If there is one lesson that recent history has taught us, it is that geographic divisions do not a nation make.
In the last two decades, we have seen that adage hold true in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are also seeing it reiterated in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, a highly contested landlocked strip of 4,400 square kilometers technically inside Azerbaijani national territory currently occupied by Armenian troops who have refused to budge since a wobbly ceasefire was brokered by Moscow in 1994.
Ask either side about the conflict, and they will present documented testimonials about barbarian ethnic cleansing techniques and the brutal abuse of civilian populations, appealing to diplomatic do-gooders and international negotiators with heartstring-tugging images of dead children and decimated villages.
And truth be told, both sides have legitimate grievances about the atrocities their respective people in Nagorno-Karabakh have endured since the region was first randomly carved up Joseph Stalin in the 1920s and arbitrarily handed over to Azerbaijan without consideration of the region’s ethnic population (which was in its majority Armenian).
Stalin’s act of proclaiming the region Azeri territory became an instant stick in the craw of both countries, and led to festering hostilities for years to come in terms of bilateral relations.
But since both Azerbaijan and Armenia were eventually absorbed into the ever-expanding Soviet Union, the debate as to whether Karabakh should be considered Azeri or Armenian became a moot point as both republics were eventually subjugated by Moscow.
However, when the USSR collapsed in 1991, and the world witnessed the creation of the allegedly sovereign nations Azerbaijan and Armenia, the issue as to whether Baku or Yerevan should legitimately claim Karabakh was once again front and center.
Based on its ethnic majority (which constituted about 75 percent of the population of the region at the time), Armenia proclaimed its right to govern Karabakh, but Azerbaijan had recent geographic precedence in its favor and levered the international community to recognize its entitlement to the region based on the principles of territorial integrity.
Years of simmering antagonism and disproportionate (and even false) accounts of mutual ethnic abuse only served to fuel the growing conflagration, and within weeks of their founding as fledgling nations, Armenia and Azerbaijan were in full-combat war.
Armenia had in its corner the backing of Russia, which wasted no time in turning the alleged independent state into a convenient political lapdog, as well as its majority Christian population (which garnished Yerevan sympathy from Western rights groups and religious-based NGOs in Europe, the United States and even Latin America).
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, had Turkey in its corner and a precedence of international law regarding national territorial integrity and the condemnation of the use of force as an imposition of border change, as well as plenty of oil and natural gas to finance its armies.
But while much of the world may have identified with the Azeris, the Armenians — financed in part by a well-heeled global diaspora and already versed in the art of media propaganda — managed to win the war and expropriate not only Karabakh but an entire 15 percent of Azerbaijani territory.
The war led to the deaths of at least 25,000 civilians and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of displaced Azeris who had no choice but to flee for their lives and inflame a reciprocal bilateral loathing.
Moscow, the great mediator, finally intervened and convinced both sides to come to a ceasefire and a tentative agreement to allow the matter to be determined by a local referendum — which in all likelihood would have resulted in Armenia winning control of Karabakh — in exchange for a withdrawal by Yerevan of the remaining Azeri territories
But Armenia, newly emboldened by its own military prowess, adamantly refused to pull back, despite repeated appeals by the international community and the United Nations to withdraw from the rest of Azerbaijan, superimposing the might-is-right principle over global diplomacy.
And thus was born a powder flask of political loggerheads and seething binational tensions that make the element francium seem stable by comparison.
Despite the supposed ceasefire, there have been countless incidences of crossfire and bilateral violence, including the most recent flare-up earlier this month that led to the deaths of at least 50 people.
For now, a tenuous truce is back in place, but there is no guarantee that it will hold.
The stewing mutual hatred and mistrust that the Azeri and Armenia people have for one another has turned what was once a dispute over territory into a rallying cry for national identity on both sides.
Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer just a strip of land, but a focus for the avenging of wrongs (real or imagined) visited on ancestors that have personally long been forgotten but as nationalist heroes will live forever.
The fact that the governments of both countries are facing political instability from within makes the situation even more dangerous as astute politicians know that there is no better way to distract a discontented constituency from civil unrest than to unite it against a common enemy.
Since its bruising defeat in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan has had plenty of time — and money (thanks to its massive hydrocarbon reserves) — to bone up its army and arsenals, while Armenia is struggling to maintain growth and its image as an attractive destination for foreign investors (according to Moody’s Analytics, the country is facing worsening fiscal and government debt metrics and its general-government-debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to rise above 50 percent in 2017), which means that it has less money to invest on defense.
All of which means that if the bilateral skirmishes do escalate again in the foreseeable future, Armenia might not turn out to be the victor this time around.
For the last two decades, both sides have dug in their heels, refusing to give an inch to the other and most of the outside world has turned an indifferent shoulder to the conflict in the Caucasian mountains.
But what has endured since 1994 as a hedgy ceasefire could at any time explode again into a full-fledged war on Europe’s doorsteps.
And that is a war from which no one would benefit — not Armenia, not Azerbaijan, not Russia, not Turkey, not Europe.
The international community needs to step in and pressure both Armenia and Azerbaijan to compromise, and to put aside their mutual disdain so that a blueprint for a real and lasting peace can be drafted.
Geographic boundaries and ethnic divisions must be factored into the negotiations, as should the consequence of historical crimes, but not retaliation.
Bygones must be bygones, and instead of focusing on the past, both Armenia and Azerbaijan are going to have to bury the hatchet and turn their attention to a future, hopefully creating a long-awaiting stability in the Caucasus.