Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Outbreaks of new fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh are typically the result of domestic politics in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
This is more true in Baku, however, given that Yerevan has no strategic goals that would require the resumption of hostilities in the disputed territory.
Armenia effectively won the war in the early 1990s and today’s status quo suits Yerevan just fine. Military advancements in both countries also add tension to the conflict zone.
With each new round in an ongoing arms race (where Baku clearly wields greater resources), the Azerbaijani authorities have touted their apparent military superiority.
Baku likely hoped that Armenia’s new leaders who took power after a revolution in 2018 would agree to negotiate new terms in Nagorno-Karabakh.
These expectations were based in part on the fact that Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new prime minister, publicly supported a plan in the early 2000s to restore Azerbaijani control over areas captured by Nagorno-Karabakh Republican forces in the early 1990s (without surrendering Nagorno-Karabakh itself) in exchange for agreeing to talks about the self-declared republic’s status.
But this settlement, drafted by international mediators, is controversial in Armenia. When Levon Ter-Petrosyan endorsed the plan in 1997, it cost him his presidency.
Politicians who made their careers in Karabakh replaced him, and the so-called Karabakh party — which has dominated Armenian politics for the past 20 years — still categorically opposes any concessions to Azerbaijan.
When Pashinyan took office in 2018, it seemed Armenia’s political consensus might shift on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, but the new prime minister quickly demonstrated that he had no intention of changing course in the region.
Shortly into his tenure, Pashinyan visited Stepanakert (the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s capital) and proclaimed, “Karabakh is Armenia,” arguing that Yerevan “has no lands that can be given to Azerbaijan.”
Meanwhile, the collapse in world oil prices has precipitated an economic crisis in Azerbaijan (where the IMF predicts a 2.2-percent GDP contraction in 2020).
Four years ago, just before fighting last escalated significantly in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s economy similarly fell on hard times.
In the 2016 crisis, the Azerbaijani authorities tried to mobilize patriotic sentiment with a short, victorious military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh, seemingly in order to compensate for the hardships caused by falling oil prices.
In the four-day war, Azerbaijan “liberated” small tracts of land lost in the early 1990s.
Turkey might intervene this time
Turkey has been intervening in the conflict on Azerbaijan’s side since the early 1990s, but direct military involvement isn’t an option because it would challenge Yerevan’s defense pact with Moscow and defy diplomatic pledges made by Russia, the United States, and the European Union to prevent the resumption of large-scale fighting in the region.
Ankara has nevertheless waged a “hybrid war” against Armenia and used the same tactics to target Russia’s allies in the Middle East and Africa. These hostile actions have not, however, made it impossible to maintain decent relations with Russia.
For Turkey (which officials in Yerevan say redeployed its “proxies” from Idlib in Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh), the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is just another front in the same hybrid war it’s fighting in Syria and Libya.
Ankara may have several far-reaching goals:
Replace Russia as Azerbaijan’s main strategic partner by being ready to provide real support in a major conflict. Besides Afghanistan, Turkey is the only country that’s openly taken sides in the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh. Other states, including Russia, either refuse to discuss the issue or demand “an end to the violence and a return to the negotiating table,” effectively endorsing the status quo.
Ensure the safety of the BTE natural gas pipeline and the BTC crude oil pipeline which stretch from Azerbaijan to Turkey, passing near the border with Armenia (precisely where battles took place in July 2020). Ankara relies on the BTE pipeline as an alternative to Russian natural gas imports and represents a means of reducing its energy dependence on Moscow.
Make Nagorno-Karabakh a bargaining chip in Turkey’s geopolitical competition with Russia in northern Syria and Libya, where the partnership between Ankara and Moscow has become a dangerous rivalry over the past two years.