After Karabakh: Why peace in Azerbaijan could unsettle larger Russian sphere
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While the resolution of a frozen conflict is generally positive, the manner of that resolution matters – and can end up prompting resentment and violence if mishandled.
The most immediate effects are likely to be the realignment of the Southern Caucasus, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “We’re looking at a very significant shift in the balance of forces.”
Azerbaijan’s sponsor Turkey is emerging as the dominant power with major ambitions to project its influence, via Baku, into the heart of Turkic-speaking former Soviet central Asia. Russia’s days as key arbiter and peacekeeper in the region may be numbered, as Armenia turns away from its traditional protector in Moscow and seeks new sources of support to the West.
Meanwhile, Iran, largely on the sidelines of recent events, grows increasingly leery of expanding Turkish power, Azerbaijan’s close ties with Israel, and potential future territorial changes on its own northern flank.
“There is no doubt that Azerbaijan’s victory is also a major win for Turkey, and that has a lot of implications down the road,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “In Armenia, there’s disappointment with its ally Russia’s inability to play a significant role, especially in the security area, and they are looking for new partners in NATO and the West. Everything is in flux.”
Azerbaijan sets the rules
Barely three years ago the picture looked very different.
Armenia occupied a vast swath of western Azerbaijan, including the self-declared independent state of Nagorno Karabakh, an enclave within Azerbaijan which it had won in a bitter post-Soviet war. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech about the crisis, decades of diplomatic efforts by the Minsk Group – led by Russia, France, and the United States – had repeatedly failed to reach a compromise that might preserve the ethnic autonomy of Armenian Karabakh while returning illegally-seized Azerbaijani lands to Baku.
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In September 2020, Azerbaijan launched a well-planned blitzkrieg, using modern Turkish and Israeli weapons, that swept Armenian forces out of all the occupied territories except Karabakh, which was temporarily saved by a Moscow-brokered ceasefire and the insertion of Russian peacekeeping forces.
But Moscow’s regional influence suffered badly when it became embroiled in its war against Ukraine, while military victory made Azerbaijan less willing to compromise on its claims for full control over Karabakh. When Azerbaijan imposed a full blockade of Karabakh last December, Russian peacekeeping forces did nothing. Despite last-ditch diplomatic efforts to reach a settlement over beleaguered Karabakh, Azerbaijan again resorted to military force, seizing Karabakh in a rapid assault last month and triggering a mass exodus of Armenians – one that seems likely to be permanent – from the stricken territory.
Azerbaijani experts claim their state showed great patience for many years and only resorted to force when it was clear that Armenians would never compromise. Ilgar Velizade, an independent political expert in Baku, says that’s the end of the conflict and peace is now possible if Armenia wants it.
“All grounds for conflict have been eliminated,” he says. Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory, including Karabakh, have been fully restored. “Azerbaijan has no reasons to attack Armenia.”
As for any Armenians who choose to remain in Karabakh, they must accept Azerbaijani citizenship, which will henceforth be the sole source of their rights and freedoms, he says. “There is a plan under which they [Karabakh Armenians] may return to their homes and be re-integrated. But if they want to live in Azerbaijan, they must live as citizens of this country.”
Resentment in Armenia
For Armenia, the rapid reversal of battlefield fortunes and now the influx of over 100,000 refugees from Karabakh has aggravated political divisions. They could ultimately bring down the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power following a peaceful pro-democracy revolution five years ago.
“The population of Armenia finds it very difficult to bear the loss of [Karabakh],” says Hrant Melik-Shahnazaryan, head of the independent Voskanapat think tank in Yerevan. “We could see a fresh wave of protests, with a high probability of a change of power in the near future.”
Armenia faces hard geopolitical choices, none of them good, he says. Despite deep and longstanding ties to Russia, Moscow’s lack of support for Armenia in its crisis has been deeply disappointing for many.
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But the West seems unlikely to serve as Armenia’s replacement for Russia, says Mr. Lukyanov, as the South Caucasus has never been a high priority for the West, and its fate has been largely left to the interplay of local powers. “With what’s happening in the Middle East right now, it seems less likely than ever that the U.S. or European Union are going to want to devote resources in this area,” he says. “That leaves Armenia with very few choices.”
“Unfortunately the alternative solutions offered by the West do not meet the main concerns of the Armenian side in any way. Especially in the realm of security,” says Mr. Melik-Shahnazaryan. “So, Armenia is presently facing existential challenges that it is not yet able to solve.”
The next crisis may well erupt over the Zangezur Corridor, a proposed transport route that would run from Turkey, through Armenian territory, to create an unbroken and reliable land connection between Turkey and Azerbaijan for the first time. It would also link Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan, greatly strengthening Azerbaijan and solidifying its links with Turkey. Turkey champions this route because it would provide open access to former Soviet Central Asian states, just across the Caspian Sea from the port city of Baku.
Russia and Iran are not pleased with the Zangezur Corridor project – largely because of the boost it would provide to Turkish influence – and might move to block it. Moscow and Teheran want to involve Azerbaijan in their own North-South Corridor transport route, which would run from Iranian ports on the Indian Ocean, through as-yet incomplete railways in Iran and Azerbaijan, to link up with Russia’s vast east-west rail network.
“The North-South Corridor is one possible reason behind Russia’s passive attitude toward Azerbaijan’s recent actions,” says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “As Russia reorients toward Asia and the Global South, this corridor has become extremely important, both politically and economically.”
If Azerbaijan’s military solution of the Karabakh issue has set the stage for a fresh round of international competition, and perhaps conflict in the south Caucasus, it may also hold implications for other frozen conflicts around the former Soviet Union. Rumblings out of Moldova suggest that some nationalist politicians see it as a model for dealing with their own breakaway region of Transnistria. One of Georgia’s two “independent” statelets, Abkhazia, is reportedly moving closer to Russia in hopes of forestalling any future attempt to force it back under Georgian rule.
“It was unthinkable, just a few years ago, that Karabakh would ever be taken back under Azerbaijani rule,” says Grigory Shvedov, editor of Caucasian Knot, an independent online news site that covers the Caucasian region. “But Azerbaijan broke the status quo through military force, and got everything it wanted. That will certainly be an inspiration for militarists everywhere who favor forceful solutions and don’t care about diplomatic ones.”