Black flowers growing the black garden
Nagorno-Karabakh is back in the headlines. Edward Lucas explains why violence in the Caucasus flares up time and again. And why the West is the big loser of the conflict.
Why care about a place that you can barely spell? The further away you are from the Caucasus, the more the war over Nagorno-Karabagh (or is that Karabakh?) arouses boredom and confusion. Who’s right? Who started it? Why does it matter?
The answer to the first two questions is hard. Both Armenians and Azeris have a good historical claim to the mountainous, beautiful region (literally “the Black Mountain Garden", which de jure is part of Azerbaijan, but de facto since the 1994 ceasefire has been the Armenian-run “Artsakh Republic”, an entity with no international recognition. Neither is right in their claims. Both are frequently wrong in their unreasonable, provocative behaviour – which is why the latest war started.
Explaining why it matters is easier. The conflict involves three big countries – Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan, Russia, which has friendly ties with both the warring parties, and Iran, which is their neighbour. On the sidelines are the European Union (which has tried but failed to broker peace) and the United States (pushed one way by the influential Armenian diaspora, and the other way by oil and gas interests in Azerbaijan).
One worry is that fighting could escalate, leading one of the outsiders to get seriously involved. But a much bigger one is that the war marks the end of Western influence in the region. What Russia wants is to repeat the diplomatic success it enjoyed over Syria, leveraging a modest military involvement into a strategic victory. One element of this would be Russian peacekeepers in the region; another would be an “Astana-2’ peace process, involving Iran and Turkey — and excluding the EU and the US.
This war is a win-win for Russia in other respects too. Whoever loses will need the Kremlin’s protection. Whoever wins will be grateful. Russia sells weapons to Azerbaijan, but keeps a military base in (and also sells weapons to) Armenia. Both countries are dissatisfied with their relations with Russia. Neither has an alternative. Landlocked Armenia is terrified of Turkey. Azerbaijan knows it cannot rely fully on Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The big loser is the West. It is losing influence across the Black Sea, Caucasus and Central Asia — regions where only 15 years ago it seemed to be becoming the diplomatic and economic lodestar, building pipelines, educating elites, promoting civil society and creating new security arrangements. Turkey – the biggest NATO member in the neighbourhood — brings problems not solutions. In the long run, China’s rising power is the big geostrategic story. But for now Russia is once again in charge of its former empire. The last bastion of Western influence is Georgia, where democracy is in decline and the economy in a mess. Russia could demand a corridor across Georgia in order to bring aid (military or “humanitarian”) to Armenia. The authorities in Tbilisi would find little outside support if they resisted that demand; if they concede, or are faced with a fait accompli, their vulnerability and isolation are highlighted.
Western apathy is matched by Armenian arrogance. The new, reformist authorities in Yerevan continued the do-nothing policy of their kleptocratic predecessors, making no serious attempt to negotiate with Azerbaijan. Armenians assume that the longer they held Nagorno-Karabakh, the greater the chance that the world would accept the land-grab. That has not worked. “Artsakh” is a depopulated puppet state, wholly dependent on economic and military support from Armenia and the deep-pocketed diaspora. The human cost is huge. Azerbaijan is home to hundreds of thousands of Azeris who fled Armenian rule 25 years ago, who still live in miserable conditions. That keeps the political temperature boiling.
Armenia is on the defensive militarily. It cannot win a decisive victory against Azerbaijan, a much bigger and richer country. The Armenians’ best hope is diplomatic support from the outside.
That is unlikely to work. The West, divided and distracted, is finding it hard to muster enthusiasm even for the opposition in Belarus, which is a much more convincing candidate for support. Twenty years ago, European security was a hot topic in Washington DC, attracting broad bipartisan support. This administration sees the EU as an adversary, and European allies as ungrateful or reckless. A Biden administration might try to reverse that, but not soon, and not certainly.
Russia will not demonise Azerbaijan by denouncing it as the aggressor or perpetrator of another Armenian genocide. It wants better ties with the regime in Baku, for commercial (transit, oil and gas) and geostrategic reasons. The Russian elites are divided: being friends with Azerbaijan can be lucrative. The lesson of the last round of fighting in 2016 was clear. Armenia received no useful support from Russia or from the Kremlin-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Eurasian Union and Commonwealth of Independent States.
If Azerbaijan regains at least some territory before a ceasefire is brokered the leadership in Baku will edge closer in gratitude. Russia could have backed Armenia. It didn’t. If fighting quickly turns to stalemate or setback, the lesson for Azerbaijan will be that relying on Turkey was a mistake — and thus also stoke a move towards Russia.
Iran will be watching the conflict with interest and enthusiasm too. Any outcome that underlines its role as a regional powerbroker helps blunt the edge of US sanctions. Turkey is more nervous. It has to support Azerbaijan because of the two countries’ deep linguistic and ethnic ties. But President Erdogan has a lot on his desk already, including wars in Syria and Libya, and a sharp confrontation with Greece. He does not want a new row with Russia. Turkey will intervene to prevent an Azeri defeat, but will encourage its smaller ally to settle for a modest victory.
Decisions that used to be made in Washington, London, Berlin and Brussels, with at least the semblance of a multilateral rules-based framework, are now being made in Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, on the basis of ruthless power politics. It all helps fuel Vladimir Putin’s Neo-Yalta world vision, where the big powers make the decisions and the small ones eat what they are told.
Edward Lucas has been a correspondent for The Economist. After almost 30 years he has quit his job as a journalist to concentrate on writing books. www.edwardlucas.com