The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. Which Role Does the Russian Federation Have in Preserving the Stalemate?

Bachelor Thesis, 2018

55 Pages, Grade: 1,3



List of Maps:

1. Introduction

Chapter 2: The Conceptual Framework and Literature Review
2.1 Concepts
2.1.1 National Interest
2.1.2 Spheres of Influence
2.1.3. Geopolitics
2.1.4. Conflict Stalemate
2.1.5. Conflict Management
2.1.6. Conflict Resolution
2.2. Literature Review
2.2.1. The Yugoslav War(s)
2.2.2. The Transnistria Conflict
2.2.3. The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Chapter 3: The Theoretical Framework and Conflict Background
3.1. Theories
3.2. Background of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
3.2.1. Armenian-Azerbaijani Relations
3.2.2. Armenian-Russian Relations
3.2.3. Azerbaijani-Russian Relations

Chapter 4: The Analysis of the Russian Incentives
4.1. The Geopolitical Importance of the Caucasus for Russia
4.2. The Geopolitical Importance of the South Caucasian States
4.3. Channels of Russian Influence in the South Caucasus
4.4. Russian Economic Benefits from Maintaining the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
4.4.1. Russian Arms Selling Business
4.4.2. Russian Geo-energy Benefits
4.5. Security Dimension of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict


List of References:

List of Maps:

Figure 1. Map of Nagorno-Karabakh

Figure 2. Map of The Caucasus

1. Introduction

This thesis aims to analyse the role of the Russian Federation in preserving the status-quo of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Previous studies on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict concentrate on various aspects, such as the social dynamics of the conflict, its domestic discourse, its origins and development, prospects for peace or escalation and many other. The last major outbreak of violence in 2016 yet again attracted the attention of scholars and many works were devoted to the fragility of the current situation and the chances of a renewed war (Broers 2016; Cavanaugh 2017; Hedenskog/Korkmaz 2016). Overall, the literature on the conflict is quite comprehensive. There are also many studies which pay some attention to the Russian position in the conflict in general and on some interests which the Kremlin has in the conflict (Hedenskog et al. 2018; Klever 2013; Markedonov 2018; Shiriyev 2013). Overall, a majority of them identify Russia as the most important external actor in the conflict, which also has private interests and preferences towards its future development.

However, the initial focus of these works is directed on other aspects, such as an overview of the current situation, the political future of the South Caucasus, Russian policies towards Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russian foreign policy in general, conditions for conflict resolution etc. Therefore, these works use the Russian interference as part of explaining some other phenomenon or as a background information. Thus, the genuine Russian stance in the stalemate remains relatively underdeveloped. Works dedicated especially to the Russian role and interests in general in the conflict are usually small-scale journal articles or commentaries in academic style. There are no studies devoted especially on the Russian interests in maintaining the conflict in a structured manner and moreover so far no work was identified to use theories of international relations as its starting point in defining the role of Russia in the stalemate of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The only structured analysis of the Russian gains from the conflict is provided by (Peña-Ramos 2017), however his work concentrates on the geo-energy benefits from the Russian intervention in all conflicts in the South Caucasus.

In attempt to fill in the above-mentioned gap in the literature, this thesis seeks to investigate the benefits for Russia from preserving the stalemate. Thus, the research question of the work is the following: why is Russia interested in maintaining the conflict? The analysis will derive from the main assumptions rooted in theories of international relations and their respective concepts in order to explain the Russian interests and behaviour towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The timeframe of the analysis will be from the start of the 2000s up to nowadays. The idea behind this timeframe is that since President Putin rise to power, there can be observed a more consistent Russian foreign policy approach in comparison to the 1990s. This approach allows the researcher to properly isolate the analysis contextually and nevertheless, the results of the study suggest that the main interests of Russia in maintaining the conflict did not changed over the last years. The work will use a state-level analysis.

Conflicts are essential part of our history and since they shape social identities and have led to transformations of the world multiple times, they have emerged as a central focus of research for the study of international relations. Although contemporary conflicts do not share the scale of those occurred in the 19th and 20th century world, there are still hundreds if not thousands of conflicts worldwide, which represent field of research for many scholars.

This study will provide insights on a specific type of conflict, one which have prolonged for decades, without any significant change. Most importantly it will focus on the impact which external actors may have on the conflict per se, as well as on its prospects. In the contemporary world, as well as throughout history there have been numerous cases in which global powers have interfered in conflicts using various means. The work will stress the involvement of Russia in one of the conflicts, which was affected by the global processes generated with the end of the Cold War and especially the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Given the fact that the conflict is relatively distant from the Hearth of Europe and its scale in the last two decades has been much smaller than the disputes in the Middle East for example, it has remained somewhat unpopular in the public discourse in Europe. Thus, this study will put light on what seems to be one of the Europe`s forgotten conflicts.

To answer the research question, this study will rely on concepts, which have been to a higher or lesser degree neglected in the decades after the end of the Cold War. Thus, it will present how “old” instruments in explaining international affairs might be just as precise as the currently in fashion approaches. Therefore, from scientific point of view, this work aims at providing a different perspective on international affairs.

The structure of this work is the following. Chapter two will set the essential conceptual ground and will present a literature review on conflicts in general and on the Russian role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Chapter three will provide the theoretical framework, a brief account on the background of the Azeri-Armenian conflict, as well as the current state of relations between the involved actors. With the help of the main elements of international relations theories, chapter four will serve as the analysis of this work. The main conclusions and contributions of this work will be summarized in the conclusion chapter, before setting the ground for a future research on the topic as a final step of this work.

Chapter 2: The Conceptual Framework and Literature Review

This chapter includes the conceptual grounds of the analysis. A twofold approach is used in the next pages. First, the essential concepts of the paper will be provided and explained in-depth, in order to create a clear distinction and explanation between the important elements, which will be of central importance for understanding the message of this work. Second, the work will examine how the Yugoslav wars, the conflict in Transnistria, or also called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were studied in the literature so far and especially how the interference and behaviour of third parties is explained.

2.1 Concepts

The concepts which are defined as essential for this work are: national interest, spheres of influence, geopolitics, conflict stalemate, conflict management and conflict resolution, and will be observed in the following pages.

2.1.1 National Interest

The concept of national interest may be considered as one of the broadest in international relations, thus it is one the most easily abused terms, especially by politicians (Griffiths/O’Callaghan 2002: 203). Furthermore, as they write (2002: 203-204) there are three approaches, when it comes to the linkage criteria of the concept to specific policies – elitist, realist and democratic. The first approach suggests that the national interest should be referred to as the decisions of the highest government officials, responsible for the conduct of foreign policy, therefore they are the one identifying and defining what exactly the national interest is. The second approach is of significant importance for this work and will be the one taken into an account in the analysis afterwards. This approach, which is closely identified with the realist school of thought, observes the national interest under the notion of the basic assumption rooted in the way realist see international relations and the motivation of states. Thus, power is the essential component, which states should persuade, because of the anarchical structure of the international system, which creates security concerns among states. Therefore, only policies focusing on the increase of power and ensuring security can be identified as serving the national interest. Similarly, Mingst (2008: 63) argues, that:

“Realism is based on a view of the individual as primarily selfish and power seeking. Individuals are organized in states, each of which acts in a unitary way in pursuit of its own national interest, defined in terms of power”.

Thus, the understanding of the term from the point of view of realists fits in the above-mentioned statement of Griffiths/O’Callaghan, that the national interest is among the vaguest concepts, since we observe that it is not clearly defined, instead it is connected to power and security. The justification behind the decision to put emphasise on the realist approach to the concept will be revealed in the part describing the theories, which this work will rely on.

The last approach rejects both the elitist and realist view on the concept. This approach believes that the national interest can only be properly defined by pure democratic procedures and therefore, it should serve as a reflexion of the real preferences of a given nation. It is important to keep in mind that this approach does not necessary rejects the national interest of non-democratic countries, however it may be harder to be defined if it is not identified by democratic procedures.

2.1.2 Spheres of Influence

Generally, the term refers most often to the Cold War world order and the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the U.S.A., as Hast (2016: 6) for example mentions it. Moreover, she provides two definitions of the concept derived from the Cold War period:

“A ‘sphere of influence’ can be best described then, as a geographic region characterised by the high penetration of one superpower to the exclusion of other powers and particularly of the rival superpower (Kaufman 1976: 11 cited in Hast 2016: 6)”.

“A sphere of influence is a determinate region within which a single external power exerts a predominant influence, which limits the independence or freedom of action of political entities within it (Keal 1983, 15 cited in Hast 2016: 6)”.

For instance, Etzioni (2015: 117) writes, that sphere of influence is best understood as an arrangement, which consists of a dominant nation, which exercise superior power over others. However, it is important to keep in mind, that in order for the arrangement to fall in the category of sphere of influence, the level of control which the dominant nation exercises should be intermediate, which means it should be less than that of a colonizer or an occupational party, but higher than that of a coalition leader. Nonetheless, the influencer should aim at economic and ideological means over coercive ones, in order to influence and control the other parties. However, especially if we think in the Cold War context, it may be argued, that the last argument of Etzioni is not that accurate, since there are evidence proving that the super powers used coercive means towards their respective sphere of influence.

Furthermore, Etzioni (2015: 117) complements that, although the concept is largely neglected by the international relations literature, especially due to the liberal international order, it can provide exclusive insights on the contemporary challenges in international affairs and help to fill in some of the gaps in international relations theory in general.

2.1.3. Geopolitics

Although, this particular concept is relatively easy to understand and widely spread not only in the scientific sphere, but also in the public discourse, a little insight of its unique characteristics will be useful for this paper. The reason behind it is provided by Tickner and Waever (2009) in their book “International Relations Scholarship Around the World”. In the chapter exploring the IR scholarship in Russia, Sergounin (2009: 231-233) identifies geopolitics (also called “Eurasianism” in Russia) as currently popular concept and as a close “relative” with the nowadays dominant paradigm of realism in Russia. Moreover, he (2009: 233) complements, that due to the theoretical vacuum in Russian IR scholarship, the geopolitical challenges and the search for Russia`s national identity, interests and security, the paradigm of geopolitics in Russian IR thought is likely to extent its influence in the near future in the scientific debate, as well as among the policy-makers.

A definition of geopolitics per se is provided by Griffiths/O’Callaghan (2002: 120), as they write:

“Geopolitics is the study of the influence of geographical factors on state behaviour – how location, climate, natural resources, population, and physical terrain determine a state’s foreign policy options and its position in the hierarchy of states”.

The connection between location, wealth and power is of significant importance for geopolitical analysts. Furthermore, the key belief of geopolitical analysis is “that states’ economic and military capability, their position in the hierarchy of states, and how they relate to their neighbours are the consequence of geographical factors” (ebd.: 122). An important term in the context is geostrategy, as Brzezinski (1997: 31) writes, it is “the strategic management of geopolitical interests”.

2.1.4. Conflict Stalemate

Conflict stalemate occur for four major reasons: the failure of contentious tactics, exhaustion of necessary resources, loss of social support and unacceptable costs. Conflicting parties cannot or are not willing to escalate the conflict, however this is not a guarantee that the involved parties are aiming at actions which will later result in an agreement. Even in the situation of a conflict stalemate, parties may develop tactics in order to prevail over the other party through different means. In theory, if both parties come to the conclusion that the conflict is intolerable, the risk and costs are too high or unacceptable and that the continuation of the conflict is more harmful than its solution, then, this situation may serve as the basis for conflict reduction or conflict resolution (Rubin et al. 1994: 151-152).

Furthermore, Brahm (2003) contributes for the concept, as he writes, that if the involved actors have political and/or economic incentives of prolonging the conflict, logically they will not work in favour of resolution. Another issue towards the settlement of a given conflict, which may arise, is that leaders may fear loss of confidence in their abilities if they work for a resolution, because it may result in the perception that persuading the conflict in general was a mistake. Moreover, long-lasting conflicts are characterised with a hostile socialization of the parties towards each other, which results in unwillingness to accept other side`s demands.

Another important aspect of conflict stalemate is identified by Zartman (2001). As he writes, conflicting parties may find themselves in a situation of a Mutually Hurting Stalemate (MHS), which is based on the notion,

“[…] that when the parties find themselves locked in a conflict from which they cannot escalate to victory and this deadlock is painful to both of them (although not necessarily in equal degree or for the same reasons), they seek an alternative policy or Way Out.” (Zartman 2001: 8).

MHS is identified by him as one of the underlying elements of conflict resolution and his initial argument is that the timing of peace and settlement talks is as equally important as the essence of the solution proposal, when it comes to settlement of conflicts. Or as he puts it in, “parties resolve their conflicts only when they are ready to do so [...]” (ebd.). The same point of view is expressed by (Griffiths/O’Callaghan 2002: 255-256). A justification of his argument is provided by Henry Kissinger, who writes “stalemate is the most propitious condition for settlement” (Henry Kissinger 1974 cited in Zartman 2001: 8).

Conflict stalemate is a preferred term for this paper. As Markedonov (2018: 1) puts it in, the four-days war of 2016 serves as an example, why it would be a mistake to define the conflict as “frozen”. Moreover, Broers (2016: 5-8) identifies dozens of violations of the ceasefire between 2014 and 2016 and estimates that for the years preceding 2014 the casualties from the conflict were on average between 20 and 30 people annually. For instance, Hedenskog/Korkmaz (2016: 1) writes that for the period 1994-2016 there were smaller and larger skirmishes along the Line of Contact, however not as serious as the four-days war. Thus, the rhetoric of a “frozen conflict”, which is encountered in the literature on Nagorno-Karabakh, may not be that accurate.

2.1.5. Conflict Management

One of the important concept in order to understand the essence of the role of the Russian Federation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is conflict management. It refers to the activities of interventionalist towards the prevention of escalation and towards the negative and violent effects of ongoing conflicts. Since conflicts can rarely be completely resolved, they can be reduced and contained. A variety of approaches can be implemented, when conducting conflict management, however there are five most common steps. First, the conflicting parties are brought together in order to reach an agreement. Second, third parties or governments may directly intervene and introduce or even impose a decision. Third, new structures, institutions or programmes are established, so that the conflict issues can be addressed properly. Fourth, conflicting parties should agree on the execution of previously established means of resolution or containment, and lastly, governments or third parties involved in the conflict may introduce strict consequences or punishment if at some point one or all of the involved conflicting parties decides to break the agreement. Although, there are some commonly used steps in the management of conflict, the process should not be understood as a simple, straight-forward and structured process, since in most cases, the actors executing such task must deal with and overcome extremely chaotic situations (Miller 2005: 23).

Summarized, as Ramsbotham et al. (2011: 31) puts it in, conflict management or also referred to as “conflict regulation” is a generic term, covering the range of all positive activities in the handling of a conflict. Moreover, they understand it as a “more limited way to the settlement and containment of violent conflict” (ebd.).

2.1.6. Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution, as Ramsbotham et al. (2011: 31) write, is a more comprehensive term which requires the transformation of the deep-rooted sources of conflict. Therefore, it implies that the hostile attitudes and violent behaviour are no longer in play and the whole structure of the conflict has been changed. However, the term may be confusing to some extent, since it refers both to the process and intention of creating peace between conflicting parties and the completion of the process. Moreover, Miller (2005: 26) goes in-depth in explaining the term and writes that conflict resolution “involves recognition by the clashing parties of one another’s interests, needs, perspectives, and continued existence”. Furthermore, the most effective approaches are aimed at the cornerstones of the conflict and should address them through solutions, which are suitable and sustainable for all of the involved parties. Summarized, Wallensteen (2012: 8) provides a more normative definition of conflict resolution as a situation “where the conflicting parties enter into an agreement that solves their central incompatibilities […]”.

Nonetheless, it is important to mention at this point, since it will be of significant importance at a later stage of the work, that as Miller (2005: 26) puts it in, when for various reasons the conflicting parties prefer the continuation of the conflict over its resolution, this creates a serious challenge for the external parties, which aim at the resolution of the conflict and their role in keeping the balance of power or acting as neutral actors may be crucial. In conclusion, the author puts it in that not all conflicts welcome resolution techniques.

The concepts of conflict management and conflict resolution significantly differ from the first concepts. At this point is of fundamental importance to mention that the analysis chapter of this work will not examine the role of the Russian Federation from the perspective of peacekeeping initiatives, instead it will use theories of international relations, explaining how state behave in the international sphere. However, since Russia plays the role of a third party interventionalist in the Nagorno-Karabakh case, it was necessary to characterise the essence and methodology of the two terms.

2.2. Literature Review

This section will look closer at three conflicts to provide a more comprehensive insight on how the scholarship deals with conflicts in general and especially how the involvement of third parties is studied and explained. In addition to Nagorno-Karabakh, one large-scale war (the Yugoslav war) and one relatively small-scale conflict (the one in Transnistria, Moldova) are selected. The idea behind this selection is the following. Just as the Nagorno-Karabakh case, both conflicts have deep roots and were affected by the same global processes in the last years of the Cold War period. The first aims at presenting a broad overview, whereas the second is chosen, because some similarities with Nagorno-Karabakh case could be found. Thus, this approach will help the reader to be slightly introduced in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, it is important to keep into an account that no conflict is completely identical with others and creating analogies may be dangerous. Every single conflict is to a higher or lesser degree unique, due to context specific characteristics of the involved states, their history and culture and nonetheless the stakes. Therefore, some conflicts may seem to have identical origins in general, e.g. territorial, ethnic and religious disputes. Nevertheless, their concrete development and prospects for resolution differs because there are different interests in play and states may have various and contradictory demands towards the other side. Thus, logically the interests and means of interference of third parties will also differ.

2.2.1. The Yugoslav War(s)

The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s are among the bloodiest and most complicated conflicts in the post-Cold War era. If one should trace the origins of the conflict and properly connect the dots leading to the escalation merely the establishment of a whole journal is required. The reason is, that the wars in former Yugoslavia have deep social, political, ethnic and religious incentives, which could be traced even beyond the formation of the Federation in 1918 and the distribution of power within Yugoslavia. The wars were marked by a number of controversies such as extreme brutality of the involved parties, numerous war crimes, ethnic cleansings and massacres, military interventions of NATO and logically millions of internally displaced people and refugees. Therefore, the work will provide a broad overview on the timeline of some of the most important events, which accompanied the conflict and observe the interference of third parties in the conflict.

Yugoslavia consisted of 6 republics, which enjoyed a relative high level of autonomy – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. To some extent the disintegration processes which started in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s triggered a reaction within the Balkan Federation and voices of mistrust towards the leading Serbian role started to gain momentum. The secession of Slovenia in 1990 sparked the following violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, which started as a full-scale civil war. The main clashes were between Orthodox Serbs and Bosnian Muslim in Bosnia, between Serbs and Catholic Croats in Croatia, between the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) leaded by Serbia and Croatian government forces. Various paramilitary groups were established, and zones of military activity and skirmishers changed multiple times during the war and was especially severe in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. During the conflict, multiple efforts were made to find a diplomatic solution, through mediation by the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU, then EC), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE, then CSCE), Russia and others. Dozens of cease fire agreements were signed and not respected through the course of the war, economic and arms sanctions were imposed on the conflicting parties in order to make them cease the violence and even the largely disputed in the literature NATO military interventions did not led to an immediate effect. The war in Bosnia was brought to an end with the Dayton agreement signed in the U.S.A. in 1995 (Bercovitch/Fretter 2004: 246-247). According to them the wars costed the lives of at least 250,000 people and made another 3 million refugees.

In explaining the interest behind the NATO and U.S. interference in former Yugoslavia, Nagan et al. (1993: 210) writes, that

“the conflict in former Yugoslavia has the capacity to provoke conflicts of greater magnitude in the region, threatening vital U.S. interests in Europe and U.S. interests in keeping nuclear arsenals of the CIS under strict, responsible control and supervision”.

Moreover, he complements that the U.S. was only partly interested in the conflict at the beginning of the war, however, Washington changed its course over its development, partly due to a “[…] clear national security interest in maintaining international peace and security. This interest of principle implicates vital U.S. strategic concerns in Europe” (Nagan et al. 1993: 209). In addition, Schonberg (1999) writes that the behaviour and the relatively late intervention of the U.S. during the Yugoslav crisis can partly be explained by the foreign policy debate in the country, which occurred in the years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and was concerning the concrete and new role of the U.S. in the newly established world system. For instance, Daadler (1998) puts it in, that after the massacre in Srebrenica, the most inhumane act after the Second World War, the U.S. had the moral and humanitarian interest to intervene in the Bosnian war, because of the failure of the international community to properly address and prevent the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia, which in his account represents a “shame” for the West.

In relation to this paper the above-mentioned illustrates how a distant state (U.S.) may have interests in a conflict, which is far away from its borders, but represents a challenge for its allies and its future geopolitical intentions.

2.2.2. The Transnistria Conflict

In similarity to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the tensions in Transnistria started in the last years of the existence of the Soviet Union and fighting broke out with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Transnistria or also called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is a small strive of land located in North-Eastern Moldova, on the border with Ukraine, representing about 10% of the whole Moldavian territory. With the declaration of independence of Moldova from the Soviet Union in August 1991, the Transnistrian region asked to remain part of Russia, partly because at the same time the Moldavian and Romanian authorities held talks about unification of the two countries. Over the next months the tensions in the region increased, trough hostilities between Moldavian authorities and Transnistrian separatists, before in March 1992 the conflict erupted.

Russian forces started intervened on the side of the Russian minority and separatists, meanwhile Moldova received support from Romania. After intensified diplomatic negotiation accompanied by skirmishers in the region, which costed the life of more than 800 people and 100,000 were internally displaced (IDP), a peace agreement was signed in July 1992. A peace force was established, as well as an OSCE (then CSCE) five-side format talks, composed of Moldova and Transnistria, accompanied by Russia, Ukraine and OSCE as eventual settlement guarantors and mediators (Bercovitch/Fretter 2004: 249-250; Petrovická et al. 2010; Skordas 2005; Vahl/Emerson 2004).

The first decade of negotiation towards a settlement between Moldova and Transnistria in the OSCE five-side format was not sufficiently productive and only minor breakthroughs were made (Vahl/Emerson 2004: 10-18). Although, the tensions remained the military conflict has not resume (Bercovitch/Fretter 2004: 249-250).


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The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. Which Role Does the Russian Federation Have in Preserving the Stalemate?
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Political Science)
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nagorno-karabakh, conflict, which, role, does, russian, federation, have, preserving, stalemate
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Simeon Ivanov (Author), 2018, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. Which Role Does the Russian Federation Have in Preserving the Stalemate?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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