Implications of the Russian-Georgian War in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Limited Maneuverability


The main indicators of the new status quo established in the South Caucasus after the August 2008 war are the emergence of two partly recognized states — Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia’s changed status from negotiator/mediator/neighbor into direct regional actor, and the increased strength of the Russian-Turkish partnership.

The sharply changed situation in the region has provoked activity along two tracks: It intensifies the Armenian-Turkish process of reconciliation and stimulates some asymmetric activity in the process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement. Further developments in the area of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should be analyzed against the background of the following factors:

– The Russian and Turkish activity since August of 2008 and their overlapping/contradicting/coinciding interests in the South Caucasus. Both regional powers are trying to reshape the region in terms of the Realpolitik and to confirm the strong priority of their bilateral strategic partnership. [i]

– Some reduction of US, NATO, and EU activity in the region against the background of the world economic crises.

– Internal political and socio-economic developments in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno Karabakh.

All of the above-listed factors have narrowed the space for strategic manoeuvring for all three main actors in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This article is focused on the limitations in manoeuvrability[ii] of Azerbaijan, Nagorno Karabakh, and Armenia.


The outcome of the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts, as well as the recognition of two secessionist republics by Russia (and the most likely long-term, if not final, withdrawal of these territories out of Georgian jurisdiction), have sent signals of caution to Azerbaijan: It must demonstrate more restraint in implementing its foreign and domestic politics.

It has become obvious that:

– Following Georgia’s example in the one-sided orientation to the West and ignoring Russian interests in the region will inevitably lead to a confrontation with Russia.

– Azerbaijan owing to its capacity to energy supply could be considered by the Western democracies as a key regional actor if Baku undertakes even slight democratic transformation.

– Future trends regarding the search for new routes for energy supplies from the Caspian region has required from Azerbaijan substantial flexibility concerning the building of its relations with Russia and Iran, as well as with Kazakhstan and the Central Asian states.

In this qualitatively new, post-five-day-war situation, Azerbaijan will likely continue its balanced policy in respect to Russia and the United States. It will conduct a somewhat complementary policy that aims to achieving understanding and guarantees from the international community both in regard to security for the pipelines’ operation and for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The problem of settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for Azerbaijan, as a former “metropolitan state,”[iii] remains a key issue. The Azerbaijani leadership has blamed the OSCE Minsk Group[iv] for the alleged ineffectiveness of its mediation efforts, and tries to reformat the negotiating process. It makes statements about the readiness to reinstate the territorial integrity of the country by force in the event that negotiations fail.[v] Hence, the frequency of the militaristic statements has increased.

Moreover, significant shifts inside the country are allowing the Azerbaijani leadership to prepare appropriate ground for unleashing a new war against Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia in the medium-term, one that would redirect the public disappointment from serious domestic political problems to the external enemy. Among them it is necessary to mention:

– The presidential elections in October 2008 and the more restrained behavior of the opposition in comparison to the previous elections.

– The constitutional amendments of spring, 2009.

–  Existent latent conflicts in those areas densely populated by ethnic minorities, in particular Talyshes in the south and Lezgins in the north.[vi]

– Growth of the role of the army in the internal political processes, which is inevitable for the authoritarian regime, especially against the context of the unresolved conflict.

– Increase of the significance and role of political Islam.[vii]

Finally, social polarization, a high level of corruption, and a severe limitation upon democratic freedoms are apparent.  Thus, there are no internal factors or forces to challenge or prevent the unleashing by Azerbaijan of a new war in the region.

The main external prevention factor is the military and political balance of forces in the area of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in the overall region. This factor can prevent Azerbaijan from being tempted to start a war and seeking a quick and guaranteed military victory.

Several secondary factors can be considered in some circumstances as temporary inhibiting factors: a) awareness that the Azerbaijani pipelines might be damaged, b) Armenia’s membership in the Common Security Treaty Organization and active participation in the creation of its Quick Response Forces, and c) any positive developments concerning Armenian-Turkish rapprochement.

The developments in the area of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in Azerbaijan itself make for a high probability that Azerbaijan will restart military actions in the medium-term perspective (5-8 years). In addition to the incorrect identification of the conflict as only a territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan that neglects its ethno-political component and ignores Nagorno Karabakh as a party to the conflict, there is also cultivation in Azerbaijani society of the enemy image of Armenians.

It is possible to conclude that, in the case of Azerbaijan, its field for maneuverability is limited mainly by the internal situation in the country.  This implies that the political behavior of the Azerbaijani leadership during the negotiations will be toughening and aimed at justifying the war against Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.


For Armenia, as a party to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the situation has changed substantially since the August 2008 war in Georgia.

Firstly, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia had a direct impact on the settlement process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: It stimulated not only the activity of Russia and Turkey in the conflict settlement, but also intensified their cooperation in the economic and political spheres. It also indirectly increased their pressure on Armenia as a party to the conflict.

Secondly, the initiation of the process of Armenian-Turkish rapprochement against the background of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict enhanced the interdependence of the conflict settlement process and the resolution of a complex of problems in bilateral relations with Turkey.6 It also strengthened Turkish support of Azerbaijan.

Thirdly, the unsuccessful attempt by Armenian authorities to separate the process of normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations from the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement process complicated the intra-state situation. It shattered the ruling coalition and increased a gap between the authorities and the opposition. It also influenced the relationships with the Diaspora and developed mistrust in Nagorno Karabakh.

Fourthly, the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia provoked some speculation regarding the possibility for Armenia to recognize Nagorno Karabakh.

The interrelationship of all these external and internal factors has limited the manoeuvrability of Armenia both in respect to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Armenian-Turkish rapprochement. To increase or restore its position, Armenia needs to exert every effort to re-include Nagorno Karabakh into the negotiations. This will involve, first of all, overcoming the intransigence of Azerbaijan. In order to achieve any progress, the major external actors must convince the Azerbaijani government that the direct participation of Nagorno Karabakh in the negotiations is indispensable.

The Russian recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as another precedent, after Kosovo, that changed the status of state entities as well as the borderlines in Europe, has some impact on the situation in Nagorno Karabakh itself. There are two positive shifts. First, the mediators realize the necessity for re-inclusion of Nagorno Karabakh into direct negotiations “in the future.” Second, during the state-building process the authorities of this unrecognized state entity have chosen a pathway aimed at implementing democratic developments. Their pragmatic approach, and the support of society, resulted in the evaluation of Nagorno Karabakh as “partly free” by Freedom House in its report for 2010 of the states and “disputed territories.” Azerbaijan, on the other hand, was included on the list as a country “not free”.[viii] This pathway has provided Nagorno Karabakh with some maneuverability against the background of growing authoritarianism in Azerbaijan.

It is also obvious that the position of Nagorno Karabakh is critical for the success of any interim and final conflict settlement decisions and resolutions. The idea of a possible return to the Azerbaijani jurisdiction remains unacceptable for Nagorno Karabakh. In the meantime, hostile statements by the Azerbaijani leadership, and their unwillingness to negotiate with Nagorno-Karabakh, force the latter to continue bolstering its defensive capacities.

Because the threat of war is still very high, for Nagorno Karabakh re-inclusion into direct negotiations is crucial. This is in all likelihood the only avenue to avoid the resumption of war in the area of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


Freedom House (2010). Freedom in the World 2010: Global Data. Retrieved from

Fuller, L. (2008). Analysis: Do Azerbaijan’s Ethnic Minorities Face Forced Assimilation? RFE/RL Caucasus report. Retrieved from

Gerber, L. (2007). Minorities in Azerbaijan. Cimera. Retrieved from

Goble, P. (2008). Azerbaijan’s other ethnic minorities: between politics and geopolitics. Azerbaijan in the World, I(9). Retrieved from

ICG (2008). Azerbaijan: Independent Islam and the state. Europe Report, 191. Retrieved from

Swietochowski, T. (2009). Islamic trends in the post-soviet Azerbaijan. Center for Strategic Analysis Spectrum Regional Security Issues: 2008, 90-97.

Yunusov, A. (2004). Islam in Azerbaijan. Baku: Zaman.


[i] Refer to the speeches of Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Abdullah Gül on the occasion of the official visit of the Russian President to Turkey in May, 2010.

[ii] The term “manoeuvrability” is used to indicate the framework of flexibility and independence in the decision-making process against the background of the external and internal factors.

[iii] The term “metropolitan state” was used first by Dov Lynch to refer to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova as states with territories populated by national minorities, fighting for their independence. See Dov Lynch, Engaging Eurasia’s Separatist States. Unresolved Conflicts and De Facto States. United States Institute of Peace. Washington, D.C., 2004.

[iv] The speculations about an appointment of Matthew Bryza, former Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, as the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan has raised some suspicions in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh as well.

[v] In an April 23, 2010 speech made at a meeting on army construction issues at the Ministry of Defense, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev stated that, “Azerbaijan is at war. The war is not over, only its first stage is. We must be able to liberate our lands in a military way at any moment.” Retrieved from the official website of the President of Azerbaijan:

At a previous speech he made on March 20, 2010, Aliev said, “We will be increasing our expenses on the defense industry every year; we will be strengthening our army, buying new weaponry. We will do everything for the Azerbaijani Armed Forces to be able to fulfill the order of the commander-in-chief at any moment and in a short period of time. This is our sovereign right and we don’t need any advisers in that.” Retrieved from the official website of the President of Azerbaijan:

[vi] See: Paul Goble. Azerbaijan’s Other Ethnic Minorities: Between Politics and Geopolitics. Azerbaijan in the World Vol. I, No. 9 (June 1, 2008). URL:

Lis Fuller. Analysis: Do Azerbaijan’s Ethnic Minorities Face Forced Assimilation? RFE/RL, Caucasus Report, June 26, 2008, URL:

Lea Gerber, Minorities in Azerbaijan. Cimera, Spring 2007. URL:

[vii] See, in particular, Azerbaijan: Independent Islam and the State// ICG Report #191, Europe, March 25, 2008; Tadeusz Swietochowski, Islamic Trends in the Post-Soviet Azerbaijan. // Regional Security Issues: 2008. Yerevan, Center for Strategic Analysis Spectrum, Amrotz Group, 2009, pp. 90-97; Arif Yunusov, Islam in Azerbaijan. Baku, Zaman, 2004.

6 Armenia and Turkey have asymmetric strategic interests in normalization of the bilateral relationship. As a multidimensional regional power, Turkey has its scale of priorities, the main part of which stem from domestic considerations. The normalization of relations with Armenia is not a priority — even less so, against the background of Turkish public opinion in regard to Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani losses in the aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in particular. It is difficult to expect accelerated positive developments in Armenian-Turkish rapprochement.

[viii] Freedom in the World 2010: Global Data.

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