PUNE: How does one analyse an international conflict in which the world seems to lose its rationality, traditional alliances, and relationships? India too finds itself on the horns of this dilemma in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which is essentially a fight between Azerbaijan and Armenia. That is the story of the conflict in which most countries are caught between an ethical dilemma on one side and national interests on the other. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh is a beautiful piece of territory in the Caucasus mountain region between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Since 1921, after the conquest of Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh remained an autonomous region within Azerbaijan territory. The Caucasian region has a long history which has seen many dynasties and rulers ruling the beautiful region which was called Artsakh those days. The Nagorno region has a majority of Christians, with Turkish Muslims in the minority.
Contrary to this, Azerbaijan has a majority Muslim population, with Christian and Jews as citizens too. Azerbaijan has a secular constitution. What has gone wrong? The article tries to understand the reason for the current conflict and the strategic dilemma that confronts India and the world.
In the 19th century, the Russian emperor conquered the lands of Armenia and Azerbaijan from the Turkish Khanate rulers and included them in Russia. After the Russian revolution and formulation of the Soviet Republic, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were merged into the union as two states. The region of Nagorno-Karabakh remained in Azerbaijan with an autonomous status. The ethnic population of Armenians protested for greater autonomy but under the Soviet rule, there was no resolution of their demands. It was only in the late-1980s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union became inevitable, that the regional parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh declared itself independent. The Azerbaijan government tried to suppress the separatist movement while the Armenians backed it. In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries. The conflict for independence in the Nagorno region intensified into a full-scale war between the two newly formed neighbouring countries. It was a bloody conflict which led to the displacement of millions of Azeris from the Nagorno region to Azerbaijan and vice-versa. By the time the ceasefire was brokered by the France-led (USA & Russia other members) Minsk Group in 1992, Armenian armed forces had seized control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and several districts around it, nearing 14 per cent of former Azerbaijan’s territory. The ceasefire brought a temporary halt to the fighting but left a major problem simmering. The region was named the Republic of Artsakh: Nagorno-Karabakh. However, no treaty was signed and it remained part of Azerbaijan, as was during the Soviet rule. The ceasefire held for a while, yet intermittently there were conflicts with casualties on both sides. However, no major conflict ensued until 2016. The conflict reflected the dissatisfaction felt by the people of the republic for not being recognised either by the UN or any other country. As per Russia, the region remained part of Azerbaijan. Thus, even Armenia has not recognised Nagorno as an independent state. What was the compulsion for Russians not to grant it independence when the Soviet Union disintegrated? The reason could be none else other than its history. Two wishes haunt Nagorno-Karabakh people; first, it has been an autonomous region for almost 100 years and thus cannot cede to any other country, and it wants a dispensation which is friendly to its majority population.
Why has this become difficult? For many reasons: first, Azerbaijan has lost territories to the separatist forces of Nagorno-Karabakh backed by Armenian armed forces. If Azerbaijan wants these districts back, it would have to give up claim on Nagorno region, which the Azerbaijanis are in no mood to concede. Second is a more critical and strategic reason. In the newly found geostrategic importance, Azerbaijan finds itself on the energy map of the world. While Armenia has remained impoverished in comparison, Azerbaijan has flourished, thanks to the presence of oil fields in its onshore and offshore areas of Caspian Sea. Baku, the capital city, was known for its energy resources since the 19th century (1828). After gaining independence from the Soviet Union, oil made Azerbaijan rich as it managed to build an economy around oil exports.
Furthermore, the third reason is the geostrategic location of Azerbaijan. As a landmass with Georgia, it bridges the continents of Europe and Asia. The geostrategic location with the availability of abundant oil has made Azerbaijan a country of strategic importance. The resultant divide has hardened the stance of the Armenians. Even Russia, which has a military base in Armenia, seems to cosy up with Azerbaijan. Turkey, along with most of the OIC countries, supports Azerbaijan. Iran has not interfered with the conflict but favours Armenia.
Strategic Importance Of Azerbaijan
Since the advent of the present century, the world has seen an unprecedented demand for energy resources. Most of the supply comes out of the Middle East. Reserves in the North Sea were insufficient to satisfy the demands of industrialised Europe. On the other hand, the gaining of independence from the Soviet Union gave new freedom to Azerbaijan to use its abundant oil and gas resources. Azerbaijan is among the top 25 oil-exporting countries as it exports 60 per cent of its produce. It was looking to export to the wealthy and needy markets of western Europe. At the same time, Europe was looking for a cheaper and faster source of oil and gas. The traditional route which the ships take to ferry oil from the Middle East was getting choked due to growing traffic and the bottlenecks of Suez and the Mediterranean. An alternate land route from the north would solve many of their woes. Thus, oil companies found consortiums to lay pipelines across the central Asian republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia. The littoral states of Caspian sea, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan laid underwater sea pipelines through the Caspian Sea up to Baku from where the oil from their oil fields was shipped to Europe via Azerbaijan Georgia and Turkey. The BTC ( Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) pipeline, a project undertaken by BP (British Petroleum) with ten other companies was the answer to a new outlet into Europe via Turkey. This pipeline broke the Russian monopoly in the supply of energy and opened up options for many countries to join this consortium to export their oil. Importantly, this pipeline linked up the flow of oil from Caspian sea to the black sea and the Mediterranean ports.
An independent country to its north allowed Iran to use the Azerbaijan-Georgia passage to reach Russia as a transport corridor. Thus, was born the International North-South Transport corridor, of which India is one of the members. This alternative route for energy and logistic transportation cut down cost and travel time by almost half.
The newly found importance of the Caucasian region has seen all major powers scampering to find their respective bases. Thus, the U.S., Russia and China are wooing Caucasian countries into their fold. Turkey, the new player, is not in the same league, yet it wants to assert itself in the Muslim world and finds a natural ally in Azerbaijan being an old Ottoman-ruled country. Iran is not too happy about Turkey in this region and thus would do anything to see Turkish influence wane even if it means cosying up to Armenia, a Christian nation and not its Shia brethren. Russia too is wary of Turkish influence in the region and hence cautious when setting its foreign policy for the region. Israel finds old reasons to support Azerbaijan. Such is the cocktail of alliances in the Caucasian region.
Where Does India Stand?
Armenia and Azerbaijan are a long distance from India and they hardly stir the imaginations of Indians as China and Pakistan do. Moreover, there is no declared policy of the Indian government in the Caucasian region. The explanation given above to a large extent, has laid sufficient grounds for India to be aware of the geostrategic reality of the region. It is in nobody’s interest to let the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan fester. Instability in the region is bad for the world economy. It’s for this reason that all countries outside the region are calling for ceasefire and peace. Yet, the situation does not seem to improve in Nagorno-Karabakh as in this conflict Armenia has little to lose compared to Azerbaijan. Armenia is the only country with whom India has a Friendship and Peace treaty signed in 1995, in contradiction Azerbaijan has been bad news. It has not only sided with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue but also actively promoted it. It has allied with Turkey, the latest bad boy in the NATO alliance, which is becoming increasingly belligerent towards India. India has peripheral trade with Azerbaijan, ONGC has made a small investment in the oil fields of Azerbaijan and GAIL is exploring the possibility of some cooperation in LNG. Nevertheless, the criticality lies in the International North-South Transport Corridor, a project which India has actively pursued with Iran, which passes through Azerbaijan. The North-South corridor is critical to India’s strategic needs of approaching Russia and Central Asian republics. Thus, the importance of Azerbaijan for India.
Since no policy has been formulated, it would be appropriate to formulate a clear and national interest-based policy on the Caucasian countries. India has not supported Armenia in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh for fear of compromising the status of Kashmir on the same principle. India has remained neutral and called for restraint and early resolution of the problem. It may be in India’s interest in engaging Azerbaijan in the immediate future to meditate in the matters with Armenia. Not that there is a shortage of mediators, yet India, which has long cultural ties with Armenia, could be useful in convincing the warring factions. A country as strong and influential as India will find a voice in Azerbaijan as there are similarities in the two countries. Both have a secular constitution and both are close to the U.S. and Russia. India is one of the fastest-growing economies and Azerbaijan can gain a lot from its association. Azerbaijan’s stance against India needs to be engaged and not contested. This way, India can neutralise the Pakistani propaganda and also gain from Azerbaijan economically. It is for this reason that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is a reminder for India’s foreign policy mandarins to engage the Caucasian countries in active diplomacy.
(The author is a former Artillery officer, headed College of Defence Management, one of the most prestigious training institutes of the Indian military, and is also a strategic affairs analyst. Views expressed in this article are personal.)