The India-Pakistan rivalry is most closely associated with the simmering conflict in Kashmir. Less known is the two countries’ deepening involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Karabakh is emerging as an extension of the Kashmir conflict for the South Asian rivals, with both now supplying arms to the principal combatants – Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Pakistan has been siding with Azerbaijan since the outbreak of the First Karabakh War in the early 1990s, India entered the picture as an arms purveyor to Armenia only after Yerevan’s crushing defeat in the Second Karabakh War in 2020.
Pakistani support for Azerbaijan is intertwined with Islamabad’s close strategic relationship with Turkey, Baku’s primary patron. The Pakistani government was second after Turkey in recognizing Azerbaijan’s independence following the Soviet collapse in 1991, and Islamabad has never acknowledged Armenia’s independence. The Pakistani and Azerbaijani militaries have reportedly been conducting joint exercises since 2016 and maintain extensive strategic security contacts. Although officially unconfirmed, Pakistani military advisers reportedly participated in the Second Karabakh War, providing tactical advice on operations in Karabakh’s highlands. Some observers believe Islamabad may sell Pakistani- and Chinese-designed JF-17 fighter jets to Azerbaijan.
India’s support for Armenia shifted into high gear in the fall of 2022 with the provision of $245 million worth of Indian artillery systems, anti-tank rockets and ammunition. In May, Yerevan announced it was adding a military attaché to its embassy in New Delhi, tasked with deepening bilateral military cooperation.
Increased Indian support may prove crucial for Armenia as it strives to counter Azerbaijan’s strategic pressure in Karabakh. Yerevan’s traditional strategic partner, Russia, is bogged down by its disastrous invasion of Ukraine, and now appears to lack the resources and the will to play a major role in fostering a durable Karabakh settlement. The hope in Yerevan is that Indian assistance can help Armenia offset the support that Azerbaijan receives from Turkey, Pakistan and Israel.
Pakistan’s involvement in the Karabakh conflict is helping cement an Ankara-Baku-Islamabad alliance, informally dubbed the “Three Brothers.” The three states are all nominally democracies that have drifted to varying degrees from a pluralistic path, and which likewise have predominantly Muslim populations. The fact that all three are engaged in territorial/ethnic conflicts also acts as a binding agent, encouraging them to assist each other strategically and diplomatically. Reports circulated in early August that Pakistan may soon join Azerbaijan as a partner in a Turkish-led effort to develop a new-generation stealth fighter, dubbed Kaan.
India’s decision to get involved in the Karabakh conflict is driven by two factors – one strategic, the other economic; the country’s own complicated history with Islam also plays a role. Azerbaijan’s victory in 2020 set off alarms in New Delhi by upending what New Delhi perceived to be a geostrategic balance in the Caucasus. Wary of rising Turkish-Muslim influence there, Indian leaders felt they had to step up cooperation with Armenia, which they hope can once again act as a countervailing regional force. This tendency to side with a non-Muslim party of a local conflict is also seen in India’s support for Israel, Serbia and Myanmar.
The overriding concern in New Delhi is that if Azerbaijan achieves its strategic goals in Karabakh, the Ankara-Baku-Islamabad grouping may concentrate its energies on Kashmir. Indian support for Armenia, then, can be interpreted as a forward-defense tactic to keep Pakistan in check in Kashmir. India’s involvement in Karabakh is also encouraging closer ties between New Delhi and Iran, which likewise has strong relations with Armenia rooted in a desire to diminish Turkish and Azerbaijani influence in the Caspian Basin.
India also sees Armenia as a potential economic opportunity. New Delhi hopes it can profit from being an arms supplier, filling a gap left by Russia’s strategic downsizing in the Caucasus. New Delhi’s ambitions, however, are complicated by the fact India itself is a heavy importer of Russian arms: roughly three-quarters of its military equipment comes from Russia. And Moscow is becoming increasingly hard-pressed to fulfill export orders, as it struggles to replace battlefield losses in Ukraine. The Indian arms industry will thus be challenged to meet the country’s own growing needs while supplying Armenia too.
On the ground, India is quickly finding itself drawn into the Karabakh conflict’s propaganda dimension. In late June, an Azerbaijani news outlet published a report claiming that Indians were being recruited to fight as mercenaries in Karabakh. A commentary published July 5 by the Indian newspaper The Statesman described the Azerbaijani report as a “cock-and-bull story” cooked up by Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency.
While it’s too early to say how growing Pakistani and Indian involvement will shape further developments in Karabakh, the new geopolitical configuration is indicative of the declining influence of traditional power brokers, such as the OSCE, NATO and CSTO. India and Pakistan are proving in Karabakh that geopolitics is moving in a multi-polar direction.
Svenja Petersen is a Berlin-based political economist and researcher focusing on the former Soviet Union.