Diversionary War in the South Caucasus

Jeremy Lennon. Jeremy is the International Rule of Law, Governance, and Security program intern at the McCain Institute for International Leadership for the Fall 2020 semester. Jeremy recently graduated with a degree in comparative politics and government and is interested in security, governance, and development in the former Soviet Union.

The recent flare-up of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh (or the “Republic of Artsakh,” depending on your ethno-nationalist affiliations) is unsurprising, but presents an opportunity to look at some of the factors that led to the renewed violence.

Nagorno-Karabakh is technically a region of Azerbaijan, although it has an ethnic Armenian majority. In 1988, the partially self-governing region of Nagorno-Karabakh tried to separate from Azerbaijan and attach itself to Armenia, but Moscow blocked this action. As the Soviet Union unravelled in 1991, the Armenian leaders in the region declared its independence from Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan launched a military offensive to regain control, and Armenia came to the breakaway region’s defense. By the time of the ceasefire in 1994, around 780,000 ethnic Azeris were displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions, and 250,000 Armenians were driven out of Azerbaijan. The war was marked by its brutality and atrocities against civilians by both parties.

“Visionary opportunism,” also known as ambition and cynicism, enabled post-Soviet rulers to recognize that the dismantling of the Union and its ensuing conflicts presented opportunities for them to consolidate their own power.[1] In Armenia and Azerbaijan, this took the form of political leaders embarking on their own missions of nationalist sausage-making by using the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as an organizing principle for their international and domestic politics.

In the late 1980s, Armenian intellectuals used pan-nationalism and Nagorno-Karabakh to mobilize the Armenian population for greater political autonomy. Around the same time, Azeri Politburo member Heydar Aliyev suddenly became an Azeri nationalist and used this position to consolidate a dictatorship in post-Soviet Azerbaijan funded by oil and gas exports. Successive Armenian political elites also tried, and have so far failed, to build their own tyrannies all while diverting public attention towards the conflict.[2]

National media in each country played up the “other’s” atrocities in order to rally people around their respective flag. The results have been predictable. While intermarriage between Azeris and Armenians was high in the USSR, now only 1% of Azeris and 10% of Armenians would approve of it.

Political leaders have continued to use the conflict as a political lightening rod, diverting attention away from other pressing domestic issues. In the two years after oil prices fell in 2014, Azerbaijan’s economy contracted by 50%. The Armenian economy was also hurt by the drop in the price of oil due to its reliance on the Russian economy. Predictably, President Ilham Aliyev (Heydar’s son and political successor) started relying more heavily on anti-Armenian rhetoric and began military posturing on the border. This in turn led to similar posturing by Armenia, and in 2016 a serious border skirmish broke out; fortunately, a ceasefire was implemented within a few days.

The most recent flare-up may be related to economic contractions due to COVID-19. Throughout 2020, rhetoric between Armenia and Azerbaijan has once again become more heated. Since Armenia’s latest revolution in 2018, the new political leadership has not been particularly effective in combating the country’s persistent corruption or increasing governing capacity. Economic growth was strong until the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a 5% economic contraction. Azerbaijan, still beset by low oil prices, has also suffered an economic recession. The moment was once again ripe for a small war to rally each country behind its respective political leader.

According to reports from the ground, it appears that Azerbaijan attacked first, at which point both Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh political leadership declared a general mobilization of their militaries, thus signaling their willingness to escalate. Azerbaijan did not issue a general mobilization, but what originally seemed to be reluctance to escalate the situation has since turned out to be a military strategy reliant on technological advantages.

It is unlikely that either country seriously wanted a wider war. Azerbaijan wanted to win control of disputed territories and Armenia wanted to maintain control; neither side was discussing marching on the other’s capital. This makes sense given that the more ambitious the war goals, the likelier it is that the war would require more resources and exacerbate the already poor displaced-persons situation. But once started, wars can become difficult to stop owing to domestic political considerations and military strategy (if the Armenian military retreated into Armenia without a ceasefire, would the Azerbaijani military have followed?). The most recent conflict was ended relatively quickly, but government figures indicate more than 5,000 troops were killed, in addition to an unknown number of civilians. And it is worth remembering that a series of skirmishes in 1991 turned into a catastrophic war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that left tens of thousands of people dead. Wars can escalate or stalemate in unpredictable ways and starting a war with a near-peer adversary is a poor strategy to fix long-term domestic issues.

Although I have focused on the domestic political causes of the conflict, one must not discount other important sources as well, such as the security dilemma between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and feelings of existential threat experienced by the former. This last point is compounded by Turkey’s seemingly unwavering support for Azerbaijan, as Armenians have not forgotten about the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenians during the First World War. Additionally, Russia has a hand to play in the region, although its goals are difficult to discern. It is unclear whether Russia wants to preserve the conflict as a way to maintain diplomatic leverage or whether it is simply trying to ease a volatile situation in its “near abroad.” In either case, Russia does act as a diplomatic balancer by maintaining economic relationships and selling arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Extreme nationalism, selective historical memory, cynicism, and poor domestic governance have rendered the South Caucasus ripe for manipulative warfare by political elites lacking noble intentions. The conflict distracts citizens from important questions. What would really help the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan: maintaining control of a strategically unimportant region with a weak economy and few natural resources, or focusing on fixing domestic issues by building rule of law, creating more functional political and bureaucratic institutions, and rooting out deep-seated corruption?

President Aliyev has shown scant interest in liberalizing his regime or surrendering his economic and political power. Although Armenian political elites have shown more interest in liberalization, the deep-seated dysfunction of Armenia’s political economy will likely relegate Armenia’s most recent revolution and push for reform to the same place as the other failed post-Soviet revolutions.[3] Toppling a would-be dictator is easier than fundamentally changing a dysfunctional system, and as the Armenian political leadership realizes this unfortunate fact, they are unlikely to forget that they can always try to fall back on ethno-nationalism for domestic political support. Given the anti-truce protests in Armenia and extreme pressure on the government by former officials and the protestors to resign, one can likely add revanchism to the tactics future leaders in the two countries will employ to rally their people around the flag.

[1] Stephen Kotkin, “Trashcanistan: A Tour through the Wreckage of the Soviet Empire,” The New Republic (15 April 2002): 31.

[2] Henry Hale, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014): 228-30.

[3] Henry Hale, Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014).

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