Russia's Intervention in the Transcaucasian Conflicts

By Horne, Graeme; Danielyan, Emil | New Zealand International Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Russia's Intervention in the Transcaucasian Conflicts


Horne, Graeme, Danielyan, Emil, New Zealand International Review


Graeme Horne and Emil Danielyan review Russia's sometimes controversial role in both the Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhaz conflicts.

Russia's intervention in the Transcaucasus conflicts has raised concern among a number of Western regional observers, some of whom even go as far as to accuse Russia of having neo-imperialist aspirations in the region. In this article it will be argued that, while there may be room for some concerns regarding Russia's behaviour in the region, its intervention in these conflicts looks increasingly more credible given the limited response of other global players, and the diplomatic success Moscow has had in stopping the bloodshed.

Nagorno-Karabakh is located in western Azerbaijan. The enclave has long been contested by both Armenians and Azeris, both claiming it as the cradle of their respective civilisations. The current conflict erupted during the final years of the Soviet era and has continued to the present with no solution in sight. This makes it the longest running conflict in the former Soviet sphere.

The conflict arose because the majority Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh -- approximately 77 per cent of the total population -- had failed to assimilate into the Azeri state since the incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan in the early 1920s. The Karabakh Armenians, who now control some 20 per cent of Azeri territory, are seeking to secede from Azerbaijan. As an Economist correspondent put it: `ideally, Karabakh Armenians would like to reunite with Armenia proper, but reckon the current fashion for fission in the ex-Soviet Union makes independence a safer bet'.(1)

Russia's response to the Karabakh conflict has taken two forms. Firstly, Russia has taken collective initiatives aimed at conflict resolution, the most significant of which has been to co-chair the OSCE's sub-committee to deal with the Karabakh conflict, the Minsk Group.(2) Secondly, the Russian government has taken solo initiatives. It is this unilateral intervention that has been a cause of some concern among both regional and Western academics and politicians.

Russia has become involved in the conflict for a number of reasons, the most important four of which are:

* concerns over the spill-over effects of the conflict into Russia;

* doubts about the commitment of the West, including the OSCE, to the conflict resolution process -- a point given extra emphasis by the lack of OSCE success in bringing the warring parties to sign any agreements;

* an interest in ensuring that Turkey or Iran do not seek to take advantage of the conflict to further their regional geopolitical aspirations;

* concern to ensure its own regional interests remained protected, namely Azeri oil and the ability to place its troops on the borders of the former Soviet republics to maintain its own influence in the region.

Considerable worry

This last reason has caused considerable worry among regional commentators, leading come of them to charge that Russia has intervened in the Karabakh conflict to gain regional hegemony. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence to support this claim; among the most compelling is the supply by Russia of military aid in terms of equipment and personnel to the conflicting parties which continued to fuel the conflict, and Russia's hidden hand in the removal of the Elchibey government when Russia was excluded from oil deals.

The irony is, however, that it is precisely this type of activity by Russia that has provoked countervailing involvement by the Minsk Group in the region. It is also the main reason why Armenians and Azeris have called for the internationalisation of the conflict resolution process. Therefore, in attempting to extend its influence, Russia has in fact stimulated Armenia and Azerbaijan to balance its presence by further involving the OSCE.

Russia's ultimate goal for the Karabakh conflict -- as outlined by statements by the Russian government -- is to see the conflict resolved. …

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