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Today, we’re going to take a closer look at borders and the stories they tell. When we look at a map, the shapes we’re seeing can seem so permanent, but a map is just a snapshot of the Earth at a particular time, and by looking a countries shape (and how it has changed across time) we can learn so much about how power moves and the ebb and flow of conflict. We’ll talk about the different types of borders, and power dynamics at play in Armenia and Azerbaijan and even look to the oceans as we explore conflict in the South China Sea.



CIA Factbook:
Getis, Bjelland, and Getis. Introduction to Geography, 15 ed. McGraw-Hill Education. 2017. ISBN: 978-1-259-57000-1
Gregory, Derek, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael Watts, and Sarah Whatmore, eds. 2009. The Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th ed. Willey-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-4051-3288-6
For a free and open source option for Intro to Human Geography, see:
For a free and open source option for World Regional Geography, see:
Cracking the AP Human Geography Exam: 2020 edition. The Princeton Review.

South China Sea

Armenian/Azerbaijan Conflicts

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#CrashCourse #Geography #Borders
When we look at a map, the shapes we're seeing can seem so permanent, but, like we've talked about many times here on Crash Course: Geography, a map is just a snapshot of the Earth at a particular time. Borders shift and change and get molded into some truly weird shapes. In fact, as much as I love watching a wispy cirrus or a chunky cumulus float by, borders and the shapes of countries can test our imaginations just as much as clouds.

Most borders aren't straight lines, and a lot of them seem to strike across the land or water out of nowhere, so, as geographers, we might wonder how we ended up with such wonky shapes, because the story of how Tajikistan looks like a howling dog or Bulgaria looks like a playful kitten is also the story of Earth, its people, and the conflicts that have shaped, or are still shaping, the world's borders.

Like, in the Cacausus Mountains between Iran and Armenia is an independent region known as Nakhchivan. This region is beautiful, with sweeping mountain views, lovely plains, and a good amount of sustainable agriculture, and, if you squint, it kind of looks like a submarine. Nakhchivan is technically a part of Azerbaijan, but the reason this strip of land, home to about 450,000 people, eventually became mostly self-sufficient has a lot to do with geopolitics and how border conflicts work. I'm Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course: Geography.

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Like we learned last time, geopolitics is the study of international relationships across space. Some states have more power than others, and the attempts to have relationships across those power differences create an uneven political landscape. One place geopolitical relationships and power dynamics meet is at borders.

Like we talked about in episode 35, many scholars believe it was only in the 1800s that boundaries were more likely to be precise and surveyed with detail. Before that, what are sometimes called natural boundaries, like mountains, rivers, or lakes, would serve as loose borders, like the Rio Grande separating part of the U.S. and Mexico. But that gets messy. A mountain doesn't just get up and walk away, but every time the river shifted, or if someone built a dam, or if there was a major weathering event, then the border could change.

In contrast, a boundary that's imposed on the land rather than following a physical feature is called an artificial or geometric boundary. They often ignore natural or cultural features, though categorizing boundaries as artificial or natural is becoming less popular. Since we've made borders more precise as our political systems changed, we've pinpointed natural and artificial borders with coordinates. We can even use GPS, so we're pretty sure the 2021 version of, say, Japan, really does look rather like a seahorse.

And all jokes aside, shape really does matter. The physical shape of a state can help spur border tensions and require more effort from within the state to maintain unity. For instance, a compact state like France has a capital, or center of power, that's roughly centrally located, so all parts of the country have to put in more or less the same amount of effort to communicate and potentially access government resources. But that's not so easy someplace like Indonesia, which is fragmented, the Baja California peninsula that protrudes out, or Chile, which is elongated.

All of these shapes can lead to power imbalances, including in Nakhchivan. As a fragment of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is an exclave, meaning a portion of a state separated from the main part of the state by another country. As geographers, we might ask why exclaves even exist, because they really seem convenient for no one, and to do that in Nakhchivan, we have to look back at some of the history of this land. 

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 but remained in conflict over a number of regions, including Nakhchivan and the Nagorno-Karabakh region to the east. And these conflicts are all related through the categories we break artificial boundaries into, which are all based on the relationship to the land.

For example, with Armenia and Azerbaijan, many of their boundaries were drawn for them by the Soviet Union and were superimposed, meaning they were drawn with no regard to cultural traits or local power structures. These are also considered subsequent borders, meaning they were drawn after existing settlement patterns already exists, and, if a subsequent boundary is drawn around a group for cultural reasons, it's called a consequent boundary. But borders can also be antecedent, or boundaries that existed before the settlement of the land when it was perceived to be unsettled, and there can also be relic boundaries, or old boundaries, with cultural remnants of previous frontiers and boundaries like the Berlin Wall.

So as geographers, we want to figure out what led to Armenia and Azerbaijan ending up with superimposed and subsequent boundaries. The Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhchivan region has a history of being tied to groups with mostly ethnically Armenian ancestry, but, at least by the 1700s, there were strong settlements of Azeris, as well, which is the main cultural group in Azerbaijan.

But neither ethnic group has had much chance at peace. First, after the Russian Empire collapsed, Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh area declared themselves independent, but then the area was subject to a series of conflicts between Armenians and Azeris until the Soviet Union incorporated the territory into its borders in 1920. The Soviet Union then superimposed new borders. Nagorno-Karabakh was put in Azerbaijan, even though a majority of the population was ethnically Armenian. Though, to further complicate things, it was allowed to be a semi-autonomous state, meaning it could make some governing decisions without approval from leaders in Azerbaijan.

At this time, Nakhchivan also became part of Azerbaijan after centuries of being claimed by the Iranian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires. Basically, by the time the Soviets controlled the region, Nakhchivan considered itself closely tied to Azerbaijan and elected to join them, which the Soviets agreed to.

Ultimately, with a piece put here and a piece put there, the region was fragmented, which is when territories that are a part of the same system aren't physically connected together, and this can create areas where control is weak. Semi-autonomous regions can also create uncertainty, since it can be confusing who's in control when a place has most of the power but not all of it.

For Armenia and Azerbaijan, the consequences of fragmentation and power confusion have been huge. Even before the Soviet Union completely broke apart, these two countries began fighting again over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh, and many, many lives have been lost on both sides.

For Nakhchivan, another consequence of border and power confusion has been self-sufficiency and even -sustainability. To support Nakhchivan, the rest of Azerbaijan has to cross through Armenia, and that crossing was often closed due to ongoing conflict and war between the two countries, so, rather than relying on the rest of their country, people from Nakhchivan say they've had to develop other ways to supply what they've needed.

In other parts of the world with contentious borders, the territory can go through balkanization, which is a term used to describe the way states often break apart when the power holding them together weakens. Those new states often fall along ethnic lines, creating new consequent boundaries. Sometimes, balkanization results in irredentism, which is when a country takes back land it claims is its own, or with people of its own, like trying to reclaim and unify enclaves and exclaves, which in some ways is what Armenia and Azerbaijan have been trying to do. But, in areas like Nagorno-Karabakh, where more than one ethnic group or national group attempts to claim the territory, creating borders creates conflict. The fights can be brutal as each side fights to have control over what is seen as their homeland.

We've talked a lot about the Armenians and the Azeris, but conflicts like these often involve other powers, too. The two largest political powers in the area are Russia, the former power influencing both countries, and Turkey, who, from the Ottoman Empire to today, has an antagonistic history with Armenians but has imperial and cultural ties with the Azeris. Both of these countries have something to gain in the outcome of this conflict that doesn't relate directly to how Nagorno-Karabakh or Nakhchivan are governed.

So while the Armenians and the Azeris do the actual fighting, they're also part of a proxy war, which is when larger world powers begin to intercede in a conflict, often indirectly, to tip the outcome in their favor. In Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Turkey decided to aid Azerbaijan and gave them enough military power that the Armenians ultimately had to sign a peace deal. The deal divides Nagorno-Karabakh and will give some holdings to Armenia, but Azerbaijan will keep control over areas it deems important.

From that help, Turkey now has the gratitude of Azerbaijan and better access to resources. The new borders come together in such a way that Turkey can now build a road connecting Nakhchivan to the rest of Azerbaijan and the resource-rich Caspian Sea without having to go through Armenia or Iran, all countries that can be politically complicated. These moves also told the entire region that Turkey intends to be a geopolitical player and be a major player in conflict and negotiation.

Russia, on the other hand, often supports Armenia, but surprised them by largely staying out of the 2020 conflict until it was time to talk peace. It's another move on the geopolitical chessboard, one that attempts to make Russa essential to creating peace in the region.

But whether it's part of a proxy war or not, battling over resources is a common border conflict, both on land and at sea. Natural borders, especially ones that involve water, are so complicated because they move, but they're also incredibly valuable for trade and resources, so countries that border large lakes, seas, or oceans are subject to international rules on maritime, or sea, boundaries. Basically, as you move away from shore, countries have less and less control, until you reach the High Seas, which are, in fact, a real thing and not just the stuff of pirate lore. Anyone can roam the High Seas, and the resources there are declared a common good for all humankind.

But it takes 200 nautical miles to reach the High Seas, which is a lot of distance, especially in areas with a lot of small islands, which means conflicts ahoy, like in the South China Sea. This area is a rich fishing ground, as well as home to billions of barrels of oil and trillions of tons of natural gas. It's also an important trade route, with about 1/3 of global shipping traffic passing through. So if one country could control the South China Sea, it would mean a staggering amount of economic power.

Talking about the South China Sea could be a whole episode, but the basics of what's been going on since 2010 go like this: In the 20-teens, China began augmenting and constructing islands through this region to help bolster its claim that it owns the land in the region and therefore can access natural resources, but also in the region are six other countries. The U.S. has also chosen to get involved as an ally of the Philippines and a party very interested in trade and resources.

While the South China Sea is definitely vast, the idea of one country controlling it creates fears that this could become a place that will behave like a chokepoint, which is usually a narrow strip of land or sea that can be easily closed by force or threat of force. So the U.S. claims to be securing the area so that it stays open to trade, but the Chinese claim the involvement of the U.S. and the international community is a threat that actually restricts the flow of goods and threatens their ability to defend themselves and claim their historic territory, which is irredentism in action. And there are additional complaints about military maneuvers and other claims, which is why parts of the South China Sea are also called the East Sea, the Nusantara Sea, the Luzon Sea, and the North Natuna Sea.

So this body of water that I now have no idea what to call is another example of how the threads that drive geopolitical conflicts can feel so complicated. Throw together disagreements over identity and sovereignty with the interests of larger, more powerful countries and sprinkle in a dash of lucrative resources, and we've got a recipe for conflict.

The shape of a country does matter and has a complex story to tell, because power moves, which is why the ebb and flow of conflict seems to be always shifting and moving and gives geographers plenty to keep track of. Next time, we'll see that ebb and flow gain one more layer of complication as we look at how economics and politics work together to shape the stories of Bulgaria and Germany.

Many maps and borders represent modern geopolitical divisions that have often been decided without the consultation, permission, or recognition of the land's original inhabitants. Many geographical place names also don't reflect the indigenous or aboriginal people's languages, so we at Crash Course want to acknowledge these people's traditional and ongoing relationship with that land and all the physical and human geographical elements of it. We encourage you to learn about the history of the place you call home through resources like and by engaging with your local indigenous and aboriginal nations through the websites and resources they provide.

Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course: Geography, which is filmed at the Team Sandoval Pier Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone forever, you can join our community on Patreon.