There are few places in the world that can outdo the Caucasus for having an Alice in Wonderland attraction, a fatal one however, especially the two nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Once, both entities, the Azeri and Arminian communities, were under the Ottoman Turks. When then Ottoman Empire collapsed after WWI, and the Russian Czarist empire collapsed with it, the two communities established themselves as nations. and immediately went to war against each other. Massacres of civilians were perpetrated by both sides, but particularly, by the Azeris, as they -as today- had regular Turkish and Islamist groups fighting for them.
. The discovery of oil in Azerbaijan was very important to the British and there is much to read about that… try Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game¹ or his The Hidden Fire².” The British were changing from coal to oil for their Navy’s fuel, and Azerbaijans immense quants of oil g fueled British interest in adding Baku to their empire. As quoted in Hopkirk’s book, he described the city of Baku, as a city where “huge fortunes were made or gambled away overnight. Baku’s new rich, some of them barely literate , built themselves on the seafront palaces of great opulence. Famous European luxury stores opened branches on Baku’s elegant tree-lined avenues, along which ran smart horse drawn trams.” However by the time the British arrived in 1918, labor strikes, ethnic fighting, and oil discoveries elsewhere, Baku was “only as ghost of its former self.”
With the resurgence of Russia under the Bolsheviks, the two communities became part of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federated Republic. But shortly thereafter, the Soviets divided it into two Soviet Republics, the Armenian and and Azerbaijan. Both republics had a mixture of Kurds, Armenians and Azeris, but with the exodus of Armenian refugees pouring across the Turkish border, trying to escape the genocidal Turkish policies, the Armenian population grew much larger and with a better educated population.
Initially the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, within Azerbaijan, but populated primarily by Armenians, was promised to the Armenian Republic by the Bolsheviks, but in the Stalinist era, It was officially awarded to Azerbaijan. It was part of Stalin’s divide and rule policy.
Occupied by Soviet troops until the USSR fell apart (1991), the two nations redeclared their independence and immediately were again at each other’s throats. Despite having most of the military advantage,in terms of Soviet weaponry ( the collapsing Soviet troops basically just left weapons in place and departed) leaving most of it in the areas controlled by the Azeris, the Armenians long known for martial prowess, gained the military advantage. Many Russian officers joined the Armenians and a few joined the Azerbaijanis. In the truce that followed, Armenia maintained control of the Nagorno Karabaugh enclave and gradually the Azeri inhabitants were evicted or fled. ( depends on who you read) and a very narrow corridor, the Lachin. The Armenians also occupy other parts of Azerbaijan surrounding Nagorno Karabakh including a narrow corridor called the Lachon corridor which is a life line connection between Nogorno Karabakh and Armenia proper.
Armenian troops on parade
Azeri armor mostly supplied by Turkey.
In the Caucasus region, the Armenians who are Orthodox Christian, have few friends, even their fellow Christian Georgians, are not particularly well disposed toward the Armenians. (All the pipelines pass through Georgia which brings employment and transit fees). However the one critical support the Armenians have is their support from the world-wide Armenian diaspora, mostly Armenians who fled the Turkish genocide following World War I. The Russians also have a soft spot in their heart for the Armenians, as many of the early Communists were Armenians (example: Anastas Mikoyan, and despite the fervent anti religious attitude of the Communists, the Russians still see themselves as protectors of the Slavic and Armenian Christians. The pan-slavism of Russia was very evident during the Serbian wars in 1991-2001. Gorbachev in his memoirs called the Armenians “brothers” and was very much kinder to the Armenians than the Azeris in his memoirs, frequently citing Azeri massacres of Armenians and their suffering under the Ottoman Turks.
The Azeris are Shi’a Muslim, but after 70 years the anti-Muslim politics of the Soviets has produced a more liberal variety of Islam, enabling them to be friends of the Israelis, the United States, and especially their fellow Turks of Erdogan Turkish government. One of the many odd facts of this conflict is that both Turkey and Israel have supplied weaponry to Azerbaijan. As one of the few Islamic countries with diplomatic relations with Israel, they are an important facet of Israeli diplomacy. The Muslim world, in terms of words, at least, support Azerbaijan, and the “Christian world” of Western Europe is dependent on oil from the Caucasus. However Iran is a special case. Despite their affinity with fellow Shi’a of Azerbaijan, the Iranian government is covertly supporting Armenia, while placating their links with Azerbaijan with soothing words about a negotiated settlement, allowing the clerics to mouth anti Armenian cliches and Islamic brotherhood.
Why this anomaly? Well because Iran has a very large population of Azeris, whom the Persian leaders do not wholly trust. They fear some sort of nationalist movement on the part of the Azeris to consolidate all Azeris with the Azerbaijan nation, including a large hunk of Iran.In fact the Azeris of Iran have revolted twice, the last time in 1946.
At this point the main pipeline is routed from Baku through Georgia to Ceyhan in Turkey.It handles over a million barrels a day. The second pipeline runs from Baku through Georgia to Georgian port of Supsa. the third one runs from Baku to the Russian port of Novorossiiysk on the Black Sea. All bypass Armenia. But the conflicts (Ossetian break away) in Georgia, and the fact that two of the pipelines run close to Armenian territory Making two of the main pipelines very vulnerable to Armenian or tribal sabotage. Armenia get its natural gas from Iran through the Iran Armenia pipeline and most of its oil from Russia.
The bottom line is that Western Europe has become largely dependent on oil and gas from Azerbaijan and Russia. To an extent Western Europe lives in a fear that Russia can economically strangle Europe by withholding oil and gas. Hence their milquetoast pandering to Putin’s aggressive moves. It should be added that The US has been almost inert in responding to Erdogan’s to Erdogan’s blatant aggression as well. In that respect, Europe has become beholden to the good graces of Azerbaijan and Turkey, a fact that Erdogan has been using very successfully to cover his irredentist intentions.
Why is it an centripedal conflict? Despite the new apparent agreement to meet and negotiate, the last sessions were simply shouting matches and nothing was accomplished. So it is no guarantee of any success. Armenia is isolated with only the world-wide Armenian and tepid Russian support, with a few friends like Assads’ Syria. On the other hand Azerbaijan with Turkish support as part of Erdogan’s Pan Turanism ambitions, creating a United Turkic federation from Istanbul to the Border of China, holds most of the cards. But the immense economic and geo-political factors involved could possibly create a Bosnia-Herzegovina situation dragging in other reluctant regional and world power involvement.
The UAE and Sudan establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, Oman hosting the Israeli PM visit, and Israel supporting the Azeris are harbingers of a new face of the Middle East. As a inveterate skeptic on anything pertaining to diplomatic alliances in the Middle East, I am on a wait and see watch.
¹The Great Game is primarily about the British-Russian rivalry across Central Asia. A very good and readable history of the competition.
²Like Hidden Fire is about the German insinuating itself into the Eastern question, (Turkey) Central Asia, and India to overcome the power of the British empire. It was generally termed the drag nach osten policy.