Despite agreeing to a ceasefire in his country’s war with Armenia over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev was in a belligerent mood this weekend. ‘When [Armenian Prime Minister Nikol] Pashinyan gave us an ultimatum … he deserved to have been punished for it’, said Aliyev, ‘He should thank [Russian president Vladimir] Putin for the fact that once again, Russia came to save Armenia’.
The ceasefire agreement [signed in Moscow after the Russian government brought the warring parties together] was something of victory for Russian diplomacy. At present, though, its prospects look rather bleak, with both sides accusing the other of multiple violations. But even if it doesn’t last, the very fact that the Russians were able to get the two sides to sign it reveals the important role the Russian Federation continues to play in the politics of the Caucasus. And yet, you wouldn’t know any of this from recent media coverage of the Azeri-Armenian conflict. For commentary on the matter has invariably taken the line that, on top of the political crises in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, events in the Caucasus are proof of Russia’s continuing international decline.
Take, for instance, Reuters which slapped the headline, ‘Russia confronts waning influence over Karabakh foes’, on top of a piece written by Mark Trevelyan and my one-time student Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber (who I’m happy to see has moved on to higher things after a spell as sports correspondent for the Moscow Times). The Economist meanwhile continued its consistent run of rotten foreign policy analysis with a piece which laughably claimed that the Azeri-Armenian war was a product of America’s disengagement. ‘Past American presidents might have put time, brainpower and muscle into preventing war in the Caucasus,’ said the magazine, ‘but Mr Trump showed no interest even before he fell sick with covid-19’. Ah yes, it’s Trump’s fault. Isn’t it always?
Perhaps the silliest comment, however, came as always in The Guardian, in an article by Thomas de Waal (author of a book on Nagorno-Karabakh). De Waal remarked that when the time for peace arrives,
Presidents Erdogan and Putin may try to impose a new settlement on Armenians and Azerbaijanis that suits their own interests but is careless of humanitarian principles and the claims of both countries to be part of Europe. … Or else Europeans, and perhaps a post-Trump United States, may try to convene a multilateral peace conference, first mooted in 1992, to resolve the conflict, seeking to respect people’s needs and the differing claims of international law.
It’s funny. I never realized that Azerbaijanis want to be ‘part of Europe’. And I was obviously asleep, or I would have seen that the Russian government’s efforts to get Azerbaijan and Armenia to stop fighting each other was ‘careless of humanitarian principles’. I must pay more attention in future, and wake up to the fact that America and Europe are the keys to peace.
One of the remarkable features of foreign policy thinking in the past 20 years is how this attitude has persisted despite repeated failure. No matter how often Western peacemaking efforts (which sometimes rather paradoxically take the form of war) collapse, the myth persists that giving up and going home is not the answer – what is needed is more of the same, only better. Withdrawal will allow malign powers to fill the void, and anarchy will follow. More America; more Europe – is always the only solution on offer.
In reality, though, both the USA and Europe have little ability to control events in most of the former Soviet Union, whether it be Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Nagorno-Karabakh, or anywhere else. In all of these cases, and others (such as Ukraine), any eventual peace settlement will almost inevitably involve Russia in some way or another. In the specific case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia is probably the only state able to influence the warring parties to bring the fighting to an end. We must hope that it succeeds.