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Another Turn of the Caucasus Kaleidoscope: Turkish-Russian Rapprochement and the Karabakh Conflict

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When Armenia and Turkey signed the protocols calling for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two longtime enemies and the opening of the border between them, many in Baku and the rest of the world assumed that this shift in the diplomatic game would prevent any rapid resolution of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh and the other occupied territories.  But it rapidly became clear that there was a long and difficult path between the signing of these accords and their adoption and that the initial judgments about their consequences for Karabakh were overstated or at least premature.

Now, when a rapprochement is taking place between the Russian Federation and Turkey and when Moscow appears to be taking an even harder line than before in support of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan given its sharp criticism of the Armenian-organized “parliamentary elections” in Karabakh, many in Baku and the rest of the world have assumed that this move will force Armenia to accept the renewed Madrid Principles and withdraw from the occupied territories in short order.

Given Armenia’s historical dependence on Russia and given the current collapse of its effort to reach an accord with Turkey and thus have an alternative bridge to the world, such predictions about the consequences of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement for the Karabakh conflict certainly appear plausible, more plausible in fact than the earlier ones concerning the impact of the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement.  Finding itself increasingly isolated if it does not agree to withdraw and recognizing that it will gain both renewed support from Russia and the opening of the Turkish border if it does, Armenia would seem to have compelling reasons to take precisely that step or at least move more rapidly in that direction than it has in the past.

But there are at least three reasons why such a reading may be too optimistic, reasons that those who want a settlement need to recognize in order to design more effective policies.  First, the loss of Russian backing, if indeed that is a fair reading of what is happening, may lead Armenia to adopt an even harder line against any agreement.  That counter-intuitive conclusion reflects what some have called the Masada Complex that has informed Armenian behavior in Karabakh and the other occupied territories over the last two decades.  Believing that it is better to fight and even die than to retreat any further—the message of the great novel of the Armenian experience, Franz Werfel’s The 40 Days of Musa Dagh—at least some Armenians will say that they must rely even more on themselves than before and prepare for a final battle, even if it is one that they may even expect to lose.

Such apocalypticism—even if it is manifested only in part—could have the effect of making the current talks even more difficult, with Armenians believing that they may be able to torpedo the Russian-Turkish rapprochement or draw in the Iranians or some other outside power in ways that will work to their own advantage.  At the very least, those in Yerevan who feel themselves now without serious allies are more likely rather than less to listen to and rely upon the Armenian diaspora, a group that is more radically anti-Turkish than is Armenia itself and one whose influence had been on the wane as a result of Yerevan’s rapprochement with Ankara.  That could point to a new effort reflecting the combined efforts of Armenia and the diaspora to seek international condemnation for the events of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire.

Second, the Turkish-Russian rapprochement is certain to have a major impact on the role of outside powers in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict, but it is unlikely by itself to change the positions of the two countries most directly involved, Azerbaijan and Armenia.  What does that mean?  In simplest terms, it suggests that both Russia and Turkey are likely to see a change in the Minsk Group, with Turkey added as a co-chair, or the development of alternative venues in which the other co-chairs, France and especially the United States, will have a lesser voice.

The drive to include Turkey as a co-chair is picking up steam with more and more commentators in Moscow saying that would be a good step and with Armenian opposition to such a move apparently less of an obstacle than it was before.  But any such change by the very nature of diplomacy would slow things down rather than speed them up, given that a reconstituted Minsk Group would inevitably have to go through a series of meetings so as to coordinate things with the new member.  And because of that likelihood, it could even be the case that Armenia would view the inclusion of Turkey as a useful delaying action until something else turns up.

But the desire of Turkey to play a bigger role in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict and that of Russia to play a predominant one in which outside powers, particularly the United States but indeed all, including even Turkey, could combine to lead to a search for a new venue for discussing the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict.  Many in Baku and other capitals are unhappy that the Minsk Group has not made more progress toward the resolution of the conflict, and many are beginning to focus on the fact that the US pushed for the creation of that group in the OSCE because it was the only international organization in which all the countries of the region were members except Iran.  And consequently, there is a new willingness to explore alternatives to the Minsk Group, possibly involving an entirely different cast of characters.

It is unlikely, of course, that the Minsk Group will simply disappear.  In the world of diplomacy, organizations frequently live on long after they have been effectively supplanted by others.  (The last meeting of the League of Nations, for example, did not take place until AFTER World War II, a conflict the League had been set up to prevent).  But if other groups do emerge, that will slow negotiations down still further as new players emerge and as each side takes the measure of the other.  Consequently, moving away from the Minsk Group, something ever more governments appear ready to do, may have very different consequences than some of them appear to recognize.

And third—and this is far and away the most important factor—Russia and Turkey have both broader and very different interests in the Caucasus than just resolving the Karabakh conflict.  On the one hand, that means that each of them will seek to maximize those interests even if it does not promote the rapid resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.  While both oppose any use of military power to end the impasse—such a restarting of open hostilities could threaten their interests—neither appears likely to be willing to sacrifice its wider interests in order to achieve an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace.  Indeed, only if such an accord promotes their interests are they likely to push it very hard.

And on the other, the differences in their positions on many issues—Russia wants to restore its influence across what Moscow still calls “the near abroad,” the former Soviet space, and Turkey wants to expand its influence in the same region—means that there are distinct limits to the rapprochement of these two powers, limits that could undermine the accord they seem to have reached in much the same way that the underlying differences between Armenia and Turkey have prevented the adoption of the two protocols Yerevan and Ankara have signed.
Given all this, it is almost certainly wise to avoid becoming too optimistic or too apocalyptic in one’s predictions about the future of the South Caucasus on the basis of a single turn of the Caucasus kaleidoscope.  It almost certainly will turn again, possibly bringing all the pieces into alignment for an agreement but equally possibly throwing them into disorder in such a way that no accord will be possible anytime soon…

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