The Problem with Western Absence in the South Caucasus

By Olivia Letts

Olivia Letts is a graduate of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service

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Olivia Letts is a graduate of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

ACADEMIC INCUBATOR — The November ceasefire, brokered by Russia to end Armenia and Azerbaijan’s fighting over the highland territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, is unlikely to hold.  It provides yet another example of Russia taking the lead where the West has disappointed in recent years, following closely on the heels of Moscow’s decision to fill the power vacuum in Syria after the United States left its Kurdish allies to be ousted by Turkish forces.

Russia’s monopoly on Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping is not ideal for Azerbaijan or Armenia, as Russia has been known to exploit weaknesses in former Soviet satellite countries in order to maintain its influence.  From the heavy-handed actions it has taken in the War in Donbass and 2008 Russo-Georgian War, to the subtler disinformation campaigns it has waged throughout Eastern Europe, Russia has made a clear effort to keep the control in its neighborhood.  Yet Moscow can hardly be villainized for leading diplomacy efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh, where no other country is even attempting to mitigate the deadly ethnic conflict which continues to foment more instability costing Azerbaijani and Armenian lives.

The First Nagorno-Karabakh War lasted from 1988 to 1994, resulting in over 25,000 deaths and producing over 1 million refugees on both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides.  The war ended in a Pyrrhic victory for the Armenians, whose borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan were sealed as a result.  Azerbaijan, suffering a deep wound in national pride, was forced to accommodate the large majority of refugees.  The continuing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh was thenceforth referred to as a “frozen conflict,” and the international community never imparted the blessing of legitimacy to the region known to Karabakhi Armenians as the Republic of Artsakh.  In the 2020 thawing of the conflict, over 5,000 soldiers were killed, and Karabakhi Armenians, historically the dominant ethnicity in the region, were forced to leave their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh behind—just as minority Azerbaijanis fled the region in the 1990s.

Although Azerbaijan has technically won the most recent round of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and reclaimed the territory it lost to Armenians in the First Nagorno Karabakh War, Russia is the real victor.  Per the conditions of the ceasefire, Moscow has deployed 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh, and they are to remain there for at least five years.  The United States and the European Union have been all but virtually absent in the Caucasus region amid the violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia.  Turkey provided Azerbaijan with symbolic support and weapons for waging war, but it played a minimal role in brokering peace.

The result of the international community’s absence in Nagorno-Karabakh has been free reign for Russia to dictate the short-term outcome of the conflict.  It has also contributed to weak prospects for long-term peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Moscow may have all the implicit power of a mighty military and some very skilled diplomats, but the latest ceasefire should be viewed for what it is—a band-aid for a deadly ethnic conflict, not a permanent solution.  Russia will not be able to prevent a future outbreak of fighting from prompting a major mobilization of Azerbaijanis or Armenians.  In fact, Russia has already confirmed that there have been ceasefire violations.

Thomas de Waal conducted extensive interviews of both Azerbaijanis and Armenians for his book Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War.  Published in 2003, it still provides one of the best analyses of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and it describes the extent of deep distrust and harmful attitudes toward the “other” in Azerbaijan and Armenia.  Azerbaijanis are still likely to see Armenia, where Russia has a military base, as a willing pawn in Russian plans to assert dominance.  Armenia is bound to incorporate the recent Azerbaijani victory into its national identity of suffering, rooted in the Ottoman-perpetrated Armenian Genocide.  This is especially likely as nationalist Armenian understanding tends to view Azerbaijanis as ethnic “Turkic” peoples who share strong linguistic and cultural ties with Turkey.  Allegations of Turkey’s involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will only intensify Armenia’s sense of vulnerability.  With Armenians reeling from their recent loss, they will encourage angry and politically-mobilized Armenian diaspora communities throughout the West to press their countries to take action.

Nationalist sentiment in Armenia and Azerbaijan has spoiled various potential peace agreements, including several ill-fated but well-intentioned efforts by the OSCE’s multinational Minsk Group to solve the conflict through multinational diplomacy.  The United States, a co-chair of the Minsk Group, has vacillated between open support of Armenia and tacit preference for the Azerbaijani state due to its anti-Russian and anti-Iranian leanings, and oil wealth.  As a result, it has been unable to take full advantage of its leadership role in the Minsk Group to shape a fair peace.

Why should the West reconsider its role in Russia and Turkey’s neighborhood?  Firstly, there are basic humanitarian considerations to be upheld by working to prevent more suffering amongst Armenians and Azerbaijanis who have endured tragic losses.  Russia was right to step in and forge a short-term solution to stop fighting, and Azerbaijan and Armenia had no choice but to rely on Moscow’s peace-brokering.  However, Russia still undeniably strives to control geopolitics in the Caucasus.  Acting alone it is unlikely to prioritize Kumbaya and national healing.

Secondly, the Caucasus is a strategically important region that is often overlooked by the West.  The mountainous region is located at the crossroads of major partners and adversaries of the United States and European Union, and instability in Nagorno-Karabakh provides yet another playground for these countries to vie for power.  The Caucasus is also traversed by major oil pipelines, whose routes are dictated by tricky regional energy politics.  Strengthening multilateral diplomacy in the Caucasus region will present the United States and Europe with chances to work with rather than against Moscow, as well as ample opportunity to cooperate with estranged NATO ally Turkey.  The OSCE Minsk Group is still best vehicle available for promoting cooperation among incompatible international partners and should be resuscitated—the international community does not need to go through the trouble of kickstarting a new effort.

Thirdly, the United States and Europe should maintain a presence in the Caucasus region to safeguard international norms which are at stake, including the sovereignty of two small nations.  Azerbaijan and Armenia are vulnerable to intimidation by more powerful neighbors which have been known to flout international norms when it suits them.  Furthermore, Turkey’s potential exploitation of Syrian mercenaries and ex-ISIS terrorists in support of Azerbaijan is a disturbing trend.  If true, it constitutes a major abuse of current loopholes in international norms pertaining to the fate of foreign fighters stuck in the Middle East, where former terrorists and their families are stuck in limbo as their home countries have shirked taking responsibility for them.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict presents many challenges to the international community which deserve to be met with sensitivity, persistence, and renewed multinational efforts.  The West’s proactive diplomatic involvement is vital, as peace negotiations will need perspectives which are less swayed by selfish geopolitical considerations of local actors.  To build a lasting peace, addressing the plight of displaced persons will be vital, along with substantial efforts to heal war traumas and deep-rooted aversions to peacebuilding.  Since Armenia and Azerbaijan are far from ready to normalize their relations, there is so much the West can do to eliminate their many obstacles to peace.  Perhaps it could be argued that some corners of the globe are ready for non-interventionism to dominate the Western diplomatic mindset, but not the troubled Caucasus.

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