5:39 am - Wednesday June 19, 2019

The perils of non-resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh

The unresolved conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has once again raised its head. This is not surprising because the failure of Moscow’s attempt to broker a solution earlier this year appears to have conformed to a dynamic common to such conflict. Failed efforts at mediation lead to renewed tensions as each side blames the other and the spiral of recriminations continues until wiser heads or some other crisis prevails. New developments are contributing to an upsurge of tensions. Bako Sahakyan, president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic told an interviewer that he wants an active role in any future negotiation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Naturally that would be a cause for breaking up any negotiation from Azerbaijan’s standpoint.

BACKGROUND: Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, speaking in July to students, suggested that future generations would and should undertake the task of reclaiming what was once Western Armenia, historically part of the medieval Armenian kingdom, but now part of Turkey ever since the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish response was predictable. Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan immediately demanded an apology, but no such response is immediately forthcoming. Worse, Sargsyan admitted that Armeno-Turkish relations are deadlocked and no progress is to be expected. Given these kinds of policy postures it should be clear that Armenian politics are hostage to the idea that Yerevan can retain Nagorno-Karabakh indefinitely while Moscow will protect it from all evil. Therefore it does not have to deal either with its neighbors or its own urgent socio-economic problems. As Gerard Libaridian recently pointed out in a powerful essay, this outlook is a delusionary policy that can only further undermine Armenia’s security and ultimately its statehood.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is building a wall along portions of the line of contact with the armed forces of the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”*, ostensibly to defend Azerbaijani villages from Armenian fire.

Once the negotiations brokered by Moscow broke down, these kinds of phenomena were to be expected. Armenian political scientist Arman Melikyan claims that in those tripartite negotiations Moscow was to broker the surrender of occupied territories, thereby ensuring its military presence and establishing a network of military bases in Azerbaijan to prevent any further cooperation between Azerbaijan and NATO. While Armenian authorities reportedly accepted this plan, Baku refused to do so and saved Armenia, which clearly wants to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh. Inasmuch as recent Wikileaks revelations make clear that Azerbaijan desires the full cooperation of NATO on its behalf and at least says it would even consider membership if not for Russian and Iranian opposition, its rejection of this transparent neo-imperialist Russian ploy is hardly surprising.

IMPLICATIONS: These revelations show the danger in leaving the initiative in negotiations in Russia’s hands alone. Reportedly, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a new round of mediation with the approval of both the U.S. and Russia during his recent Caucasian tour. But in the meantime Azerbaijani officials like Elchin Huseynli of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have accused the OSCE of passivity and support for Armenia rather than Azerbaijan’s just position. While this complaint is hardly surprising, Huseynli rightly pointed to the Armeno-Russian military collaboration that underscores the conflict and reflects Moscow’s unrelenting desire to recover some of its lost imperial heritage in the Caucasus. There are clearly good reasons for this accusation given Melikyan’s revelations. Russian analysts like Mikhail Aleksandrov at the Institute of the CIS claim that Azerbaijan is stimulating an arms race by lavishing expenditures on its military. While that is true, it is clear that bilateral military cooperation between Moscow and Yerevan dates back almost twenty years to 1992 and took the form of massive arms transfers, so the question of who is to blame is unclear. Aleksandrov also charged that Azerbaijan would be better off not buying weapons and that Moscow’s ties with Yerevan support the regional balance of powers and creates a counterweight to Turkey. Otherwise, the West would penetrate the region even militarily and we would then see something like Libya and Syria in the south Caucasus. Such self-serving justifications of Russian meddling and neo-imperialism are also to be expected. Thus, Aleksandrov’s demand that Azerbaijan alone make concessions, which was apparently the form of the abortive Russian effort at brokering a settlement, is clearly a non-starter.

The recent failures are unsurprising. Azerbaijan’s relations with the U.S. are now improving and joint exercises between the two states’ armed forces recently took place, albeit in Germany and Romania. But Baku clearly also wants weapons and NATO support. In addition, it has reinvigorated ties to Turkey since the Armenian gate is now completely closed to the Erdogan regime. Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said in Baku that Turkey is ready to support and join the Azerbaijani army in defense production. Both states have also signed an agreement on strategic cooperation and formed a high advisory council. Thus Azerbaijan has apparently decided to reject Moscow’s demand that it subordinate its defense and security policy to Moscow. Earlier U.S. ambassadors suspected that Azerbaijan raised the issues of Russian military support for Armenia to break through the CFE treaty limits and were wary of supporting those requests. However, if Melikyan’s remarks are true, and these have not been denied, there is ample reason for Azerbaijan’s insecurity. Yet, this situation also reflects the fact that despite immense military spending, now reaching US$ 3 billion per annum, Azerbaijan has not yet succeeded achieving military superiority in the theater.

Baku’s vocal complaints about Armenia’s purchase of rockets and other weapons worth millions of dollars from Moldova should be seen in this light. It appears that these weapons originated in Benghazi before transiting to Armenia through Moldova’s capital Chisinau. Although much of this story is not yet certain it is clear that gun running on a big scale is occurring and in view of Moldova’s notoriety as a hotbed of corruption, its involvement in this affair is unsurprising. These trends do suggest, however, that the stagnation of efforts to bring about true mediation rather than Russian neo-imperial fantasies may be contributing to the development of a vicious spiral including reciprocal arms buildups on both sides.

Under the circumstances and in view of the fact that Russia is hardly a disinterested or impartial mediator it is high time that the other co-chairs of the Minsk Group, France and the U.S., either singly or collectively step in to try and mediate this conflict in such a way that both Armenia and Azerbaijan can retain their independence, integrity and sovereignty along mutually acceptable lines. It seems clear from the record of the last twenty years that Moscow sees this conflict as an opportunity to aggrandize its power and influence at the expense of both states, and by continually trying to do so contributes to the inflammation of regional tensions and ensuring the failure of its own mediatory efforts. In the Caucasus Russia appears as if it wants to dance at all the weddings simultaneously and be both a prosecutor and defense attorney as well as a seemingly impartial mediator all at once, clearly an impossible task and one that compromises Azerbaijan.

CONCLUSIONS: A new war over Nagorno-Karabakh would be a disaster for everyone concerned and the only beneficiary would probably be Russia who could then try to implement its neo-imperial vision over the corpses of the ensuing fatalities. But that hardly meets the interests or objectives of Azerbaijan or Armenia, let alone Turkey and the West. The regression on both sides since the abortive Russian initiative points to the only possible way of mediating this conflict that should have been recognized and implemented long ago; namely a Western initiative including Russia as a supporting actor and not as the leader of the Caucasus. From the foregoing record, the failure of the earlier round of negotiations was an expected outcome. But as current history and the present trends in the Caucasus suggest, unless a genuine mediation moves forward, negotiations would likely become a surprising rather than a likely outcome.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the US Army, Defense Department, or the US Government.

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