Azerbaijan’s Sept. 13 military strikes on Armenian border towns were just the latest reminder that “upper-handism” – the temptation to take full advantage of perceived military superiority – is alive and well in the south Caucasus. Armenia practiced “upper-handism“ for more than 20 years after its emergence as an independent state in 1991. With Russia’s backing, it enjoyed a military advantage over Azerbaijan that enabled it to maintain control not only over ethnic Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh, but also roughly 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. During this time, with rare exceptions, Yerevan showed no willingness to recognize Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The first signs that this was going to change became evident in 2016, when Baku initiated the first major clash with Armenia in years. It was called the four-day war, and Azerbaijan recovered a small amount of territory under Armenian control. Azerbaijan had spent the preceding and following years strengthening its military. A second clash followed in July 2020, but it was never clear which side had initiated it. But all of this was a prelude to the war in the fall of 2020 that Baku decisively won.
Since then, the shoe has been on the other foot. Upper-handism is alive and well in Baku. With strong diplomatic support from Turkey in that conflict, and ample supplies of Turkish and Israeli weapons, including drones, Azerbaijan quickly regained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the additional territory held by Armenia for nearly three decades. Azerbaijan’s latest maneuver would not have been possible without strong support from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as lethargy in Moscow. In the meantime, the European Union and the United States have been largely on the sidelines (even with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meeting this week in New York with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts), though constructive involvement could ease tensions all around.
In the diplomatic tango that followed the 2020 war, Armenian leaders in Yerevan have at times expressed a willingness to compromise – even as this remains a controversial matter in Armenian political circles — but Baku has insisted that any peace deal should focus on recognizing Azerbaijan’s territorial borders, which include Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, Baku does not currently appear ready to consider specific measures to provide safeguards for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. The latest outbreak of fighting, which reportedly has killed at least 286 people, might be interpreted as an effort to coerce Armenia to sign a peace agreement on Baku’s terms, or to not oppose a transportation corridor to connect most of Azerbaijan with Nakhichevan. (Armenian territory sits between Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan.)
Since the start of the 2020 war, Turkey has emerged as the most active and perhaps influential outside power in the region. Baku’s win in the 2020 war enhanced Ankara’s prestige in the region. Russia partly recouped when President Vladimir Putin, after initial failure, shut down the fighting with a ceasefire and appeared to strengthen his hand by placing Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yet those peacekeepers have been largely inactive during the occasional fighting that has broken out since the ceasefires, and that has been true this time as well. What is more, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), created by Moscow to provide security in the post-Soviet space, has also been inactive. CSTO members include Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Armenia, whose Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan heads the organization, convened a virtual meeting of the CSTO on Sept. 13, the day Azerbaijan conducted its strikes , and formally asked the CSTO to intervene the next day. The CSTO turned down the request.
Notably, the CSTO did provide troops to help restore order in Kazakhstan last January (Pashinyan was head of the organization at the time, too). The refusal of the CSTO (which really means Russia’s refusal) to help Armenia has not gone unnoticed in Yerevan. The CSTO justified its position by noting that a ceasefire had been established. But from Armenia’s point of view, Baku had launched new attacks – in violation of a previous ceasefire – and the CSTO did nothing.
Russian lethargy in this crisis is certainly a result of Armenia and the south Caucasus ranking lower in Moscow’s priorities at the moment, especially considering Putin’s sinking position in Ukraine. The Ukrainian military’s successful counteroffensive around Kharkiv follows its thwarting of the Kremlin offensive to “take all of Donbas” – two defeats for Putin. These defeats were amplified during Putin’s visit to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last week for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, where he publicly apologized to dictator-pal Xi Jinping of China for the way events are unfolding in Ukraine and received a scolding from Indian partner Narendra Modi for the same. Putin is likewise facing public criticism in Russia from both relatively liberal local officials calling for his resignation and ultra-hawks who want a major escalation of the war.
This means not only that Putin has less time and resources to deal with tensions in the south Caucasus, but that he has a specific reason for being less responsive to Armenia – Turkey’s Erdoğan. Turkey is not just a major player in the south Caucasus; it is also a player in Ukraine, which has benefitted recently both from Turkish drones and Erdoğan’s role in reaching the summer agreement on grain shipments from Ukrainian ports. Putin does not want Turkey to become an even greater supporter of Ukraine; so he takes no steps against Turkey’s regional client.
It is noteworthy that the United States and the European Union are largely absent from this crisis. Yes, Blinken issued a statement calling for a ceasefire, spoke with both Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, and then met with their top envoys this week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly opening. But the United States is not having the same impact as either Ankara or even Moscow. Partly as a response to this, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, long a supporter of Armenia, led a congressional delegation to Yerevan on Sept. 17, during which she condemned the Azerbaijan strikes.
Pelosi is likely hoping that her trip will spur the Biden administration to play a more active role in this crisis. Joe Biden last year became the first U.S. president to declare the World War I Ottoman-era massacre of Armenians as a genocide, and in this instance, the United States does have cards to play. Relations with Turkey’s Erdoğan remain strained, and he may well find value in improved ties with Washington.
The Biden administration could consider outreach to Erdoğan suggesting that greater cooperation both on Ukraine and the south Caucasus could lead to improved bilateral relations. In the Caucasus, such cooperation would work to prevent further violations along the Armenia/Azerbaijan border and to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations. Such cooperation also could include regional economic cooperation, which Baku too would find attractive.