Nagorno-Karabakh:An Indian Perspective on the Conflict in the South Caucasus

    • By,
      Vivek Kalhan Reshi Raina – Student, Kautilya

On September 19th, 2023, Azerbaijan launched an “anti-terror operation” and tried to reassert its territorial claims over Nagorno-Karabakh – the semi-autonomous, ethnically majority-Armenian region within its internationally recognized borders. A day after the lightning-fast Azeri offensive, news of the surrender of the Armenian separatist government of Nagorno-Karabakh came in. The breakaway Karabakh-Armenian government decided to disarm and dissolve its military, enabling Azerbaijan to gain complete control over the region. Essentially, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh revolves around two international principles vis-à-vis the principle of territorial integrity (of Azerbaijan) and the principle of the right to self-determination (of Nagorno-Karabakh), backed by Armenia. India faced a similar issue in the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, where India’s territorial integrity was pitted against the self-determination of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue, like that of Jammu and Kashmir, did not just start overnight but has had a long and complicated history associated with it.

The animosity between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh goes back to the early part of the 20th century. In 1923, while being absorbed into the newly created Soviet Union, due to the region’s geographical proximity with Azerbaijan (the Karabakh mountains separate it from the Greater Western Armenia), the ethnic Armenian-majority autonomous region was put under Azerbaijan SSR. Under the Soviet Union leadership, there was relative peace until 1988, when the region first started agitating for independence. The inter-ethnic conflict between largely Christian Armenians and predominantly Muslim Azeris became common during those days. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh claimed independence from Azerbaijan, although neither Armenia itself nor the international community recognized it. This escalated the already tense situation between Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijan, leading to a full-scale war between the two, i.e., the First Karabakh War. Backed by Armenia and its troops, Karabakh Armenians not only took full control of the region but also managed to gobble up Azeri territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Many Azeris fled their native homes to other parts of Azerbaijan to avoid the oncoming Armenian pogroms. Azerbaijan ended up losing 20% of its territory, and 30,000 of its people were killed. A ceasefire line was established and all hostilities on the ground ended in 1994.

However, in September 2020, ceasefire broke out between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Following thousands of casualties on both sides, Russia successfully brokered another ceasefire ending the six-week Second Karabakh war. This time Azerbaijan, aligned with its closest ally Turkey and emerged victorious, reclaiming most of the territories it lost in 1994 and some parts of Nagorno-Karabakh as well. Pertinent to mention here is the fact that Turkey committed a genocide against Armenia during the First World War in 1915, which claimed millions of innocent Armenian lives. It is a country also known to India for its vociferous support of Pakistan on the Jammu and Kashmir issue, even though this puts Turkey at odds with its position on ground in Nagorno-Karabakh wherein it supports Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity over Karabakh Armenians’ right to self-determination. The ceasefire in 2020 also led to the establishment of Lachin corridor, a small strip of land that would serve as a transit route between Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. It was this corridor, which the Azeris blocked last December, claiming to protest the environmental degradation caused by illegal mining in Nagorno-Karabakh. This led to a great humanitarian crisis in the region, where people were left without food and essential items for over ten months, till the last few weeks, when the region’s separatist forces finally gave up their arms, leading to the imminent unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan – the present-day scenario. The swift ending of the latest conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh can also be attributed to Russia’s unwillingness to get involved this time around even though it is committed by treaty to defend Armenia, due it’s pre-occupation in Ukraine.

Although India doesn’t have a clearly defined policy for the South Caucasus – region where both Armenia lies alongside Azerbaijan and Georgia, the relationship between Armenia and India has been developing well, especially since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992. India signed a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty with Armenia in 1995 and a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2019, which resulted in increased cooperation in trade, investment, defense and culture. In the aftermath of the Second Karabakh War, Armenia decided to purchase a large consignment of weapons and rockets from India, to beef up its security capabilities. This led to a solid diplomatic protest from Azerbaijan against India, with the Azeri side alleging that India was adding fuel to flames by providing weapons to Armenia at a time when Azeris wanted to de-escalate the conflict and resolve it peacefully. Added to all the aforementioned details is the fact that India and Armenia share great historical ties, firmly putting India into Armenia’s camp, for now at least.

India needed to put out a strong statement to emphasize its interests in the region with respect to the INSTC (International North-South Transportation Corridor), as also the plight of Karabakh Armenians and the humanitarian crisis they face but there wasn’t much that came in from the External Affairs Ministry. That would have sent a great message to Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan as well as the international community that is conspicuous by its absence on the conflict. For now, it appears to be added on the long list of missed opportunities.

*The Kautilya School of Public Policy (KSPP) takes no institutional positions. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views or positions of KSPP.