Nagorno Karabakh Independence Fight Sends Caucasus Region on the Brink of War

Several days ago, Nagorno-Karabakh’s army conducted maneuvers and practiced counter-offensive drills. Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory with a population of about 140,000, has been at the center of a frozen conflict in the South Caucuses. Most recently, the Armenian-populated Karabakh’s army exercises followed Azerbaijan’s large-scale maneuvers in July. 

While Karabakh's Ministry of Defense is trying to remain calm, anxiety is growing in Washington, DC over the renewed conflict.

First, some history: In July 1921, the Bolshevik Party’s Caucasian bureau adopted two conflicting decisions. First, it assigned Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Armenia, but changed its mind within 24 hours under Stalin’s pressure, and adopted a new decision to form an autonomous district with an Armenian-populated region within Soviet Azerbaijan. Throughout the following decades, tensions have risen and eventually resulted in a full-blown war. With some 30,000 dead and more than a million displaced, a ceasefire was established in 1994, with Armenians controlling the majority of the former Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous district, plus several adjacent regions, which are largely referred to as a “buffer zone.” Since then, peace negotiations have been led by the United States, Russia, and France, the Co-Chairs of the Minsk Group, which was created in 1992 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to help settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Although Nagorno-Karabakh has proclaimed its independence, it is not recognized by any country. The State Houses of Rhode Island and Massachusetts adopted resolutions supporting Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s independence in May and July of 2012, respectively, thus opening a new chapter in Karabakh’s efforts to gain international attention. During the past years, Karabakh has adopted a constitution, opened offices in several countries, including the U.S., France, Russia, and Germany, and elected three presidents. The incumbent president Bako Sahakyan was reelected in July. However, about 20 years of peace negotiations have resulted in no peace. And no war.

In recent years, tensions have escalated. Baku’s military budget is nearing four billion, although some claim Baku artificially inflates the number, including its spending on police and even reconstruction of the courthouses, into its military budget list.

However, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Azerbaijan ranked first in the world in its increase of its military spending in 2011 – 88%. Armenian’s military spending is about $400 million annually. 

This growing military budget, along with almost routine ceasefire violations, has exacerbated the arms race and may contribute to another Caucasian war. 

According to Russian analyst Aleksander Khramchikhin, “the likelihood of a new war in NK reached 99.99%.” The mediators continue to appease the parties amid anxiety. Washington-based analysts Jeff Mankoff (CSIS), Stephen Blank (SSI), Thomas de Waal (Carnegie foundation), Jeff Goldstein (OSI) as well as the officials at the Department of State and White House have called the parties to refrain from a military solution.

The newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, mentioned during his meeting with the U.S.-Azerbaijani community members: “peace in Karabakh will be beneficial for all parties.”