Last week, Azerbaijan walked into an enclave held by Armenian separatists since 1994. The significant development threatens the fragile peace in the region. And it has implications for all the major powers—including Armenia’s fave weapons supplier: India. We explain the roots of the conflict—and why New Delhi is meddling in a distant conflict in the Caucasus.
Azerbaijan vs Armenia: A primer
Azerbaijan used to be a Soviet republic—and Nagorno-Karabakh operated as a quasi-independent region within it. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, it became part of the newly independent Azerbaijan—but Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian leaders declared they wanted to reunite with Armenia. See the location of Nagorno-Karabakh in the map below:
The occupation/secession: The end of the USSR also triggered a fierce war between Azerbaijan and Armenia—which took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding area. It also forced the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis. About 30,000 people were killed and more than a million were displaced. But a fragile peace endured after a deal brokered by the Russians:
For nearly three decades that situation remained stable, with the two sides locked in a stalemate that was maintained by a line of bunkers, landmines and anti-tank defenses, frequently given as an example of one of the world’s few “frozen conflicts.
Geopolitical alliances: This uneasy détente was primarily maintained with the support of powerful nations on both sides. Azerbaijan has close ethnic and cultural ties with Turkey—a relationship referred to as “one nation, two states.” And it also has a cosy relationship with Israel—which supplies weapons in exchange for oil. Also in its corner: Pakistan. OTOH, Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—which is similar to NATO. And it has a very warm relationship with Iran, France and India (more on that below).
Azerbaijan strikes back: In 2020, Azerbaijan launched a fresh offensive—using Israeli and Turkish weapons. It reclaimed the territory around Nagorno-Karabakh—leaving it connected to Armenia by a single road. Over the past year, it made increasingly aggressive moves—and basically walked into Nagorno-Karabakh last week. Moscow ignored Armenia’s requests for help, and Russian peacekeepers simply gave way.
What changed: Ukraine. Moscow is far too preoccupied with its own war to pay much attention to Armenia. And its influence is declining in the broader Caucasus regions. Also: the authoritarian Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev appears to have more in common with Vladimir Putin and his Belarus buddy Alexander Lukashenko—who describes Aliyev as “our guy.” OTOH, Armenia is the sole democracy in the region. The other key factor: oil—which has proved to be Baku’s ace card:
The EU has turned to Azerbaijan to help replace Russia as a provider of energy. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made an official visit to the capital, Baku, last summer in a bid to secure increased exports of natural gas, describing the country as a “reliable, trustworthy partner.”
What’s also interesting: Armenia is also vying for Western support—rapidly distancing itself from Moscow which has proved to be an unreliable protector. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has openly said that Armenia needs “to maximally decrease our dependency on others.” Armenia has also dispatched humanitarian aid to Ukraine and Pashinyan’s wife visited Kyiv to show her support. It also hosted joint military exercises with US troops.
The India angle: Arming Armenia
Azerbaijan’s aggression exposed the limits of Russian protection—and of its weaponry. Turkish-made drones decimated tanks and armoured vehicles supplied by Moscow in previous conflicts—forcing Yerevan to look for a new supplier. Enter, India. Last year, New Delhi signed a $249 million deal to supply weapons—including the multi-barrel rocket launcher Pinaka. Armenia also separately inked a $155 million contract with an Indian defence company—Bharat Forge—for the supply of 155 mm artillery systems. It is also considering the purchase of drones, mid-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems like the Akash etc.
Azerbaijan cries foul: In July this year—amid Baku’s summer of sabre-rattling—Azerbaijani media put out videos that allegedly showed Indian arms being funnelled into Armenia.
The reports claimed that the arms were routed via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Azerbaijan immediately summoned the Indian ambassador:
[Foreign policy advisor to the President, Hikmet] Hajiyev added that India’s supposed supply of lethal weapons to Armenia at a time when Azerbaijan was negotiating a peace agreement with it “paves the way for the militarisation of Armenia and escalation of the situation, and creates obstacles to the establishment of sustainable peace and security in the South Caucasus region”.
The view from New Delhi: So why is India suddenly eager to get involved in seemingly distant conflicts in the Caucasus? One reason is the overall push to increase exports—including those of weapons. Earlier this year, the government announced plans to triple defence exports to $5 billion over the next two years. At the time, military experts were sceptical about New Delhi’s ambitions:
From just a 0.2% share in global arms exports, becoming a major exporter is a long haul. Some of the biggest importing countries, even if they are willing, will find it difficult to withstand pressures from Europe and the U.S. to consider buying whatever little we have to offer by way of major equipment and platforms.
But Armenia—abandoned by Moscow and viewed as second-best by the EU—has no such problem.
Also, the Three Brothers: Azerbaijan has a trilateral military agreement with Turkey and Pakistan—called the Three Brothers. While India has warm relations with Ankara, New Delhi hawks are annoyed at President Erdogan for speaking out on Kashmir—unlike Armenia which has warmly endorsed the government’s moves. And any alliance involving Islamabad is inevitably seen as a threat:
As an ally of Azerbaijan, Pakistan has been supplying men and military hardware to assist the former in its conflicts. Baku has returned the favour by offering geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geostrategic benefits to its partners in Islamabad. Held last year, the “Three Brothers” military drills involving Pakistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan were aimed at advancing the interoperability of the countries’ armed forces.
However, Azerbaijan’s pro-Pakistan position on Kashmir complements Turkey’s belligerence on Kashmir. For instance, last year on 27 October an event hosted by Pakistan’s embassy in Baku to commemorate “Kashmir Black Day”, was attended by members of Azerbaijan’s parliament as well as officials from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
FYI: Earlier this year, India held its own trilateral meeting with Armenia and Iran in Yerevan to address its other concern: Azerbaijan’s agreement with Turkey to create a corridor that will control India’s access to trade routes that run through the Caucasus. New Delhi now wants to create a separate trade corridor that runs through Iran and Armenia.
The bottomline: They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Geopolitics even more so.
Politico and the New York Times have the best overview of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. For a hawkish Indian view of Armenia, read Aditya Bhan in ORF Online—and Sanjay Kapoor in Deccan Herald. The Quint is good at laying out the geopolitical considerations for India. The Print has more on the diplomatic furore over Indian arms being smuggled into Armenia. For a more sceptical view of India’s ambitions to be a global weapons supplier, check out The India Forum and Mint.