Geopolitics of Energy: The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War

John Norris
14 min readMar 31, 2021

The collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed an unparalleled recapture and redistribution of resources by many local populations, who frequently resorted to armed conflict to guarantee their security. This was particularly true in the South Caucasus, where Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet satellites, have been at each other’s throats for centuries due to ethinic, religious and nationalistic feuds.1 Most recently, the two countries found themselves in a second bloody war within the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area, where either side was being supported by the larger regional powers of Russia and Turkey, whose interests in the conflict differed from the nations fighting on the ground.2 Despite lasting fewer than two months, standing in sharp contrast to years-long First Nagorno-Karabakh War, the fighting represented both a new front in military conflict and how nations approached the acquisition of energy, environmental and resource security, with both Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking to control critical infrastructure that would provide water, minerals or economic trade routes to their people. Armenia, who was tepidly supported by Russia, found itself quickly overwhelmed in the early stages of the war by the technologically more capable Azeris, who, with the active support from Turkey, rapidly advanced on strategic positions held by Armenia that, once captured, would create a new energy corridor to Europe that no longer needed to bypass Armenia, providing both energy and resource security for many Azeris and Turks.3 The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War revealed that the South Caucasus region still has immense geopolitical importance and possesses many vital resources, which if used and shared sustainably could provide regional energy, environment and resource security, however, due to the threat of conflict and the ever-growing pressures emanating from global warming, which negatively exacerbates both anthropogenic and climate systems, regional stability is a severe risk of becoming markedly worse.

The scars from the First Nagorno-Karabakh War were still present at the start of the Second War, with issues related to water scarcity, forest cover and access to consistent energy plaguing the populations of both Armenia and Azerbaijan.4 These insecurities were compounded by the knowledge that the disputed territory, despite being mountainous and difficult to access, was rich in precious and semi-precious metals, such as gold and copper, and contained the critically important Sarsang reservoir and Dam.5 Previously, the districts within the Nagorno-Karabakh provided Azeris with a generous supply of fresh water and consistent energy, but during the First War, these critical resources were overtaken by Armenia, placing Azeri resource security at significant risk. The inability to access those resources, due to the partition of the Azeri State at the end of the First War, meant that Azerbaijan’s main benefactor, Turkey, no longer could safely acquire the abundance of oil and gas shipped from Baku via the Caspian Sea, since those trade routes were no accessible due to Armenian occupation of the logistical avenues through which Ankara previously imported and exported those hydrocarbons.A1,A2 As a result, recent analyses have shown that the trade surplus between Turkey and Azerbaijan has diminished significantly despite the close socio-economic ties the two countries share with each other.6 In this context, the military and logistical support provided by Turkey to Azerbaijan during and before the Second War makes complete sense. A reunification of Azerbaijan’s two disparate sovereignties would provide Turkey with its desired shorter, less expensive and more secure energy corridor to Central Asia and China’s Belt & Road Initiative.7,8 While Azerbaijan would get to reclaim territory lost in the First War, as well as finally regain access to European energy markets, thereby increasing their economic, energy and sovereign security.A3

Not only could war up new energy and economic avenues for both Azerbaijan and Turkey, but it also held the possibility of weakening Armenia’s geopolitical position by making it less of a socio-economic threat regionally and more reliant upon Russia. This suited Russian interests, since the nation has always sought to remain relevant in the region and maintain a sphere of influence in their former Soviet territories. On the other hand, Armenia, which is landlocked, possessed closed borders with two violent neighbors and was relatively weak militarily, was forced to guarantee much of its security through maintaining close bilateral ties with Russia. Specifically, the two nations are both members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and trade energy through either the North-South Gas Pipeline or the Southern pipeline from Iraq.9,A4 At the onset of the Second War, however, Russia failed to immediately support Armenia militarily and only entered the War after one of its helicopters was shot down, providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with a casus belli to forcefully intervene and arrest the Azeri offensive.10

It is clear that the Second War’s ending was not achieved through ground forces triumphantly emerging victorious, but because smaller powers were afraid of their larger benefactors entering the fray and complicating the entire theater of operation. To avoid either Russia or Turkey from deploying their own troops and carving up the entire region for themselves, thereby placing the security of both Armenian and Azerbaijan at significant risk, both Baku and Yerevan quickly signed onto a ceasefire peace agreement. The deal returned significant portions of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory to the Azeris, as recognition of their conquests, forced Armenia to both demobilize troops in the area and resettle all Armenians living within the territory, while also effectively guaranteed Russian and Turkish security in the region, since they would be deploying peacekeeping forces at vital throughways to uphold the terms of the agreement.A5 Unfortunately, this deal only occurred because Azerbaijan was able to buy superior firepower, advanced drones and artillery systems because of the income generated from the sale of Caspian Sea hydrocarbons, which came at the cost of the local environment and average citizens, who have seen little in the way of adaptation and mitigation investment, which might otherwise protect them from hazards or displacement.

Similar to the rest of the world, the South Caucasus region is beset by environmental threats, including flooding, landslides, earthquakes and unproductive arable land, which together places the security of many average citizens at high risk.11,A6 On top of that, the threat of war has compounded many of the existing security issues that impact those who have been either displaced by the incessant conflict or due to those identified hazards. In fact, after the First War, many Azeris were forced to flee the war-torn region and frequently were resettled in either the Karabakh and Lankaran districts, where floods and landslides, respectively, exacerbated the already poor situations these war-displaced communities were forced into.12 This ultimately put tremendous pressure on subsequent Azeri administrations to seek retribution via armed conflict against Armenia, who are frequently blamed for the deteriorating conditions observed within the Azeri State. In response, policy-makers in Baku faced the decision of investing in either sustainable development that would improve the existing living standards for those displaced, or invest in the military, which would be employed to reacquire the lands and strategic security resources lost after the First War. As observed, Azerbaijan chose the later option, and after the opening salvos on September 27, 2020, the new and improved Azeri armed forces rapidly pushed along several fronts to secure vital infrastructure, including the aforementioned water, mining and military installations that would provide effective control throughout the Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s offensive had the primary goal of reclaiming the less mountainous districts of southern Nagorno-Karabakh, including Fuzuli and Jabrayil, where the terrain was more accessible, favorable to future offensive operations and noted critical mining, energy and resource infrastructure existed.13 Several days after the onset of the Second War, it became clear that not only was Armenia out-gunned, but also woefully underprepared to deal with technologically advanced Azeri forces, whose tactical readiness far outpaced the Armenian armed forces, which had been weakened over years of mismanagement and corruption.15 The War was effectively ended after Azeri forces captured the regional capital, Shusha, which served as both a culturally and strategically significant location within the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and it was at this critical moment that Russia and Turkey became more prominently involved in the affair.

The two larger geopolitical powers began crafting a ceasefire agreement where the energy, resource and territorial spoils of war would be distributed amongst the non-losing countries. Specifically, stakeholders in Yerevan had to relinquish control over the formerly occupied territory within the Nagorno-Karabakh, while policy-makers in Baku gained administrative control over several districts in the area, though not all of the territories they had occupied during the War, while Russia was allowed to deploy troops in the Lachin corridor to monitor the implementation of the accord and Turkey got the ability to safely transport vital energy resources throughout the South Caucasus.16 During negotiations little to no consideration was given to either the average citizens who lost their livelihoods and faced displacement due to the War, nor the security of local ecosystems, whose very existence had been under constant threat from munitions bombardment and anthropogenically-influenced degradation.

A recent assessment conducted by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) broadly found that throughout the South Caucasus there were threats from a variety of environmental insecurities.17 Particularly, hazards, such as landslides, floods, melting glaciers and wildfires, were all expected to rise in frequency and lethality, causing serious damage to infrastructure, as well as lead to significant casualties and untold economic harm.18 As a consequence of average annual temperatures steadily increasing, extreme weather events (EWEs), such as hail and dust storms, as well as heatwaves, were also predicted to occur more often, raising the possibility of catastrophic events.19 Including the already poor resource quality due to an underdeveloped socio-economic sector, these environmental insecurities became further exacerbated because of the prevalence of oil and gas exploitation throughout the Caspian Sea. High corruption, inefficient agroforestry practices, poor sanitation and unsustainable mining activities have already decimated the floral and fauna populations within the area, as well as dramatically widened the existing wealth and security gaps amongst the populations of either Armenia or Azerbaijan.20 In fact, those less fortunate frequently find themselves unable to access adequate food, water and stable incomes, while also contending with an intermittent supply of expensive energy and a lack of natural services, which might otherwise mitigate the physical and economic damage sustained during times of crisis.

The OSCE’s report also found a significant lack in the proposal and implementation of measures or mechanisms dedicated toward adapting to climate change through the development of sustainable frameworks or policies.21 The assessment noted that without the introduction of many of their recommendations, not only would communities within the South Caucasus suffer on several levels, but the entire region would likely experience a catastrophic collapse of many hydrological systems, as well as reductions in potential energy capacity security.22 Many of these problems could be rapidly alleviated with improved resource management standards, further integration of regional economies and development of common transport, resource and energy policies that address the threats raised by global warming through cooperative frameworks built around preventing the worst climate-related threats.23 The continued shelling of natural ecosystems, over-exploitation by the oil and gas industries, as well as the use of lethal chemicals, such as white phosphorus, which is believed to have been used in districts surrounding Shusha, however, will make accomplishing these goals difficult to achieve.24 Evidence has shown that both regular munitions and chemical warfare inflict large-scale long-term damage to ecosystems by preventing them from naturally healing, growing and adapting to the rapidly changing climatic conditions. The environments in the Nagorno-Karabakh area are already relatively vulnerable due to years of conflict, as well as years of unsustainable farming practices and overuse of the resources found within the region, but continued degradation may cause a chain reaction that impacts all of the ecosystems within the South Caucasus, leading to irreversible damage.25 These worrisome trends, however, become particularly pronounced when critical resources, including water, fuel and food are examined, since much of the region suffers from a lack of sufficient access to these essential supplies.

A majority of the region experiences from some form of resource insecurity, which has negatively impacted the communities living in those risk-prone places, forcing them to migrate and place even further pressure on natural systems.A7 Only half of the Azeri population is connected to a potable water supply network, while in neighbouring Armenia and Georgia, these figures are higher, at 87 and 73% respectively.26 This discrepancy is because a majority of rivers originate in Georgia flowing downstream to Azerbaijan, leaving the country with little influence over water issues, including pollution and shared access.27 This insecurity certainly provided the Azeris with at least one impetus to go to war and represents a new form of warfare, where conflict related to critical resources, especially water, becomes the driving factor behind why nations take up arms against one another.

The South Caucasus is more drought-prone than other parts of the world at the same latitudes, and evaporation exceeds precipitation by 140 mm, while recently observed glacial melts in the Upper Svaneti, where many of the region’s freshwater is sourced, represents a long-term environmental disaster, which, if not addressed, will heighten existing instabilities as competition for water becomes more persistent.28 On top of this, forest ecosystems only account for about 11% of Armenia and Azerbaijan’s territory, yet wood represents an important resource for domestic energy, cooking and the timber trade, but sadly, these resources have been under constant anthropogenic pressure because of high rates of deforestation and frequent forest fires, which are often linked to droughts and unsustainable agricultural use.29 Both Armenia and Azerbaijan rely heavily on land resources for agriculture, which provides food security and contributes to macroeconomic growth, yet much of the land has become unproductive due to a combination of factors, including environmental degradation, desertification, overgrazing and unsustainable land management practices. This problem is most critical in rural areas where only between 2 and 17% of the population are connected to centralized sanitation systems, regularly contend with intermittent access to energy and freshwater is difficult to obtain.30 The continued unsustainable exploitation of the region’s resources, as well as the constant threat of another outbreak of war, will not only cause immediate human and economic losses, but threatens to reverberate outward, threatening the global security as a black swan event triggers an extensive energy or food crisis disrupting the livelihoods of millions who already face dire circumstances.

Stalin’s ghost still haunts the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory, even after his fateful 1923 decision, dispensing confusion, death and despair across the region.31 Sadly, until hydrocarbon-related corruption is reduced, war becomes a far-flung prospect and administrative reforms focused on both sustainable development and resource usage are implemented, Stalin’s curse cannot be exorcised. Due to its abundance of natural resources, as well as its geostrategic location, however, the South Caucasus will continue to represent another manifestation of the resource curse, where its fate is intricately tied to its critical resources. These resources have clearly attracted the attention of international governments and businesses, who are eager to secure them for themselves by taking advantage of the existing regional tensions and outbreak of another war. The Second War’s conclusion, and subsequent peace deal, which was brokered with Russian and Turkish oversight, left Russian security forces to guard within the region to ensure the peace meaning the Kremlin gained a military foothold in the region and welded Armenia firmly into its sphere of influence, without alienating Azerbaijan, meaning that regional economic security was left intact.32 Additionally, the settlement sealed a role in the region for an increasingly assertive Turkey, which would be able to hold sway over critical and climatically-sensitive infrastructure, including mining facilities, hydropower stations, power transmission lines, transportation facilities and strategic supply routes.33 All told, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War has exacerbated ongoing socio-economic problems and made the South Caucasus more vulnerable to future climate-influence hazards, while also highlighting how local powers have little control over their own security as it relates to energy, the environment and critical strategic resources.

Sources:

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John Norris

Graduate student from NYU's Center for Global Affairs interested in the intersection between climate change and security, with an emphasis in disaster relief.