Winners and losers of the Second Karabakh War
After more than six weeks of hard fighting, a 27-year-old frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh was brought to an end last week. The roots of the conflict lie in the chaos that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Armenia had designs on an ethnically Armenian region of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh. Many of the ethnic Armenians living there wanted to join Armenia or create an independent state. One thing led to another and a bloody war broke out. It ended with a shaky cease-fire in 1994 that left Armenia victorious and occupying huge chunks of what was internationally recognized as Azerbaijan’s territory.
For the most part, the cease-fire held. There was a small, four-day skirmish between the two sides in April 2016, during which Azerbaijan took back a small amount of territory. However, until the most recent fighting began in September, the front lines had remained mostly stable since 1994.
So who are the winners and losers of the Second Karabakh War?
Without a doubt, Azerbaijan is the biggest winner because it liberated its internationally recognized territory, which had been under Armenian occupation since the early 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, who were forced out of their homes almost three decades ago, will now get to return. However, this will take years to happen. There has been a massive amount of destruction to towns and villages in the region, which will first have to be rebuilt.
Russian peacekeepers will be stationed in some parts of Nagorno-Karabakh with sizable ethnic Armenian populations, and this must have been a bitter pill for Baku to swallow. However, it is expected that Azerbaijan will enjoy the trappings of sovereignty in the region, including the use of the manat as currency, responsibility for law enforcement, and the Azerbaijani flag flying over government buildings.
Russia is also a winner because it will deploy that small peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is something it has wanted to do since the cease-fire in the early 1990s. Russia considers the South Caucasus to be within its natural sphere of influence. The way Moscow views the situation in the region is that every soldier with boots on the ground enhances the Russian influence there.
Baku had little choice but to accept the Russian presence if it wanted to end the fighting and restore its international borders — but make no mistake, it only increased Moscow’s influence in the region. Also, if the presence of Russian “peacekeepers” in places such as Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova is any indication, it is likely that these soldiers are there to stay for the foreseeable future.
Iran is a loser because it has a new geopolitical reality on its northern border, in the form of an emboldened Azerbaijan and a weakened Armenia.
Turkey is a winner because the balance of power in the South Caucasus has shifted away from Moscow and closer to Ankara. For years, many commentators have been suggesting that there is a special rapprochement occurring between Ankara and Moscow. However, those who are following the situation more closely, and have a better understanding of history, know that Turkey and Russia’s natural state of affairs is one of competition and conflict. This is playing out in places such as Syria, Libya and even Ukraine. Azerbaijan’s recent success on the battlefield, and Ankara’s support for Baku, is the latest reminder of this.
Georgia is a winner, too — not in the outcome of the war, per se, but in the sense that Tbilisi succeeded in walking a diplomatic tightrope during the conflict and remained neutral. This prevented the fighting from spilling over the border. Many Georgians empathized, at least privately, with Azerbaijan’s position — after all, Armenia’s occupation of parts of Azerbaijan was no different from Russia’s illegal occupation of the Tskhinvali region (South Ossetia) and Abkhazia in Georgia. Georgian policymakers did a good job of balancing the emotions of empathy with geopolitical reality.
Iran is a loser because it has a new geopolitical reality on its northern border, in the form of an emboldened Azerbaijan and a weakened Armenia. The latter has enjoyed cozy relations with Tehran over the years. Relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are cordial but there are tensions beneath the surface about the sizable number of ethnic Azeris living in northern Iran. There is a constant low-level push for self-determination and increased autonomy for this Azeri minority. Although this has not escalated into a mass movement for independence, it still makes some in Tehran nervous.
Also, Iran will have to devote time, resources and troops to adjust to the new geopolitical reality along its border with Azerbaijan. This could mean less focus on other places, such as the Gulf and Syria.
Armenia, of course, is the biggest loser in the conflict, after suffering a massive military defeat. It is estimated that the country lost 40 percent of its military equipment, which was either destroyed or captured by Azerbaijan. The country has also been thrown into a political crisis, with growing street protests calling for the resignation of embattled, yet defiant, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. In addition, there has been an erosion of the trust between the people and their government that could take years to repair. This is because the government provided the public with a daily deluge of disinformation about Armenia’s “progress” during the war that turned out to be mostly lies. As a result, when Pashinyan agreed to surrender, seemingly all of a sudden, it caught a misinformed population by surprise.
Russia now has troops, either by invitation or occupation, in all three South Caucasus countries. Armenia has been thrown into political turmoil. Azerbaijan faces a massive reconstruction task. The implications of this shifting geopolitical situation for Iran are uncertain, while Turkey’s influence is on the rise. How the various winners and losers act in the coming years will determine the stability of the region. While the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has ended, the region is entering a new phase.
- Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey