India’s Nagorno-Karabakh crisis conundrum
The Indian government has thus far remained neutral in the Nagorno-Karabakh Continuation War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and with good reason too. On the one hand, the South Asian state is making military inroads with Armenia after its recent radar deal with Russia’s CSTO ally, which the author analysed in his piece earlier this year titled “India's $40 Million Inroad Into Armenia's Russian Arms Market Is Intriguing”. On the other hand, it also has clear connectivity interests in Azerbaijan related to the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC), which he also analysed in a recent article about how “Russia Can Benefit From Azerbaijan's Strengthened Ties With Iran and Pakistan”.
Against these economic interests are its legal ones, or rather lack thereof. The author’s piece asking “What's The Difference Between Nagorno-Karabakh and Kashmir?” points out how both the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and India’s occupation of Kashmir are equally illegal. This explains why it’s not in New Delhi’s interests to take Baku’s side despite the NSTC, yet supporting Yerevan too loudly because of its radar deal with it risks drawing attention to both countries’ transgression of international law. As a result, India is forced to officially remain neutral in spite of many of its social media users agitating for it to support Armenia in order to counteract Pakistan's support of Azerbaijan.
The larger theme related to this discussion is India’s expanding interests beyond what it traditionally regards as its “sphere of influence”. The South Asian state’s expansion of economic and military interests across the “Indo-Pacific” region and mainland Eurasia will inevitably lead to it having to make tough choices such as this one more often in the future whenever its partners clash with one another. India wants to present itself as an emerging Great Power capable of exercising leadership, yet the sensitivities connected to its different interests with conflicting parties will impede its ability to confidently lead unless it decides to sacrifice one for the other in order to make a strong statement in support of one of them.
India is comfortable making such “zero-sum” choices in its immediate region but less so when it comes to areas further afield. In spaces such as the South Caucasus, its’ stance is becoming more akin to the Chinese one of “win-win”, ironically enough considering its competition with the People’s Republic. China, however, has perfected the “win-win” policy so India would only be following its lead instead of ever leading in this respect, which might damage the ego of its decision makers who could eventually end up submitting to popular pressure to take one side over the other so as to attract attention and try to make an impact in shaping events.
In the examined case, however, vocal Indian support for one of the warring parties won’t make any difference other than a superficial one related to short-term soft power goals mostly directed towards its domestic audience. What it can do, however, is support some of the emerging narratives coming out of Russia, particularly the one warning against the conflict zone becoming a dangerous mercenary destination. Reuters reported earlier this week that Russian foreign intelligence chief Naryshkin “singled out members of militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group active in Syria formerly known as the Nusra Front, as well as Firqat al-Hamza, the Sultan Murad Division, and unnamed extremist Kurdish groups” for allegedly travelling there.
India might decide to focus solely on the Islamist element in order to denigrate Turkey’s reputation. That country is accused of facilitating these militants’ transfer to Nagorno-Karbakh and is also a very vocal supporter of Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Therefore, the information warfare will likely be the maximum extent of any Indian involvement in the conflict, and it won’t be directed against Azerbaijan as much as it would be against Turkey. Nevertheless, that strategy could also backfire by upsetting India’s Azerbaijani partners depending on how far its information warriors go with focusing on that angle, which could in turn inadvertently destabilise India’s “balancing” act in this conflict and ultimately harm its commercial interests there related to the NSTC.