Why does Armenia want Nagorno-Karabakh

Caucasus: who wants what in Nagorno-Karabakh?

A good week after the fighting flared up in the South Caucasus, there is no evidence that it could soon die down: the conflicting parties Armenia and Azerbaijan are determined to do everything, several hundred soldiers and civilians have already been killed on both sides. Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov on Tuesday ordered the "targeted and consistent destruction of enemy forces" to continue.

"The dynamic of the conflict has simply become so dangerous that it will not be easy for external actors to end this conflict," says Stefan Meister. He heads the office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is close to the Greens, in Tbilisi, the capital of neighboring Georgia, and is an Associate Fellow at the German Society for Foreign Policy. Meister does not expect the fighting to end anytime soon, if only because of the losses on both sides and the first land gains for Azerbaijan: "The fear is actually that this will turn into a bigger war that will not only affect Karabakh and the provinces occupied by Armenia. "

Why is?

The conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been simmering since the collapse of the Soviet Union - the two adversaries had already fought once in the early 1990s, and incidents have occurred again and again since then. Nagorno-Karabakh is in Azerbaijan, which in its claim invokes the principle of territorial integrity. However, the majority of Armenians live in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is why Armenia insists on the self-determination of the population. Parts of Nagorno-Karabakh had declared themselves independent in 1991 - but no state in the world recognizes this, not even Armenia.


In essence, there is still a conflict between two warring neighboring countries. However, Azerbaijan is appearing increasingly self-confident since neighboring Turkey has increasingly sided with the government in Baku. One reason for this is the great ethnic and cultural similarities between the Turkic-speaking countries - both profess the principle of "one nation, two states". However, Turkey has been trying hard for years to make its energy supply independent of Russian natural gas - through engagement in Libya, explorations in the eastern Mediterranean, and big deals with partners in Baku. It is quite certain that Turkey has even recruited mercenaries in Syria to support Baku.

What role does Russia play?

From Moscow's point of view, the situation is particularly complicated: Russia maintains connections with both former Soviet republics, but those with Armenia are much more intensive. It supplies both parties to the conflict with Russian weapons - but only Yerevan pays a preferential price. Russia has a military base in Armenia's second largest city, Gyumri.

Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (2nd from left) is involved in Vladimir Putin's network of power (here at a summit in 2018)

"Russia plays a very problematic role in this conflict because it uses it to keep both countries dependent on themselves," said Meister in an interview with DW. It is not really a protective power of Armenia: "The Armenians do not really feel safe, but rather one has the feeling that Russia is playing with both actors. We are also seeing a relatively weak Russian reaction now, while Turkey is militarily massive in favor of Azerbaijan in these Conflict intervenes. "

Where could negotiations begin?

Hans-Joachim Spanger from the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research also believes that Russia has an interest in a limbo that binds both sides to Moscow - Azerbaijan through arms deliveries, Armenia through an assistance pact. Nevertheless, Moscow has played the most active role in negotiations several times in the past. However, Spanger believes it is entirely possible that military support for Azerbaijan could dry up in the further course: "Turkey may only be interested in a brief advance," Spanger said in an interview with DW.

From the point of view of the EU, which wants to secure a ceasefire in its eastern neighborhood, according to Spanger it could make perfect sense to negotiate with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about his engagement in the South Caucasus. Spanger also believes that Germany, as the current EU Council President, could achieve something through unofficial negotiations with the conflicting parties: In 2008, France, under then President Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated a ceasefire in the Georgian war during his Council Presidency. In the current case, Merkel has already telephoned the heads of government in both countries - from Spanger's point of view, however, that is not enough.

France's ex-President Sarkozy continues to enjoy recognition there for his mediation in the Georgia war (photo from 2018)

Who could mediate?

Because there are many Armenians in exile in France, from the Azerbaijani point of view it is unlikely to serve as a neutral mediator this time.

From Stefan Meister's point of view, however, the EU as such can hardly develop any leverage effects in Armenia and Azerbaijan: "People stay completely out of security issues," says the head of the Böll office. Both countries are part of the EU's Eastern Partnership, but there are no association agreements like the one with Ukraine - which would mean more financial support. "The South Caucasus itself is more of a marginal region from the perspective of Brussels or most of the member states," estimates Meister; especially since a lot of attention is already tied to the situation in Belarus, the Navalny poisoning case or the new conflict in Kyrgyzstan.

The so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose chairmanship Russia shares with France and the USA, is considered to be an influential body. The foreign ministers of the three countries had issued a joint declaration calling for an "immediate and unconditional ceasefire". The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu immediately accused them of having no ideas for a solution to the conflict.

In Stepanakert some buildings are already badly damaged by the fighting

The common neighbor Georgia, on the other hand, maintains very good relations with both sides. Tbilisi has offered to mediate several times. "But Georgia is not a decisive player here," says Stefan Meister: "It is simply not strong enough to take on such a role."

What about Iran?

However, the regional power Iran still borders the Caucasus - it is closer to Armenia than Azerbaijan, which in turn buys weapons from Iran's archenemy Israel. According to Azerbaijani reports, at least one shell has already struck Iranian territory during fighting in the south of Nagorno-Karabakh. "Iran is very, very skeptical about Turkish involvement and the shift in power in the region," says Stefan Meister. From an Iranian point of view, too, it would be dangerous if the conflict spreads to neighboring countries - many Azerbaijanis live on the Iranian side of the border.