Why you shouldn’t care about Nagorno-Karabakh (and why you might one day have to)

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.

27 thoughts on “Why you shouldn’t care about Nagorno-Karabakh (and why you might one day have to)

  1. It’s not so much airpower I’d worry about as blokes with knowledge of the mountains and bags of plastique; see Iraq for an object lesson. Of course, there the issue is that the defenders don’t have popular support, but I’m sure they can find someone who can pass for Azeri.

  2. Does the issue of Nakhchivan have any relevance here? I know very little about current politics in the area, but just looking at maps makes it clear that Nakhichevan is cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenia; surely coming to some kind of resolution over Karabakh would make life easier for Nakichevanis?

  3. Alex, there are plenty of Armenians who can pass for Azeri, and vice versa. In Karabakh, back in the day, both groups mingled freely and thousands of people were comfortably bi- and tri-lingual. So, yah, that’s an issue too. I would expect Azerbaijan to crank up pipeline security pretty high; I really don’t know if that would help or not. (Though IMS much of the Iraqi pipeline network is above ground?)

    Geoff, Nakhichevan is affected but it’s not directly in play. The Armenians seriously considered invading it during the last war — it was almost undefended, it was a strategic PITA, and they had a historic claim. However, the Turks and Iranians made it clear that they didn’t approve.

    Iran was neutral during the war; popular sentiment favored the Azeris, but cooler heads realized that a defeated and distracted Azerbaijan was not a bad thing for Iran. However, they definitely didn’t want a wave of Azeri refugees coming into Iran — which is where the Nakhichevani would have ended up.

    Turkey favored Azerbaijan, and very broadly hinted that an Armenian attack on Nakhichevan would trigger Turkish military intervention. Since Armenia had its hands full winning the war in Karabakh, and Nakhichevan was a sideshow, the Armenians backed down.

    In a future war, it would probably be the same, at least in the early stages. But note that while Turkey is still strongly in favor of Azerbaijan, Iran has drifted more towards favoring Armenia — they resent the Azeri competition in gas and oil, and they don’t really want a strong prosperous Azerbaijan that could be attractive to Iran’s own large Azeri minority.

    Doug M.

  4. I’m from Powys. I’m not sure it had much coal. Well, there’s a few open cast mines down by the south west corner, but that’s about it.

    Other than that, there mountains, reservoirs, lake and sheep.

    And that’s about all.

    I moved to London…

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  6. Powys supplies most of the West Midland’s water. They’d miss it if they turned off the taps.

  7. Ive read, with respect to the vulnerability of Saudi pipelines, that damaged pipelines generally can be repaired quickly and inexpensively. Damage to pipeline pumping stations is a much more serious matter. Blow up a pumping station, and the pipeline might be out of service for months.

  8. “But internal Azeri politics, plus the new strategic element of the pipeline, are gradually pushing Azerbaijan towards war.”

    Details? Agents? Who are the actors doing the pushing?

    (The sequel to my 1996 thesis on N-K always had the working title, “Just Add Oil and Money.”)

  9. Why was the pipeline built to Ceyhan? Couldn’t it have been kept much shorter, by extending only as far as one of the Georgian ports on the Black Sea?

  10. @Peter: the pipeline went to Ceyhan because Turkey is sick of monster oil tankers going through the Bosporus.

    Under a 1935 agreement with the USSR, Turkey is obliged to allow free traffic through the straits. But since then, traffic has increased something like a hundred times over… while, at the same time, Istanbul has turned into an immense modern city sprawling along both sides of the (narrow) strait. Ship traffic is now pretty much constant rush hour, and the Turks are seriously worried about a major accident — an oil tanker running aground, for instance.

    If the pipeline had stopped at the Black Sea, it would have added to the traffic in the Straits, and in the worst possible way: one supertanker after another. The Turks really, really wanted to avoid that.

    Doug M.

  11. @Oliver: Armenia doesn’t care. Or rather, it cares, but it’ll piss off the world if that’s what it takes to keep Karabakh.

    @Doug: Aliyev _fils_ is in a much weaker position than Aliyev _pere_. Even with the oil money, he just doesn’t command the same sort of fear and respect. So there’s a strong incentive for him to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.

    Also, he’s been building up the military, which Father Aliyev was always wary of. Heydar Aliyev was no fool — he rose from obscure origins, up through the ranks of State Security, to die old and in bed. He understood the risks of giving money to the colonels and generals. Aliyev Junior… is creating a petro-military complex that’s quickly taking on a life of its own. He may one day have no choice but to turn the beast out, lest it turn its appetite on him.

    Meanwhile, Azeri propaganda about Karabakh has gotten more intense and less connected to reality with each passing year. By now there’s a real danger of blowback, with the ruling elites starting to believe their own bullshit. Again, this was not an issue under Aliyev Senior, but Junior and the people around him aren’t that kind of smart.

    Finally, there are the refugees: several hundred thousand of them, well on their way to forming a permanent underclass. It’s still ironclad government policy not to integrate them into society (because that would be admitting that they’re not going home). So they sit in the camps and fester. That’s a continuing irritation that’s grown worse, not better, over time.

    Doug M.

  12. I suspect that would Azeris attack Armenia, they would be much worse for the wear.

    One question who would supplied them with quality military hardware. Russia and Iran support Armenia, Turkey supports Azerbaijan, but Western countries, USA included, much less so. So I do not expect Azeris to get really hot weapons that could make big difference.

    Armenians hold high ground and probably intelligently fortified the frontier. So it would not be a blitz-krieg. And who would supply the belligents with fresh ammo? Azerbaijan would probably be quickly cut-off from possible supplies through Georgia, while Armenia would have secure land supply routes from Iran and air-lift from Russia.

    On top of that, Nakhichevan enclave can be accessed by Azerbaijan only because of gracious permission of Iran.

    So the most prudent policy for Azerbaijan is to keep its “petro-military complex” a peaceful oasis of multi-billion dollar graft. Armenians, on the other hand, have their backs against the wall and military matters are dead serious for them. Plus, they can get decent weapons and as much ammo as they may need.

  13. @Piotr: I’ll let someone who knows more about these matters (Alex?) discuss the “Janes” aspect of Azeri rearmament.

    I will say that, at current oil prices, the pipeline is bringing them well over a billion dollars a month… maybe closer to two billion. Two billion dollars buys a lot of end user certificates.

    Also, as to Armenia having a secure land route through Iran? Dude. I’ve been over that land route. It’s a twisty, mountainous highway that goes over a couple of high (>2,000 meter) passes and that regularly shuts down for weeks at a time in winter. There’s another road from Karabakh to Iran — I’ve been on that one too; it’s in better shape, but it’s awfully close to the frontier.

    Armenia to Georgia? Two two-lane roads, one not-so-great rail line. Again, the roads regularly close in winter. (There’s no rail line to Iran. Used to be back in Soviet times, but it went through Nakhichevan.)

    Icing on the cake: there are just two roads between Armenia and Karabakh, and one is a high trail that hasn’t been fixed since Soviet times. The other is in good shape but, again, is narrow and twisty and tends to close in winter.

    Armenia is much more isolated than Azerbaijan. Much more. It has only a handful — literally a handful, you can count them on your fingers — of road and rail links to its neighbors. And if the Azeris ever got command of the air, they could sever those links with ease. Whether that’s plausible is something else again, but it should be making both sides thoughtful.

    Doug M.

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  16. The BTC pipeline runs through the part of Georgia populated by ethnic Armenians. This is where the pipeline is most likely to be sabotaged in the event of a war.

  17. Armenia knows that the Karabakh problem must be resolved in an amicable way, and it has been preparing for the moment for the past several years. The problem is that whoever signs the agreement on the Armenian side will be ostracized by the people of both Armenia and Karabakh. So the decision has been held back until Armenia’s two Karabakhi dictators finally assert their dominance, by installing Sargsyan as President, after which Kocharian will undoubtedly be made Prime Minister. When that happens (maybe the first part already has?), be sure that the Karabakh problem will very quickly be resolved; not for any legal, moral or political reason, simply so that Kocharian, Sargsyan and their small (but soon to be quickly increasing) circle of cronies can cash in on the billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains they have been laundering in Yerevan through the past several years.

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  19. So what is the U.S.’s economic and political interests in the conflict? I imagine that the regional oil plays a huge factor, as well as the push for democracy in the former second-world. I believe the State Dept.’s official stand is that Azer. is entitled to its soveriegn territory, and of course the Turkish-Aremnian conflict would push more U.S. support towards its key regional ally (Turkey) and its OEF/OIF contributer (Azer.). Iran’s good relations with Armenia definitely complicates things as well.

    I would imagine that this could spur additional secessionist movements if the Armenians are successful, thereby perhaps igniting this caucausian powder keg.

    So what else could be the U.S.’s key economic and political interests? How so?

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  21. Hi, I’m writing a research paper on basically this exact topic. I really appreciated your succinct and clear explanation of the issue–it was exactly what I was looking for. I was wondering whether you had sources that I might be able to cite. I’ve cited your work; however, given the academic nature of my paper, I’m required to have sources beyond. I really appreciate any help you can lend.


  22. HI. Very succinct and accurate analysis, Mr Muir. But in your essay (prior to the comments), you keep referring to NK as “Nagorno.” While it is often shorthanded as “Karabakh,” nobody says “Nagorno,” which is Russian for “Highland” as in “Highland Karabakh.” Just thought you should know. BTW, the drive into NK in May was quite lovely.

  23. Karabakh can not be of interest for Azeri people, because it is Armenian land (Armenians were born and died there during last three milleniums).
    Not so for Azerbaijan authorities – they are interested in drawing Azeris attention away from the situation inside of Azerbaijan. Modern Azerbaijan is a totalitarian poor country with hereditary lifelong “presidency” & barbaric customs.

  24. Gregory’s fascist comment about supposed “barbaric” customs of Azeris speaks for itself. One can only look at vandalized Azeri town of Aghdam to judge barbaric customs of Armenian military.

  25. @Teymur. Aghdam was not vandalized, it was recycled. Armenians used building materials from Aghdam to rebuild their homes after the war.

  26. @Dave, Aghdam was neither “vandalized” nor “recycled” — it was looted. First household goods and appliances, then fixtures, lamps, plumbing, copper electrical wire… everything of value was torn out and taken away. Perhaps some of the material was used in construction by Karabakhtsi Armenians, but most was taken away to be sold — as recently as the mid-2000s, you could still find stuff from Aghdam on sale in the vernissage in Yerevan.

    @Gregory, so only one group of people can claim a piece of land? It was okay to drive out the Azeris because they’ve only been there five hundred years instead of three thousand?

    Azerbaijan is indeed an authoritarian country with a hereditary presidency. On the other hand, Armenia is a de facto one-party state; as one observer noted, “elections in Armenia are perfectly free, as long as the HHK wins.” And when people got annoyed at this, the Armenian government showed no hesitation in gunning down protesters in the street a few years back.

    Doug M.

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