The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: What This Could Mean for the United States Hegemony

Written by: Jadalyn Eagens

On September 27, after 25 years of tenuous peace, war erupted once again between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the long disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. To understand this conflict, one needs to understand the significance of the region. 

Armenia and Azerbaijan are geographically located in a region called the Caucasus which lies between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Caucasus used to be under the control of the Soviet Union and is bordered by some of the world’s most prominent international actors, such as Turkey, Russia and Iran. The region’s importance lies in its oil reserves and pipelines, which deliver oil to the world market. It is in this geopolitically important region that the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh lies. Nagorno-Karabakh holds cultural significance to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis; the territory has always had a strong ethnic Armenian population and sports medieval Armenian churches. However, in its center lies the Azerbaijani city of Shusha with a citadel that some claim was built in the 18th century. 

Nagorno-Karabakh resides solely within the borders of Azerbaijan, due to the way Joseph Stalin structured borders in the region in 1923. However, the territory has a 90 percent ethnically Armenian majority who, during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1988, called for Nagorno-Karabakh to be detached from the Republic of Azerbaijan and united with Armenia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence, precipitating a full-blown conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict caused an estimated 20,000 deaths and displaced over one million people before a ceasefire was called in 1994. Armenia gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding districts following the ceasefire and retained control until the most recent conflict broke out. 

It is unknown what caused the clashes to break out on September 27th, but both sides were quick to point fingers at one another. However, the fight itself was clearly skewed towards Azerbaijan who, in the 25 years since their last major conflict with Armenia, built up their military with the wealth they had gained from oil revenues. According to Foreign Policy, Azerbaijan went from an annual defense budget of $700 million in 2007 to $3.7 billion in 2013. With this money, Azerbaijan was able to buy arms from Russia and drones from Israel. Azerbaijan also benefited from the support of Turkey who provided drones and conducted joint military drills; some believe that Turkey paid for Syrian mercenaries to help Azerbaijan.  

Within six weeks of fighting, Azerbaijan was able to recapture the city of Shusha and most of the seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia, which was heavily outweighed militarily, was forced to agree to a Russian-brokered ceasefire. Both sides agreed to let Azerbaijan retain control of the territories that it had gained, while Nagorno-Karabakh stayed under the control of the ethnic Armenians. The terms of the ceasefire also called for 2,000 Russian troops to serve as peacekeepers in the region for five to ten years. Additionally, a road will be built through Armenia into Azerbaijan so that Turkey can have access to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The terms of the ceasefire are widely perceived as major wins for all key players in the conflict except Armenia.  

One of the most interesting aspects of this conflict was Turkey and Russia’s involvement and their strategic victories. Turkey’s involvement in the conflict can be seen through two different lenses. One would be the cultural lense in which Turkey decided to support Azerbaijan because the Azeri people are of a Turkish ethnic background. The two countries’ languages are very similar and the slogan “one nation, two states”’ has been used to describe their close relationship. However, another way to look at Turkey’s involvement is through an economic and political lense. Azerbaijan is one of Turkey’s main oil providers. Since the conflict occurred close to Azeri oil pipelines, Turkey’s help can be viewed as protecting their resources. In addition, Turkey is trying to compete with Russia as a superpower in the region. Having already been involved in Syria and Libya, where Russia also has troops, getting involved in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict helps Turkey establish military dominance. When it comes to Russia, many believe that its attempt to broker peace serves as an effort to maintain influence in former-Soviet nations. Thomas de Wall, a specialist in the Caucasus region, states that “its agenda is to get its footprint back in the southern Caucasus. Russia is reinserting itself into that region, where it’s been in retreat.”

Yet, the rise of Turkey and Russia as global superpowers raises a question about the future of the United States’ hegemony. Over the course of Trump’s Presidency, the United States has withdrawn from participating in the international sphere. The power vacuum created by the United States’ withdrawal has become increasingly occupied by more authoritarian nations, particularly Russia and China. With this conflict in particular, Russia has expanded its sphere of influence into the Caucasus and China is indirectly benefiting from easier access to Western Asia with the construction of the road through Armenia. Many believe that it was a mistake for America to not get involved in the region. President-elect Joe Biden criticized the Trump administration for being “largely passive and disengaged,” while the New York Times expressed that “the United States should have been at the forefront of peacemaking with its European allies…This is not a region the United States can abandon to the machinations of Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan.” 

While President-elect Joe Biden has made statements about reversing the United States’ isolationist foreign policy once he assumes office, it may not be enough to reassert the United States’ predominance. China, Russia and Turkey are expanding their spheres of influence and are providing aid with less conditionality. It could become more feasible for nations to receive aid without having to implement democratic institutions or liberal economic policies, resulting in a shift away from American aid. In addition, the President-elect has to contend with the unfavorable opinions of the United States that have arisen due to the behavior of the Trump Administration. 

We could be seeing the beginnings of a new world order. However, with a new administration coming into power, the United States can regain its footing as the preeminent superpower. These next four years will truly tell us the future of the United States hegemony.