Tag Archives: Nagorno-Karabakh

Endgame in Armenia?

Sometimes I get things right. Other times, I get them badly wrong. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for RT in which I somewhat disparaged pundits who were saying that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was proof of Russia’s declining power and of its weakness relative to Turkey, which has been strongly backing Azerbaijan in the war. I argued that when the time came to negotiate a settlement between the two warring parties – Armenia and Azerbaijan – Russia would play a key role, thereby proving its continued importance. Well, that now looks like a mistake.

My assumption was that the fighting would eventually bog down into some sort of stalemate, which would require Armenia and Azerbaijan to turn to outside mediators. I didn’t count for the possibility that one side or other would be able to win a decisive victory. But it seems that that outcome is now quite probable..

The war is not going well for Armenia or for the Armenian backed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yesterday, Azeri forces seized the key city of Shusha and are now approaching the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert. What is particularly impressive about this is that the Azeri advance took them through very difficult mountainous terrain. Shusha itself is considered an easily defensible position, occupying as it does high ground with difficult approaches. I had thought that the Armenians would fight for every last inch. Instead, they abandoned the town, largely intact.

This does not bode well for the future prospects of Nagorno-Karabakh. While it is still possible that the Armenians might halt the Azeri advance, perhaps with a bit of help from the weather if winter arrives early, there is now a very real possibility that Azerbaijan will be able to conquer the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh by military means. This will preclude any need for outside powers, such as Russia, to play any role in settling the conflict.

On the surface, this shouldn’t matter too much to Russia. Whether Armenia or Azerbaijan controls Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t a question of vital important for the Russian Federation. That said, the potential Azeri victory must be a cause of some concern in Moscow.

First, it does indeed make Russia look weak. Armenia is a Russian ally. It is true that Russia’s alliance obligations apply only if Armenia itself is attacked, and since Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, Russia has no duty to come to Armenia’s aid. Nevertheless Russia’s willingness to see its ally suffer a serious military defeat is bound to at least somewhat dent Russia’s prestige . Other states may begin to doubt whether Russia can be relied on for support in time of need.

The impression of weakness may be furthered by the news today that Azeri troops shot down a Russian helicopter flying in Armenian airspace, killing two Russian servicemen. Azerbaijan immediately admitted responsibility, offered compensation, and promised an inquiry. I suspect that this rapid reaction will be sufficient for Moscow to avoid taking any serious action against Azerbaijan. Russia clearly doesn’t want to be dragged into this war, and so will probably have to let this event more or less pass unpunished.

The second reason for concern is the possibility that other states may look at the Azeri success and imagine that they may be able to repeat it themselves at some time in the future. Viewing what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, politicians in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine may say to themselves – ‘We too have lost territories, but let’s not give up, or seek to resolve the problem through negotiation. Instead, let’s build up our military force, and some time down the road, when we’re strong enough, we can attack and get our land back by force. The Azeris have done it; so can we.’

This would, of course, be a big mistake, as Russia is likely to defend the former Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as also it is likely to defend Donbass if push truly comes to shove. Russia’s inactivity in Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t so much a sign of weakness as a sign that Nagorno-Karabakh doesn’t matter very much to Russia. But, as we found out when Georgia attacked South Ossetia in 2008, politicians in other countries may not understand that, and may not realize that Russia regards other places far more seriously. An Azeri victory in Nagorno-Karabakh may encourage irredentist ambitions, and so create some serious problems at some future date. In the meantime, it may also discourage efforts to resolve these problems through negotiations.

So the pundits were perhaps right after all: this time round, Turkey has indeed got the upper hand. And that’s another problem for Russia. For it can only serve to encourage the Turks to continue their assertive policies in other places such as Syria, thereby frustrating Russian efforts there too.

For all these reasons, it’s unlikely that Moscow is looking at Azerbaijan’s military gains with joy. But as far as I can see there is very little it can do about it. It will have to accept whatever happens, and take solace that, at the end of the day, no vital interests will suffer. It’s not great, but it’s not a disaster either. Best just to suck it up and stay on the good side of the winner.

Press comments on Russia and Nagorno-Karabakh

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.