A while back I started a series on “frozen conflicts” in the former USSR. The first two (on Transnistria) can be found here and here. I was planning to do them in order from least bad to worst (which would put South Ossetia next) but decided to jump ahead a bit to Nagorno-Karabakh.
What the heck is Nagorno-Karabakh, anyway?
Briefly: it’s a small, mountainous territory in the Caucasus, about the size of a small US state or a large British county. Until the USSR collapsed, it was part of Azerbaijan. But the population was mostly Armenians. So there was a vicious little war in the early 1990s, which the rest of the world pretty much ignored.
The Azeris lost, so today Nagorno is almost entirely Armenian. It claims to be an independent country, but nobody recognizes it.
So why shouldn’t you care?
Because Nagorno is small, distant, poor, mountainous, thinly populated, lacking in natural resources, and completely without strategic value to anyone but the Armenians and the Azeris.
Nagorno is pretty much the definition of a backwater. If you’re American, think West Virginia but without the coal. If you’re British, think Powys but… does Powys have any coal any more? Anyway, there’s just nothing there. There’s no reason for you to care about it.
(It is pretty, mind you. Nice mountains. Lots of forests.)
So why might you have to care one day anyway?
Because of the pipeline.
The BTC pipeline runs from Baku (capital of Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea), up through Georgia, down into Turkey, and out to the Mediterranean Sea at Ceyhan in southern Turkey. Because Azerbaijan and Armenia are in a state of cold war — no diplomatic relations, borders closed — the pipeline goes around Armenia.
Some key points about the BTC pipeline:
1) It is the only pipeline carrying oil out of the former Soviet Union that doesn’t go through Russia.
2) It carries a lot of oil. At full capacity it’s going to pump about a million barrels a day. By itself, the pipeline will supply around 1% of global demand for crude.
3) As oil flows out of the pipeline, money flows back in. The pipeline is earning Azerbaijan roughly a billion dollars a month.
Meanwhile, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is still unresolved. But unlike the other frozen conflicts, this one has a real chance of going hot again. Azerbaijan, you see, is using a lot of that oil revenue to arm; they doubled the size of their military budget in 2004-2006, and have doubled it again since.
The Azeris aren’t ready for a second round yet. The Armenians handed them a pretty convincing defeat last time, and this time they’ll be holding a strong defensive position in mountainous terrain. But day by day, month by month, the Azeri buildup is taking on a momentum of its own. One day it’ll be impossible for the Azeri leadership not to attack Nagorno-Karabakh.
When? As someone or other said in 1937, “Not this August, and not next August. But the year after that, or the year after that, they will fight.”
— It’s not inevitable. There’s an international negotiating effort — the Minsk Group — that has brought both sides close to an agreement a couple of times. There are still a couple of years in which to turn it around.
But internal Azeri politics, plus the new strategic element of the pipeline, are gradually pushing Azerbaijan towards war. If the two sides can’t negotiate their way out, then at some point the balloon will go up.
And if it does? Well then, pretty early in the conflict the Armenians will take out the pipeline. It doesn’t make much sense to let the enemy keep pumping money, after all. The pipeline is between one and two meters underground for most of its length, but that’s neither here nor there; modern heavy weaponry isn’t going to pay much heed to a meter of dirt. Its location is not a mystery; the gash made by its construction was easily visible on Google Earth. The pipeline goes far enough from the Armenian-Azeri border to be out of easy artillery range (the closest approach is just over 30 km) but it’s still vulnerable to air and missile attack. The Azeri oil money may be able to buy command of the air, but you just know the Armenians will keep trying until they take it out.
At which point the rest of the world will suddenly wake up and take notice. Oil doesn’t have much elasticity of supply right now, so a 1% reduction in world supply will result in more like a 3%-5% increase in price. Unless you live in Riyadh, you’ll feel the difference as soon as you next fill your tank.
This is just a scenario. But with every month that passes, it’s an increasingly likely scenario.
There are people working to prevent it, mind. It’s slow diplomatic slog work, not very glamorous. But let’s take a moment to think of them, and murmur a prayer or raise a glass: may they succeed, so that the rest of us never have to know any more about Nagorno-Karabakh.