The Nagorno-Karabagh Conflict: Implications on US-Turkey Relations

By THO Fellow, S. Suha Cubukcuoglu

Amid twists and turns of a chaotic 2020, shifting geopolitical sands gave rise to an otherwise unlikely re-shuffle in the 26-year conflict of Nagorno-Karabagh. The landlocked autonomous region in Azerbaijan, home to Muslim Turkic Azeris and Christian Armenians, has been a crisis spot at the center of a multi-dimensional conflict over exertion of geopolitical influence, control of energy routes, and viability of competing nationalist agendas. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 accelerated a series of events that culminated in an armed conflict between Azerbaijan and the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabagh from 1992 to 1994. The uprising group demanded union with the government in Yerevan, which backed the breakup faction militarily and financially. Although the region’s self-proclaimed independence was never recognized by any country, Armenian government forces occupied Nagorno-Karabagh in 1992, killing an estimated 30,000 ethnic Azeris and displacing 1 million people from their homes. Since the ceasefire in 1994, the conflict remained frozen under auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)/Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, the US, and Russia, to find a peaceful solution.

Nagorno-Karabagh Region and the Ceasefire in 2020

As one of the most intractable conflicts of contemporary age, the situation presents a puzzle for settlement of the territorial dispute around multinational, regional, and ethnic lines as well great power politics. From a realist perspective, evidence says that the quest to maximize security against aggression leaves no further room for cooperation among conflicting states to realise potential shared gains in disputes over territory. [1] Indeed, the distributive nature of the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict is particularly prone to overshadow potential gains in efficiency, to create irreconcilable differences, and to reward zero-sum bargaining that lends little to no space for mutually beneficial arrangements, even if placed under the light of established international institutions like the OSCE. It would be an illusion to think that the stability of the equilibrium since 1994 would last forever. Persistent hostilities even after the ceasefire perpetuated different mental images of capabilities, the logic of consequences, and misperceptions around underlying interests. Diplomatic non-recognition between Azerbaijan and Armenia created barriers to communication and reinforced balancing maneuvers and coalitions on each side to ensure security. Azerbaijan aimed to recapture the territory lost in 1994 and Armenia pushed back as the victor of the pervious war to maintain the status-quo. The main determining factor to end hostilities would be the military balance of power. In particular, Azerbaijan would prefer punishment to appeasement against Armenia and start building up its offensive arsenal with sophisticated weapons such as drones, smart munitions, and precision-guided missiles. In the latest round of armed hostilities since September 2020, the Azeri campaign annihilated 80% of the Armenian Army and forced it to sign a capitulating withdrawal agreement in November 2020, brokered by Russia. The US and France have been excluded from the process altogether. The leadup to the decisive 44-day war and consequences of the settlement are outcomes of a complex web of interrelated political interests, perceived insecurity, energy economics, and regional diplomacy. These crucial contributing factors make it a complex case that requires analysis at multiple layers.

From a liberal institutionalist perspective, the OSCE’s mission would be “to create constructive political dialogue about shared values, to bridge differences, and to build trust between states by post-conflict rehabilitation”. Supposedly, its multilateral framework would overcome information asymmetries, uncover opportunities for cooperation, and facilitate institutional order-building to create the necessary conditions for a negotiated settlement. The mission’s mandate would be to reconcile disputant parties under an “agreement on the cessation of the armed conflict” in order to permit the convening of the Minsk Conference and reaching a definitive peace resolution. Unfortunately, the reality turned out to be different. Far from instituting values of morality, higher authority, and universal rules for governance, the OSCE lost its relevance in this conflict due to a pervasive and enduring sense of grievance on both sides even after 26 years of de-facto stability. Its multilateral efforts remained ineffective in comparison to side-agreements coordinated under the Russian-Turkish initiative. Taking advantage of the US election season and its pivot away from the region to the Asia-Pacific, plus France’s embroilment in multiple conflict theaters, Azerbaijan bypassed the OSCE/Minsk Group and received Turkey’s military support along with Russia’s tacit approval to counter-attack and liberate Nagorno-Karabagh from Armenian occupation. This perhaps not-so-surprising outcome presents several important lessons and policy prescriptions for future direction.

First, the geopolitical shift is in Turkey’s and possibly NATO’s favor. For the first time in over a hundred years, the Turkish army re-entered Southern Caucasus through a joint peace-observation mission with Russia, which means NATO is also in the picture now. The US president-elect Joe Biden favors multilateralism and liberal internationalism over hard-power intervention to support the US foreign policy agenda. Washington’s offshore balancing and selective engagement strategy elevated Turkey’s and Israel’s status in countering Russian and Iranian influence in the region. On one hand, while Turkey remains a key NATO ally under Article 5 protection of the US nuclear umbrella, the Nagorno-Karabagh case presents an opportunity for rapprochement between Ankara and Tel-Aviv, in addition to potential cooperation over maritime rights and energy in the Mediterranean. On the other hand, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “Grand Chess Board” theory that assigns Turkey a subsidiary role in the “Green Belt” to counter-balance Russia in the Black Sea, Caucasus, and Balkans seems to be out of fashion in Ankara. For several years, Turkey has taken a more nuanced position between the Euro-Atlantic/NATO alliance and the Eurasian world to achieve its geopolitical goals. Certainly, the binary logic of the Cold War era appears to be a thing of the past. This is a complex world of confrontations and conflicts rather than one of war and peace. Issue-based, transactional partnerships in regional, localized conflicts are increasingly the new norm.

Second, due to its location, harsh climate, and rocky terrain, Armenia is unsuitable for cultivation and it depends on land borders for import/export trade. Georgia and Iran are practically its only outlets to the world. If Armenia can uphold the negotiated settlement and embark on a path to normalize its relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, this would create an enormous opportunity for regional trade and economic integration. In terms of commercial liberalism, empirical evidence from past cases shows that the causal arrow between trade and peace goes in the opposite direction. Azerbaijan is an energy-rich OPEC member country, a major exporter of oil and gas with a GDP ($40 billion) three times larger than Armenia’s. Despite the opportunity for cross-border trade, there is no evidence elsewhere in the world that trading in energy, for instance, is an incentive for regional peace. Rather, trade reflects existing peaceful relations; it does not create them. [2] Azerbaijan buys Turkish and Israeli high-tech weaponry, and it sells gas over TANAP pipeline to Turkey and oil over Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to Israel. Sustaining the cease-fire deal over Nagorno-Karabagh and reaching a final peace settlement would help bring Armenia out of its current economic isolation, open a vast regional market to tap in, and connect it to the land-corridor from Azerbaijan to Central Asia for an alternative route to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Finally, the present situation brings into discussion how multilateral institutions should evolve to organize around a more inclusive structure in order to mitigate negative impacts of asymmetric power relations and more effectively deal with contemporary conflicts involving complex factors in gray zones. Ultimately, war is ex-post inefficient: [3] Both countries are back to where they were in 1991 in terms of territorial control, but suffered tremendous losses, in lives, money, and equipment, for nothing. If institutions fail to promote shared values and transcend historical enmities, then the fate of League of Nations in the interwar period of 1919-1939 as a mere façade for aggressive designs in the background is a guarantee for what is to come. In a vacuum of collective action and effective institutions, transnational religious ideologies and lobbying groups are more likely to fill the gap and define people’s interests on their behalf, as in the case of Armenian lobbies in the US and France. Reconciliation of differences amongst conflicting parties can be achieved through inclusive dialogue for just, equitable, and peaceful resolution. The OSCE/Minsk Group should re-evaluate its mission, adapt to changing global circumstances, and reform its ability to render peace-making mission in the Caucasus more effective.

[1] Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1977).
[2] Brenda Shaffer, “Natural Gas Supply Stability and Foreign Policy,” Energy Policy 56, no. C (2013): 114–25.
[3] James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995): 388.