India’s Geopolitical Ties with the Caucasian Nations and Arms Supply: Balancing Act

The disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region was recently subjected to a military operation conducted by Azerbaijan, which resulted in casualties. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been disputing the region for years. The operation is part of the dispute. Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh as it is known by Armenians, is a landlocked mountainous region in the Caucasus region (the transcontinental zone between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea)

By Bikki Sharma

Opinion

Azerbaijan and Armenia are at odds over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was inhabited primarily by Armenians until 2023, and seven surrounding districts, which were inhabited primarily by Azerbaijanis until 1990. Artsakh claims and partially controls Nagorno-Karabakh, but it is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan. Since 2020, Azerbaijan has gradually regained control over Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding districts. During the Soviet period, Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Area suffered greatly from discrimination. Despite Armenians remaining the majority population in Nagorno-Karabakh, Soviet Azerbaijani authorities suppressed Armenian culture and identity, pressured Armenians to leave, and encouraged Azerbaijanis to settle there.

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Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the conflict escalated into a full-scale war. Armenia and Artsakh won the war and occupied the region around Nagorno-Karabakh in Soviet times. Consequently, Azerbaijani and Armenian ethnic groups were expelled from Azerbaijan and the Armenian-controlled areas. Following this four resolutions were adopted by the UN Security Council in 1993 urging the immediate withdrawal of Armenian forces from all Azerbaijani territory. However, during the 1990s, there was relative stability following the 1994 ceasefire in Bishkek, but it significantly deteriorated again in the 2010s. Again, April 2016 saw hundreds of casualties but only minor changes to the front line as a result of a four-day escalation. As part of an Azerbaijani laundromat money-laundering scheme, Azerbaijan revealed in 2017 that a slush fund of USD 2.9 billion was used to bribe European and American politicians, journalists, lawmakers, and academics to advocate for Azerbaijani interests abroad, including promoting a pro-Azerbaijan agenda in Nagorno-Karabakh. Bribery such as this has been called ‘caviar diplomacy’.

Why the conflict has resurfaced in the news?

Azerbaijan recognises Nagorno-Karabakh as part of its territory, but its inhabitants are predominantly Armenian. Nagorno-Karabakh and a few adjacent districts remained under Armenian control following the ceasefire that concluded the first war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994. However, both sides regularly broke the ceasefire, and numerous attempts to reach a peaceful resolution through negotiation were unsuccessful.

India has ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has not picked sides in the conflict. But it does have something at stake — tensions in the region affect New Delhi’s plans to bypass Pakistan as the gateway to Europe and Russia

Soon again in the 2020s, the Second Karabakh War was started by Azerbaijan. With a decisive result, Azerbaijan reclaimed seven neighbouring districts and roughly one-third of Nagorno-Karabakh. Following the Second Karabakh War in 2020, Russia mediated a peace agreement that authorised the stationing of up to 1,960 Russian forces in the area.

What led to the latest fighting?

Concerns about new bloodshed increased in December 2022 after Azerbaijan successfully blocked a key entry point into the enclave. The only route that links Nagorno-Karabakh and the Republic of Armenia is the Lachin Corridor. It is a vital supply route, and throughout the blockade, locals in the area complained of acute shortages of essential foods and medications. Armenia refuted Azerbaijan’s accusation that it was using the road to transport military materials. Baku added that it had repeatedly provided food and assistance via a different route, but the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had turned it down. Remaining open to traffic via the Lachin Corridor and the Aghdam Road from Azerbaijan was mostly dependent on Russian peacekeepers stationed there since 2020. But Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has taken its focus and military power elsewhere. Russia has been accused by the prime minister of Armenia of “spontaneously leaving the region”.  Karabakh authorities said at least 200 people had died in the fighting, while Azerbaijan said that 192 of its soldiers had been killed.

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India’s ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan and the arms deal

India has ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has not picked sides in the conflict. But it does have something at stake — tensions in the region impact New Delhi’s plans to bypass Pakistan as the gateway to Europe and Russia. Thousands of refugees are fleeing into Armenia after Azerbaijan claimed control of an Armenian enclave inside its territory, reshaping in just two days of fighting a conflict that has resulted in two wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By September 26, 2023, the Armenian government said, 19,000 forcibly displaced people had entered Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia said in a speech on September 24 that Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh were facing “the threat of ethnic cleansing” unless “effective mechanisms of protection” were created in the enclave under Azerbaijani rule. On September 25, officials said, dozens of people were killed by a blast in a fuel depot, which witnesses said struck as people lined up to refuel their cars before evacuating.

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A few days later, the government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced that it would dissolve itself, formally ending more than 30 years of separatist rule. The government of Armenia said that the number of displaced people who had left the breakaway state to seek safety in Armenia had reached more than 68,000, with many more expected to follow. The reunification of Azerbaijan with the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is also anticipated to change the balance of power in the South Caucasus, an area that has long been at the intersection of Russia, Turkey, and Western nations’ geopolitical agendas. The conflict between the two former Soviet republics over the enclave, which is located within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognised boundaries and has been home to tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians, is rooted in decades of warfare and geopolitical rivalry. The capitulation of the Armenian separatists may accelerate Russia’s loss of authority in the Caucasus, where Moscow played a key role as a conflict arbitrator. Additionally, it would put Armenian stability in jeopardy, as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has worked to forge stronger connections with the West despite a military alliance with Russia.

India’s arms deal with Armenia has become a bone of contention in the international arena due to its geopolitical implications. Armenia and India signed military agreements last September and Armenia received significant orders for Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers, anti-tank missiles, rockets, and ammunition worth $250 million

India’s arms deal with Armenia has become a bone of contention in the international arena due to its geopolitical implications. As a result of Azerbaijan’s military incursions into Armenia’s international borders, Armenia and India signed military agreements last September. In addition to the arms deal, Armenia received significant orders for Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL), anti-tank missiles, rockets, and ammunition worth USD 250 million. An indigenous Indian heavy weapon, the Pinaka multi-rocket launch system, can fire a salvo of 12 rockets in 44 seconds. A single battery can neutralise a region of one square km, according to a report. In 2020, India also supplied Armenia with four Swathi weapon-locating radars worth USD 43 million. According to media outlets, these systems can “track incoming artillery projectiles and pinpoint enemy gun positions for counter-action.”

India has decided to export the Pinaka system to another country for the first time in its history. As a result of Azerbaijan’s drone use, Armenia has purchased the Pinaka system, whose “shoot and scoot” capability allows it to escape counter-battery fire. Moreover, its low cost and simplicity of use make it an ideal weapons system for Armenia. The Armenian army can easily become familiar with this system as it is accustomed to using the Russian-made GRAD system.

As a result of this cooperation, state-owned media Caliber.Azerbaijan published a video showing disguised cargo passing through the Nurduz border checkpoint from Iran to Armenia. As per the media channel, it was likely delivered from India to Bandar Abbas in Iran. According to many Azerbaijanis on social media, Azerbaijan should not participate in the International North-South Transport corridor since the route from India to Iran is used for military purposes.

It is more than just a business-as-usual relationship between India and Armenia when it comes to arms sales. This military relationship, as seen in Indian media, is based on a geopolitical basis, as India aims to secure its national interests by containing Pakistan, Turkey, and its junior partner Azerbaijan to establish itself as a reliable defence player globally. Iran plays a crucial role in this containment strategy. Iran is facilitating the transfer of weapons to Armenia, as it did previously for the sale of Russian weapons, as Armenia cannot buy Iranian weapons due to fears of U.S. and Western reactions.

India, Armenia and Iran may soon be able to strengthen their economic and trade cooperation. Already, Yerevan hosted its first trilateral meeting with Indian and Iranian officials in April 2023 to facilitate a Black Sea-Persian Gulf trade route to allow Indian goods to be exported to the West via Georgian ports

As a geopolitical partner, Yerevan has recently established itself as an important strategic partner in the region that would safeguard India’s long-term interests. With Turkey and Pakistan supporting Azerbaijan in the 2020 Artsakh War against Armenia, and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Thus, limiting its ability to rearm the Armenian army and the Armenian decision-makers search for reliable military and diplomatic partners. As a result of these political and military relations, India, Armenia, and Iran may soon be able to strengthen their economic and trade cooperation. Already, Yerevan hosted its first trilateral meeting with Indian and Iranian officials in April 2023, to facilitate a Black Sea-Persian Gulf trade route to allow Indian goods to be exported to the West via Georgian ports. Armenia’s Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan told the Voice of the South Virtual Summit in January 2023 that Armenia is interested in advancing cooperation within the framework of North-South connectivity, as well as the Persian Gulf-Black Sea international transport corridor, adding that India has a significant role to play in these projects.

Economic and military-strategic ties between India and Armenia are growing. These relations must be further deepened to the point where both countries can engage in joint military drills at a strategic partnership level. Since other CSTO members are taking similar steps with Turkey, Armenia’s commitment to the CSTO and Russia won’t prevent Yerevan from conducting these exercises. Instead, India could restore the political-military balance in the South Caucasus by partnering with Yerevan.

The writer is a professional and experienced writer having worked with multiple organisations. He is a keen observer of global affairs, geopolitics and how it affects the world order. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda