On July 12, the Azerbaijani village of Aghdam in the Tovuz district, nestled along the border with Armenia, was shelled by Armenian forces. This incident led to the deaths of four Azerbaijani soldiers. In the subsequent days, a number of skirmishes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces killed dozens of civilians and soldiers on each side.
As expected, both sides blame the other for the flare-up in hostilities. Due to the remoteness of the region and usual lack of transparency by both sides in the conflict, specific details remain unknown.
Since 1988, when Armenia made territorial claims to Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, the two sides have been in a protracted conflict. Sometimes the bullets are flying; at other times the front lines are relatively calm. Over the years, the conflict has been allowed to fester with no resolution in sight.
The war in the early 1990s was a bloody affair. By 1992, Armenian forces and Armenian-backed militias had occupied almost 20 percent of Azerbaijan, including the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven surrounding districts. Millions of ethnic Azeris were kicked out of their homes and now live as internally displaced people. Tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis were killed. As is the way with war, atrocities were committed by both sides.
A cease-fire agreement was signed in 1994 and the conflict has been described as “frozen” since then. However, four days of intense fighting in April 2016 left 200 dead. In early summer 2018, Azerbaijani forces successfully launched an operation to retake territory around Gunnut, a small village strategically located in the mountainous region of Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. These two incidents marked the only changes in territory since 1994.
Among international policymakers, especially in the West, a Nagorno-Karabakh “fatigue” has set in. Most policymakers shy away from the topic, believing that it is a local problem. This is naive in the extreme.
Far from being just a localized conflict watched with curiosity by many on social media, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is actually a tangled web of competing geopolitical interests from across the region, including Russia, Iran and Turkey.
The risk of the war spilling over is real for two reasons. Firstly, there are regional powers playing a role behind the scenes. Top of this list is Russia. This conflict offers another opportunity for Moscow to exert influence and consolidate power in the region. While its sympathies lie with Armenia, Russia is the largest supplier of weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It also uses the instability in the region as an excuse to base more than 5,000 soldiers in Armenia, including with advanced armaments, air defense systems, and artillery.
Iran’s closeness with Azerbaijan’s archenemy Armenia also makes Baku nervous. During the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s, Iran sided with Armenia as a way of marginalizing Azerbaijan’s role in the region. In 2019, Armenian-Iranian trade hit a record high. And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said during a visit to Armenia last year: “We attach great importance to developing and expanding relations with our friend and neighbor Armenia in all areas.”
Of course, for historic and cultural reasons, Turkey and Azerbaijan are very close. It has even been suggested that Russia decided to turn up the heat in the South Caucasus as a way to divert Turkish attention from places like Syria and Libya. With the amount of sway Moscow holds over Yerevan, this is completely possible.
It does not take a great imagination to see how this local conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan could quickly become a regional one.
The second reason why the conflict might spill over is the location of the most recent fighting. The village of Aghdam is mere kilometers from major oil and gas pipelines connecting the Caspian region in the heart of the Eurasian landmass to European and international energy markets.
Looking at a map, one can see that there are only three ways for energy and trade to flow overland between Europe and Asia: Through Iran, Russia or Azerbaijan. With relations among the West, Moscow and Tehran in tatters, that leaves only one viable route for hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of trade — through Azerbaijan.
This small trade corridor, only 100 kilometers wide, is known as the “Ganja Gap” — named after Azerbaijan’s second-largest city and old Silk Road trading post Ganja, which is located in the region. The district where most of the recent fighting took place is right in the middle of the Ganja Gap.
Currently, there are three major oil and gas pipelines that crucially bypass Russia and Iran and pass through the Ganja Gap: The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the Baku-Supsa pipeline, and the Southern Gas Corridor. Fiber optic cables linking Western Europe with the Caspian region also pass through the Ganja Gap, as do an important motorway and rail link. Clearly, a major breakout in fighting could threaten the security of the Ganja Gap.
Russia knows that every ounce of oil and gas that Europe imports from the Caspian region reduces its influence. If Russia wanted to use Armenia to turn up the heat in the region, there would be no better place to do so than the Ganja Gap.
It does not take a great imagination to see how this local conflict could quickly become a regional one.
Although it is not clear which side started the most recent episode of fighting, in the bigger picture this hardly matters. At the end of the day, it is still Armenian forces that are located on territory that the international community recognizes to be Azerbaijan’s. It was Armenia that invaded Azerbaijani territory in the early 1990s, not the other way around.
Until Armenian forces fully withdraw and Azerbaijan is able to restore sovereignty over its territories, this conflict will remain like the Sword of Damocles hanging over some of the most crucial oil and gas pipelines in the world.
Policymakers should not ignore the fighting, thinking it is a local problem. On the contrary, the international community should work together to find a lasting solution to this 32-year-old conflict. And the sooner the better.
- Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey