The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Hypocrisy Masquerading as Realpolitik

Dnyanesh Kamat

AFP Photo: Adem Altan

The clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh are a masterclass in hypocrisy couched as realpolitik. This is because they reveal the immensely schizophrenic nature of the actions of major regional players. True, countries often behave in ways that are at odds with what they say. Still, Nagorno-Karabakh marks a unique inflection point. It has allowed regional countries to brazenly ignore existing multilateral mechanisms, such as the Minsk Group, and carry out actions that threaten to prolong the conflict. What is particularly galling is that these actions are at cross-purposes with the nationalist narratives espoused by their political elites.

Let’s start with Turkey. Under the pretext that Azerbaijan and Turkey are “one nation, two states,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thrown his country’s weight behind Azerbaijan. Yet, if Azerbaijan and Turkey were indeed one state, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, would have been part of the same secularist opposition whose demolition has been the cornerstone of Erdogan’s political career. The Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan is stridently secularist, to the extent that the regime frowns on overt displays of religion. Inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the mainstays of Erdogan’s foreign policy has been to undermine the Middle East’s secular regimes. The hypocrisy in the Turkish approach to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict stems from the need to achieve one of Erdogan’s longer-term goals, which is to maintain domestic popularity by pursuing a neo-Ottoman foreign policy that ensures Turkish influence in the wider region.

Turkish moves in the Caucasus has thrown down the gauntlet at Russia, which regards the former Soviet states in the region as falling within its sphere of influence. It could open yet another theater of conflict between Russia and Turkey, in addition to Libya and Syria.

Turkey has for a long time tried to undercut Russia in the region by supporting the construction of pipelines that carry oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

That said, Russia’s role in the Caucasus has also been incendiary. Even though it remains the ultimate guarantor of Armenia’s security through a mutual defense pact, it has continued to sell arms to Azerbaijan. This is perhaps to ensure Russia remains essential to both countries. Moreover, officials in Moscow have said its security guarantees do not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh, since it is still officially a part of Azerbaijan. This Russian position is rich with irony because Moscow has long set about supporting breakaway republics in troublesome neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine.

Similar schizophrenia marks Iran’s approach to the issue. On the face of it, Iran’s support for Azerbaijan would seem natural. The latter is predominantly Shia like Iran, and Azeris make up a quarter of Iran’s population. For this reason, representatives of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have spoken out in support of Azerbaijan in Iran’s provinces with an Azeri majority. This is a double-edged sword for the regime. Ethnic Azeris have long complained of domination by the country’s Persian establishment. And from time to time, politicians in Azerbaijan have referred to Azeri-dominated provinces in Iran as “south Azerbaijan,” meaning those provinces ought to be part of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

In addition, the regime in Baku has good relations with Israel, with which it shares energy and military links. Iran has long suspected Israel of using Azerbaijan as a surveillance base or perhaps future launchpad for an attack. Azeri gains in Nagorno-Karabakh, or the surrounding territory currently occupied by Armenia, would extend Azerbaijan’s border with Iran, thereby strengthening Israel and Turkey. For this reason, Iran continues to maintain close ties with Armenia, even while professing to support Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Tehran continues to vociferously deny that military supplies to Armenia are passing through Iranian territory.

Recent reports suggest that Azerbaijan has deployed Israeli-manufactured “kamikaze” drones in the conflict. In a rebuke to Israel, Armenia last week recalled its ambassador. One might think that the 20th century history of the Jewish people in Europe would prompt Israeli sympathy for Armenia. Yet, the imperatives of realpolitik dictate that Israel maintains friendly ties with Azerbaijan. Israel imports oil from Azerbaijan and sells it large amounts of sophisticated weaponry. Tellingly, Israel has not even recognized the Armenian Genocide.

In Europe, France has denounced Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan and blamed it for inflaming the conflict. Emmanuel Macron seems to have a well-developed knee-jerk opposition to anything Turkey does, whether in terms of its stalled EU membership, the Eastern Mediterranean or Libya. And like Erdogan, Macron is keeping an eye on domestic politics – France has a substantial Armenian community. Macron’s recent controversial comments, in which he warned of Islamic “separatism” in France, may be a clever way to outflank the far right in his country. However, it undercuts the credibility of France’s foreign policy positions.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could become a dangerous free-for-all. Azerbaijan has warned of missiles landing close to a reservoir in the city of Mingachevir, which, if hit, could flood 14 Azeri cities. Armenia claims that Azerbaijan has threatened to attack its Soviet-era nuclear plant. The possibility of that must surely make the world sit up and take notice.

All in all, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a standing testament to the utter collapse of a multilateralism once led by the US and a global order based on rules. In its wake is the dangerous hypocrisy of regional states masked as realpolitik.


Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.