Given all of the hullabaloo surrounding Russia’s plans to begin flying its bombers over the Gulf of Mexico and the movement of Russian tanks, artillery, and combat troops into Ukraine, it is only too easy to forget about the long-frozen conflicts of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Faced with what could turn into a painfully hot (and, some argue, possibly nuclear) fight in eastern Ukraine, the world can hardly be blamed for dropping the 20 year-old disputes involving South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Transnistria, or Nagorno-Karabakh in favor of this seemingly much more urgent and dangerous clash.
That is not to say that ignoring these frozen conflicts is an especially good idea, however. In particular, there appears to be a growing chance that the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding regions is thawing rapidly and may very well combust in the relatively near future. On Wednesday, Azerbaijani forces shot down a Mi-25 helicopter from the self-proclaimed “self-defense forces” of Nagorno-Karabakh, reportedly killing three Armenian soldiers who were on board. This is the first time an aircraft has been shot down since Russia brokered a ceasefire in 1994. It also follows on the heels of the heaviest fighting the region has seen in years, with clashes from July 28-Aug 3 that killed at least 25 and wounded dozens more. While exchanges of fire are not uncommon, clashes this year have been more intense and more frequent than usual.
This video purports to show the Armenian helicopter shot down
Under the Soviet Union, the disputed territory was designated an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan. In the late 1980s, its predominantly ethnic Armenian population sought to formally join Armenia, triggering a 6-year war of secession that began in 1988 and killed some 30,000 people before the aforementioned ceasefire was negotiated and implemented. Although Nagorno-Karabakh unilaterally declared independence in 1991 and is run by ethnic Armenians, it is legally part of Azerbaijan and represents approximately 1/7 of the latter’s overall territory. The CSCE (now the OSCE) created the Minsk Group in 1992 (headed by France, Russia, and the United States) to encourage and facilitate a peaceful and negotiated resolution to the conflict, although their success has obviously been somewhat limited.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this conflict – and perhaps the primary reason that it remains unresolved 20+ years after it began – is the fact that, in many ways, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have put the possession of Nagorno-Karabakh at the center of their state-building efforts. Making any sort of concessions or compromise would represent the betrayal of a sacred national cause (see Thomas De Waal’s The Caucasus: An Introduction for more on this particular argument). Furthermore, the Caucasus as a whole has long been of interest to Russia, in its tsarist, Soviet, and modern-day incarnations. The Russian hand is thus often involved in the region, which may further complicate efforts to resolve the situation
A question thus emerges: to what extent (if at all) can the uptick in incidents (in terms of both number and intensity) be attributed to Russian influence? Armenia is almost completely dependent on Russian military support and highly subject to Russian economic influence (as illustrated by its decision to join Moscow’s Customs Union). Some hypothesize that Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine encouraged the Armenians to make another push for “reunification of Armenia’s historical lands” in the expectation that Russia would support them as well (although whether they stopped to verify the veracity of this belief seems unclear and even unlikely). Russia also seemed to box out its fellow Minsk Group co-chairs in bringing together the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to put a halt to the outbreak of violence earlier this summer. This gave it an opportunity to play peacemaker, but also to demonstrate how little influence the West has over the conflict. This could have an impact on how relevant regional actors behave in the future.
Despite its access and influence, however, Russia has not managed to prevent escalating tensions. The helicopter was shot down during Unity 2014 military drills in Nagorno-Karabakh, including 17,000 Armenian troops and some 30,000 soldiers from Nagorno-Karabakh. While this incident is by no means very likely to trigger a return to full-on war, the rhetoric surrounding the incident is discomforting to say the least. Azerbaijan claimed that the helicopter attempted to open fire on Azeri forces, and decorated the soldier credited with shooting it down. Meanwhile, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh argued that the helicopter was on a training mission and Yerevan threatened, “consequences for this unprecedented aggravation of the situation will be very painful for the Azeri side.”
On the whole, then, while the crisis in Ukraine is undoubtedly the hottest conflict in the area, ignoring older “frozen” conflicts risks allowing a conflagration to sneak up while we’re looking the other way.