Azerbaijan’s swift military operation has probably concluded the prolonged Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but brought with it rising concerns of a potential new inter-state conflict involving Armenia, Azerbaijan and possibly Turkey, Iran and Russia. While the regional implications have been made clear, the wider geopolitical implications must not be ignored.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has thrust the perennial debate of territorial sovereignty against self-determination into the global spotlight. Nagorno-Karabakh has always been internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. However, the military means employed to reclaim it starkly contrasts with the diplomatic and multilateral approaches traditionally advocated for resolving territorial disputes.
In particular, the international community’s acquiescence to Azerbaijan’s capture of the territory raises questions about what its attitude is likely to be in situations where the same tensions between territorial integrity and self-determination rise.
Today, few countries recognize Taiwan as China’s legitimate representative, with most recognizing the People’s Republic of China. Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province, with President Xi Jinping instructing his armed forces to be ready by 2027 to annex the self-governing island. The US has maintained strategic ambiguity on whether it would intervene militarily if such an eventuality were to come to pass. President Joe Biden’s statements on the issue, which have seemed to suggest that the US would intervene, have almost always been dialled back by his staffers. However, the West’s acquiescence to Azerbaijan’s recent moves, likely driven by a desire to maintain favorable relations with oil- and gas-rich Baku and mitigate global energy prices, will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.
An unresolved issue flashing red at the moment is Kosovo, a self-governing territory that broke away from Serbia in the 1990s. Unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, only about 60 percent of UN member states recognize Kosovo as an independent state, with Serbia still claiming it as a constituent territory. Within the EU as well, Spain steadfastly refuses to recognize Kosovo. Moreover, heavyweights like Russia, China, India and Brazil do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. There are already concerns about war breaking out between Kosovo and Serbia; Russia, which maintains close ties to Belgrade, may use Nagorno-Karabakh as a pretext to support even limited military action by Serbia in Kosovo, creating a problem for the EU in its backyard.
Another question generated by the events in Nagorno-Karabakh is the effectiveness of multilateral diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution. China and the US exhibit divergent approaches to adherence to international law. For instance, although China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), its actions in the South China Sea often contradict it. Similarly, while the US critiques China’s behavior, Washington has not ratified UNCLOS.
Russia specializes in supporting self-determination initiatives in frozen conflicts, from Ukraine’s Donbas region to Georgia’s South Ossetia. The simple way to look at this, which is often repeated in the Western press, is that this is bad behavior by Russia and China. Nonetheless, American perfidy in its selective application and adherence to its own domestic laws (Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, for example) as well as circumventing multilateral institutions like the UN (the 2003 Iraq invasion) has created fertile ground for violations of global norms by other actors.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh case, Washington dispatched USAID head Samantha Power to Armenia, subtly emphasizing its primary interest in providing humanitarian support to the region’s Armenians. Contrast this with the approach taken towards Ethiopia when the federal government in that country sent in troops to quell a rebellion in the Tigray province, which led to a dire humanitarian crisis. In short, even as the US-led West purports to stand up for the post-WWII global norms, its own behavior and utterances is unlikely to arrest the slow collapse of that order.
The way Nagorno-Karabakh has played out holds important lessons for Armenia and other countries as well. After the First Karabakh War, ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the government in Yerevan (dominated by Karabakh politicians) refused anything less than outright independence for the territory. When the balance of military power eventually shifted in Azerbaijan’s favor over the last decade, Armenia had very little room left to maneuver. There are lessons in this for other countries like Israel that currently occupy territory through the brute force of military superiority in contravention of international law.
Lastly, the tragic consequence of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that the region is likely to become devoid of ethnic Armenians by the time Baku has established firm control over the territory. In the 1990s after the First Karabakh War, close to a million ethnic Azeris were forced to flee the region. To be fair, after its takeover of the territory, Baku assured Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians of protection and full citizenship rights currently granted to other Azerbaijani citizens.
However, this bodes ill for other conflicts, such as in Kashmir, Cyprus, Tibet, Xinjiang and Northern Ireland, where identity and territorial claims intersect. The world had long assumed that conflicts would resolve themselves through diplomacy and compromise, and that mass population movements were a thing of the past. It increasingly seems, however, that amid ongoing geopolitical turbulence, weakening multilateral institutions and fraying global norms, frozen conflicts will increasingly become hot wars once again.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities. X: @sybaritico