Nagorno-Karabakh After Crimea

How Moscow Keeps the Conflict Alive -- And What to Do About It

A man passed a house destroyed during fighting in 1993 between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Shusha, October 29, 2009. (David Mdzinarishvili / Courtesy Reuters)

In early May, the Obama administration will announce a new effort to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This isn’t the first such effort, and it likely won’t be the last. But in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the United States seems more intent than ever on resolving the long-standing dispute, which Moscow has fanned to maintain its influence in the region.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan started on the eve of the Soviet breakup, as ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan’s province of Nagorno-Karabakh rallied to join Armenia. Moscow armed both sides and played them against each other, turning a local dispute over the status of a territory inhabited by 90,000 people into a regional war. For close to six years, the newly independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the territory, leaving 30,000 dead and creating around a million new refugees. Eventually, Armenia was victorious, and it took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other Azerbaijani districts.

The end of the fighting, though, didn’t bring an end to the conflict. Both sides have regularly breached the cease-fire that was brokered in 1994, and deadly skirmishes erupt on a weekly basis. Through it all, Moscow has encouraged the fighting, at times revealing information to Armenia and selling arms to both sides. In addition, Russia has thousands of troops stationed in Armenia, it runs the country’s air defenses, and it controls key elements of its economy and infrastructure. As long as Moscow backs Yerevan, Baku can do little to make peace with its neighbor.  

For its part, Moscow views the volatile status quo as a way to keep the South Caucasus under its control. For one, the unresolved conflict guarantees that Armenia will not ask Russian forces to leave. And as long as Russia has troops on the ground, it can pressure Armenia to stay away from the West. In the fall, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan to Moscow. Immediately thereafter, Sargsyan announced Armenia’s withdrawal from the European Union’s Eastern Partnership and stated its intention to instead join Moscow’s Customs Union.

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