Azerbaijani officials claimed Thursday to have shot down an Armenian drone in their territory, Reuters reports. Although Armenia brushed off the charge as “absurd,” the episode is the latest in a series of escalating tensions between the uneasy neighbors of the South-Caucasus region.
The two nations’ dispute centers on the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority area inside Azerbaijan. Mutual resentment between the two groups built up in the late-Ottoman era partially due to Armenia’s disastrous relationship with Turkey, with whom Azerbaijan shares close cultural ties. The conflict lay relatively dormant under Soviet rule, until violence broke out in 1988 over control of Nagorno-Karabakh. The 1994 ceasefire left this a relatively open question, prompting regional analyst Svante E. Cornell to dub the territory “the mother of all unresolved conflicts” in the post-Soviet world.
Since the Soviet collapse, Armenia has remained a staunch Russian ally, while Azerbaijan has developed significant ties to the U.S. and the E.U. Officials in the West consider Azerbaijani friendship important in light of its many strategic advantages: it borders both Russia and Iran, is rich in oil, and is a secular Muslim supporter of Israel.
The contested Armenian drone tails over a year of nearby skirmishes between the two states, leaving many observers puzzled about the root cause of the increased unrest. There is plenty of evidence that the hot button of Nagorno-Karabakh is being pressed for reasons that have less to do with Armenia than they do with Azerbaijan’s ties to the West. Throughout 2014, Azerbaijan’s dismal human rights record began to attract international attention, including a New York Times op-ed condemning the U.S. for ignoring the anti-democratic measures taken by our ally. The Azerbaijani ambassador’s response to the piece sheds light on what is perhaps the underlying motive for sounding the alarm on Nagorno-Karabakh: human rights abuses of the Azerbaijani government are not the problem, he argued, Armenian abuses are. In other words, the heightened drama surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh could be a tool to attract international support and deflect attention from the domestic crackdown.
Despite its pro-Western strategy, Azerbaijan does seem to be hedging its bets with Russia as well: many observers have argued this is likely a self-preservation response to the conflict in Ukraine. Because Russia has publicly attested its support for Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, Baku appears to be stoking a preemptive friendship. Russia has been supplying more military supplies to Azerbaijan as of late, and the countries recently made a deal for a railway running through Azerbaijani territory to connect Russia and Iran. At the same time, Baku appears to be chilling relations with Washington: in December, a government raid forcibly shut down U.S.-backed RFERL’s Baku bureau, and jailed one of their journalists focusing on corruption in Baku.
Wedged strategically and philosophically between the Russian and Western spheres, it’s clear that Azerbaijan conceives Nagorno-Karabakh in broad geopolitical terms. For now, it seems intent on forcing the global community to see its domestic crackdown and dispute with Armenia as completely separate issues. Given Baku’s tricky set of interests, this hardly seems to be a savvy analysis.