 21-kilometer area in the region which was defined as a “problematic area.” Now that the Russian’s have a base in this province they can establish a foothold and advantage for the known future. At the time of the statement 414 military personnel, 54 automobile units, eight helicopters and multiple unmanned aerial vehicles were delivered to Armenia. The Russians also plan to establish 16 observational posts to further ensure that they can maintain peace in the region.
In conclusion, the Nagorno Karabakh war was inevitable but the severity of the damage can be attributed to larger countries' use of this conflict as a chess match. The toll of this war was around 7,000 lives lost, 140,000 displaced, and substantial damage to infrastructure across the board. The future of the region is uncertain but what we do know is that a conflict of much larger proportions is developing given Russia’s foothold of Armenia, China's newly established access, and Iran and Israel's ongoing battle.