Lessons in pragmatism for Pakistan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
The breakdown of the Soviet Union transformed the political geography in large parts of the world ranging from Western Europe to the Caucuses and Central Asia. As the Soviet State structure collapsed, in the late 1980’s, tensions began brewing between the Republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia over the fate of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region.
This region, though politically and geographically a part of Azerbaijan, had a majority Armenian population. A full-scale conflict erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia as the Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional parliament voted to become part of Armenia. In the ensuing war that lasted till 1994, Armenian forces were able to not only capture the region itself but also other adjoining Azerbaijani territories. This new political reality was clearly a massive breach of Azerbaijani sovereignty, but the status quo continued for more than thirty years until it was reversed in the recent offensive launched by Azerbaijani forces to recover their territories.
This endeavor by Azerbaijan was fully backed by the country’s multiple allies on political and military levels. Additionally, a cautious silence from Russia, a long-term backer of Armenia weighed in positively for Azerbaijan and managed to retake a sizeable chunk of the Nagorno-Karabakh region alongside its other lost territories. The success of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh theatre after almost 30 years of first losing it and at a time when most pundits had considered the status of the region a fait accompli, indeed has lessons in realpolitik.
The success of Azerbaijan can be accredited to both the political acumen of its leadership and the national perseverance of Azerbaijani people. The Azerbaijani nation kept the wound of Nagorno-Karabakh alive in its national ethos. Since the very generation of refugees that had lost its homes at the hands of Armenians was alive, the human element of this political tragedy never subsided.
Pakistan needs to adopt a foreign policy approach that preserves and manifests its ideological and political ideals but is also open to new partnerships out of its traditional comfort zone. A policy of drawing black and white geo-political blocks and imaginary political alliances while foregoing the country’s economic interests needs major revision
On the part of Azerbaijani decision makers, a well-crafted strategy of strengthening the national position in the political, defense and economical realms eventually provided dividends. During the conflict of the 1990’s, Azerbaijan was the weaker side and its economic muscle was not as well developed as it is today. The development of the oil and gas sector and particularly the construction of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline in 2005 and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum Gas Pipeline in 2007 have resulted in the influx of significant hydrocarbon revenues to the exchequer.
The country gained strategic leverage after it became connected to the European energy markets but continued to maintain cordial ties with the regional big-wig Russia.
Azerbaijan’s political strategy entailed aligning pragmatically with different regional and extra-regional states. It started engaging with countries that shared either the same ethnic or religious bonds or found common grounds in terms of regional geo-politics. This resulted in Azerbaijan developing extremely close ties with its ethnic brothers in arms, Turkey. Since Azerbaijan’s relationship with Iran had remained rather contentious, it struck a partnership with Iranian Nemesis Israel that was desperate to find partners in the Muslim world. Within South Asia, Azerbaijan always found political support in Pakistan. Not only did Pakistan not recognize Armenia, but it always diplomatically supported the Azerbaijani position on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.
This coalition of allies was to play an instrumental role in setting up the basic infrastructure of the Azerbaijani victory when the time came. The relationship with Turkey enhanced the military capabilities of the Azerbaijani troops as they were able to train and study alongside NATO’s second largest military. The technological advancements particularly in drone technology and defense manufacturing were all readily available to the South Caucasian nation.
Similarly, the technological supremacy of Israel and political weight of its international lobbyists came in handy. Azerbaijan became Israel’s top oil supplier while in return Israeli defense companies have sold Azerbaijan weapons to the tune of $825 million between 2006-2019 including self-destructing kamikaze drones, artillery, naval vessels and intelligence equipment. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Pakistan developed a comprehensive defense partnership regime and a sizeable number of Azerbaijani military officials were trained in Pakistan. The special services of both countries also held joint exercises.
This assortment of allies and Azerbaijan’s defense infrastructure paid off well once hostilities erupted with Armenia last September. Armenian forces simply couldn’t cope with the superior air power and land tactics of Azerbaijani troops while any third actor’s intervention on the side of Armenia was withheld owing to Azerbaijan’s diverse political alignments.
With the kind of political and security odds Pakistan faces in its neighborhood, the Azerbaijani template deserves a careful study.
Pakistan needs to adopt a foreign policy approach that preserves and manifests its ideological and political ideals but is also open to new partnerships out of its traditional comfort zone. A policy of drawing black and white geo-political blocks and imaginary political alliances while foregoing the country’s economic interests needs major revision and the outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can provide with some critical input.
*Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89