Earlier this month, intense fighting erupted between Azerbaijan and the Armenians of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, who are supported by Armenia. The conflict dates back to 1988 when the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, then an autonomous region of Soviet Azerbaijan, used Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost to petition for the transfer of their region to the Soviet Armenian Republic. Large demonstrations were held in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia. Clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis ensued, and after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the conflict exploded into a full-scale war. It ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire in 1994.
Regional observers scrambled to make sense of the most recent violence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Most presented balanced and reasonable analyses of the clashes. However, there were also those who failed to take into account the historical and regional dynamics and instead relied on unfortunate Cold War-style anti-Russian rhetoric. They maintained that the recent hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh were nothing less than a plot personally cooked up in the Kremlin by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Such analyses have recently appeared in the media and unfortunately obscure the reality of a very complex part of the world, making it harder for the genuinely curious American observer to understand what is going on.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, analyst Svante Cornell asserted that Putin instigated the recently hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Putin, he argued, sought to use the conflict “to try to undermine” the government of Azerbaijan. “Controlling that artery [Azerbaijan] is essential to Mr. Putin’s imperial project,” wrote Cornell, adding that the Russian leader “benefits from reminding both parties (and the West) of his ability to wreak further havoc in a region already marred by conflict, lest they toe his line.”
Similarly, in The Washington Post, Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, contended that Putin was “exploiting the situation” and “laying the foundation for future crises, while Washington watches.” He also implicitly alleged that Putin may have prodded a “local military commander” in Nagorno-Karabakh to “reignite the conflict in pursuit of narrow political interests.” This is an interesting theory from a man who, according to The Wall Street Journal, encouraged Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in the lead-up to the 2008 war in Georgia.
Notably, Saakashvili joined Cornell and Bryza in arguing that the recent hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh “strongly resembles a trademark Russian provocation.” Not surprisingly, the beleaguered Saakashvili, who is wanted on criminal charges in Georgia and Russia, accused Putin of being personally responsible for the flare-up in Karabakh. “I always knew that Putin would use a lame duck status of the US administration for stirring up a major trouble,” he maintained. “Moscow had been preparing for the unfreezing of the Karabakh conflict for quite some time already.”