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Geopolitical hotspot: Nagorno-Karabakh

The flag of Artsakh, also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic on an armoured personnel carrier The flag of Artsakh, also known as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic on an armoured personnel carrier
26 Oct
This week Tim Marshall turns his geopolitical lens to an unfurling conflict with long roots

The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh brings to mind Neville Chamberlain’s quote in 1938 about the Sudetenland: ‘A quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing.’ For most of us, that’s the case with Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian/Christian region situated inside Muslim-dominated Azerbaijan. 

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Happily, those who choose to remain ignorant of the conflict are unlikely to have to bone up on the political intricacies of this mountainous region in the southern Caucuses. Unlike Sudetenland, it’s unlikely to lead to a world war in a year’s time. However, the recent outbreak of fighting has highlighted that the threat of a wider regional war has never been more real. 

It’s all quite simple really...

Armenia backs Nagorno-Karabakh because it has an Armenian Christian population of 150,000 souls. 

 Azerbaijan, still angry that it lost half of its territory to Persia/Iran during the 1800s, isn’t about to cede any more territory. 

Turkey backs Azerbaijan and has an air base in the country. The Azeris speak a Turkic language and their government supplies natural gas to Europe via pipelines through Turkey, thus bypassing Russia.

Iran is sympathetic to Armenia. It suspects Azerbaijan is influencing Iran’s minority Azeri population to secede. Many Azeris in northern Iran refer to their region as ‘Southern Azerbaijan’. 

And Russia? For once it would like everyone to just get along because it wants stability in the Caucasus and has two military bases in Armenia. Moscow doesn’t want to get drawn in but wouldn’t tolerate an overt Turkish intervention. If pushed, it would side with its Armenian Slavic Orthodox brothers. 


The roots of this conflict go back centuries, predating even the Ottoman and Russian empires, both of which once ruled parts of the region. Armenia and Azerbaijan reemerged as nations from the wreckage of the First Wold War – each claiming Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow wasn’t having any of that small-time nationalistic nonsense. If there was nationalism to be done, it would be by the Soviets, for which read Russia. The Red Army invaded both countries, incorporated them into the USSR and declared Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous. Upon the break-up of the Soviet Union, we again saw declarations of independence from Azerbaijan and Armenia. Nagorno-Karabakh’s subsequent declaration of independence sparked war from 1992 to 1994. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the fighting, which ended with a self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh government based in Stepanakert. Armenian forces were in control of seven regions adjacent to it and hundreds of thousands of people fled persecution in both countries. 

There have been several outbreaks of fighting since, usually ended by Russian diplomatic intervention. What’s different now is the rise of Turkey as a regional power under President Erdoğan. He appears determined to establish overt influence in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. Where previously he called for calm (while funnelling arms to the Azeris), now he offers full support to Azerbaijan amid claims he’s sending mercenaries and even fighter jets to the front lines. 

This appears to have emboldened the Azeri president, Ilham Aliyev, to finally end the stalemate by military means. There are several flashpoints to watch for. About 17,000 ethnic Armenians have settled along each side of the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. All sides would like to control it. A Russian/Armenian defence pact doesn’t cover Nagorno-Karabakh, but, if there was an attack on undisputed sovereign Armenian territory, it could be triggered. If fighting interrupts energy supplies, the stakes will be raised. Finally, there’s the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, which borders part of Turkey and is separated from the main body of Azerbaijan by Armenia. Turkey has a pact with Azerbaijan to defend it if it’s attacked. 

It’s all ‘ifs’ and it’s all far away, but in the 21st century, everything is connected. We aren’t about to fight anywhere near this ‘far away country’, but what happens in Nagorno-Karabakh may not stay in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

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