Path to Peace in the South Caucasus (updated and extended)

The following article is being published in 3 parts by Azerbaijan in Focus in shortened form. The updated and extended version below will hopefully appear as a Postscript to the forthcoming book, 44 Days; Karabakh from Occupation to Liberation, which I hope will be available soon:

Two years after the Second Karabakh War how is the peace process proceeding in the South Caucasus? Quo Vadis Pax Caucasia?

To assess this we should first look at the positions of the respective parties.

Armenian and Azerbaijani Positions

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan made a significant statement to the Armenian Parliament on 14 September 2022:

“We want to sign a document because of which many people will criticize us, scold us, call us traitors, they may even decide to remove us from power, but we will be grateful if as a result Armenia will have lasting peace and security in an area of 29,800 square kilometres. I clearly state that I will sign a document that will ensure that. I am not interested in what will happen to me, I am interested in what will happen to Armenia. I am ready to make tough decisions for the sake of peace.”

The Armenian Prime Minister’s reference to the “29,800 kilometres” is important because it is the size of the present Republic of Armenia. It therefore excludes claim over the old Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and surrounding territories of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces after the First Karabakh War of the early 1990s.

In an interview on Armenian state TV broadcast the day before the Geneva bilateral peace meeting of 2 October, Pashinyan stated further that “no one is ready to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, just as no one is ready to recognize Karabakh as part of Armenia. And we need to recognize this fact.”

Pashinyan was emphasizing to his critics within Armenia and Karabakh that the region was universally recognised as a sovereign part of Azerbaijan and this was backed up firmly by international law. The only way this could be overcome was through military means and that was impossible for Armenia, which had lost a war only 2 years previous leading to the end of its occupation of Karabakh.

Pashinyan’s statement implied a recognition that the Karabakh Armenians are not part of Armenia. However, at the Sochi meeting the Armenian Prime Minister attempted to have a reference to a “future status” for Karabakh included in the statement, meaning something different was possible than the region being restored fully as an integral part of the Azerbaijan Republic.

The Azerbaijani position in the ongoing peace negotiations is contained in the Five Principles put forward in February 2022 and stated on 14 March 2022 at the Antalya (Turkiye) Diplomacy Forum by Baku’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov. These are:

  1. mutual recognition of respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability of internationally recognized borders and political independence of each other;
  2. mutual confirmation of the absence of territorial claims against each other and the acceptance of legally-binding obligations not to raise such a claim in future;
  3. obligation to refrain in their inter-state relations from undermining the security of each other, from the threat or use of force both against political independence and territorial integrity, and in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the UN Charter;
  4. delimitation and demarcation of the state border and the establishment of diplomatic relations;
  5. unblocking of transportation and other communications, building other communications as appropriate, and the establishment of cooperation in other fields of mutual interest.

Speaking at the Congress of World Azerbaijanis, on 22 April in Shusha, President Aliyev reiterated that in the event negotiations do not result in a treaty based on the Five Principles Baku will respond forcefully against Yerevan: “If they refuse,” he stated, “we will not recognize the territorial integrity of Armenia either and will officially declare that.”

Quite evidently, Yerevan’s failure to implement 2 important parts of the Trilateral Agreement of November 2020 – the withdrawal of all Armenian military forces from Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory and the opening of all transport and communications corridors – has begun to exhaust Baku’s patience. Military activity seems to be the only thing which focuses attention on Yerevan’s obstructionism.

Aliyev’s statement is a warning to Yerevan that Armenian military border actions against Azerbaijan would be responded to by operations that would take and hold strategic positions the Armenians regard as inside their territory – as recently happened in September 2022, when nearly 100 Azerbaijanis and over 200 Armenians were killed in clashes on the border. It also more significantly raises the historic issue of Azerbaijani-populated, but ethnically-cleansed, Western Zangezur, which was placed in the Soviet settlement of the 1920s within Armenia, but which Baku would view as a reopened territorial issue if Karabakh was not accepted as part of Azerbaijan by Yerevan.

Prime Minister Pashinyan knows Armenia is incapable of challenging Azerbaijan over Karabakh in the current circumstances and for the foreseeable future. He has therefore presumably opted to settle for the secondary aim of preventing Azerbaijan from achieving the victory of re-absorbing Karabakh. One way to do this is by offloading the Karabakh Armenians to “Russian protection” in order to deny Baku de facto its de jure territory. This possibility has the advantage for Pashinyan that he can wash his hands of the more intransigent Karabakh Armenians and remove them as an opposition and antagonistic element within the Armenian body politic. Pashinyan would then be able to concentrate his efforts on building an Armenian state on its current territory, without the Karabakh problem.

Failing that Pashinyan is probably aiming for achieving some form of autonomous status for the Karabakh Armenians – although that seems very unlikely given Baku’s strong opposition to recreating Nagorno Karabakh with an ethnic character in the post-Soviet era of nationalisms.

Azerbaijan’s position regarding territory is immensely reasonable. The Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was a Soviet construction aimed at solving the national problem between Armenians and Azerbaijanis within the Socialist context of the USSR. It’s resurrection in a world of capitalist nation states is wholly inappropriate. The Armenians by forcing 2 wars over the territory in a generation have emphasized the failure of the Socialist project of autonomous development, quite apart from the demise of the USSR. There is no going back to a construct that regenerates national antagonism, irredentism and war on a continual basis. It’s place on the map is over.

The Zangezur Corridor Imbroglio

An imbroglio is a complex dispute, argument and entanglement of interests.

If the Armenians do not accept the established state borders and the settlement of the 1920s, which is recognised in international law, as the foundation of a settlement, then we are unfortunately back in the sphere of force. And that, as has been mentioned, opens the question of Zangezur which has not been on the agenda. That is not a welcome development as it will introduce a further destabilising factor into the existing conflict, sharpening it by implicating Iran which has a “red line” on the removal of its border with Armenia. Tehran interestingly asserts a red line on this geopolitical issue but failed to assert a similar “red line” on the 3 decade Armenian occupation of Karabakh and surrounding regions of Azerbaijan, with the accompanying ethnic cleansing of its Shia Muslim and Kurdish populations.

It should be said that Iranian opposition to the Zangezur corridor is not entirely to do with the fear of blocking its access to Armenia.

The Serbian political analyst Nikola Mikovich argues that:

“Iran understands that the corridor will connect Azerbaijan not only with its exclave Nakhchivan, but also with Turkiye, a regional rival of Tehran. If the corridor is built, it will give Turkiye a new land route into the South Caucasus, which the Turkish leadership is likely to use to boost its presence in the energy-rich region. In addition, Turkiye will get a shorter and faster route to Central Asian markets. Acquiring a transport platform to achieve a number of ambitious goals will definitely be a major geopolitical victory for Ankara. All of these events could seriously undermine Iran’s position in the region as they would end Baku’s transit dependence on Tehran, deprive the Islamic Republic of its monopoly on transit services in the South Caucasus region…”

Michael Doran, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the influential Hudson Institute, recently described Azerbaijan as the number one security threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran (as opposed to the US or Israel). This is because Tehran fears a growing ethnic awakening among its 25 million or so Azerbaijani population in the North of the state. Tehran’s policy has been to use Armenia and the Karabakh issue as an instrument to divert the Republic of Azerbaijan’s resources and prevent its development. Iran is particularly fearful of the Zangezur corridor metamorphosing, in the event of an Armenian collapse, from a merely economic transit zone into a Turkic political belt of expansion, on the old Azerbaijani territory of Western Zangezur.

With the border between Russia and Europe effectively closed, the South Caucasus route to Turkey, Iran, and beyond has gained a new significance. Article 9 of the Trilateral Agreement that ended the war in 2020, and was signed by Armenia, stated that:

“All economic and transport links in the region shall be restored. The Republic of Armenia guarantees the safety of transport links between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to organize an unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and goods in both directions. Control over transport shall be exercised by the bodies of the Border Guard Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia.”

Baku interprets this as meaning that the road from western Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan, which will run through the southern Armenian region of Syunik should have the same status as the Lachin Corridor from Armenia to Mountainous Karabakh. That is to say that it should be extraterritorial and shouldn’t be controlled by the Armenian authorities, with, Russian FSB/border guards performing this function instead. For Russia, this is an entirely acceptable option, as it would give Moscow control over the road linking Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkiye: a convenient alternative to the current communication links through pro-Western Georgia.

Armenia, however, sees this interpretation of the issue as a threat to the country’s sovereignty, especially as the corridor could impede Armenia’s transport links with Iran, which pass through the Syunik/Western Zangezur region. It is therefore obstructing what it signed up to. Yerevan is supported on this issue not only by Tehran, which doesn’t want to lose control of its links with Armenia, but also, it seems, by the West, which would prefer not to hand over important communication links to the Russians. However, the West has a problem in that if it opposes Russian control it could bring about increased Iranian influence in Armenia, aimed at counter-acting Baku’s presence along the corridor.

Michael Doran cuttingly commented in the Hudson Institute’s roundtable Azerbaijan-Armenian Conflict and the American Interest that Armenia is a satellite of Russia and an ally of Iran, the US Congress and the current administration in Washington (Biden/Pelosi).

Interestingly, the Zangezur Corridor is a potential source of friction between Russia, Turkiye and Iran. All have different interests in it with only Iran’s seemingly paralleling Yerevan’s hostility.

The problem Pashinyan has is: can he achieve better relations with Turkiye in a society saturated with anti-Turkish sentiment? That is the great paradox: Armenia can only cease to be a military, economic and political dependency of Moscow by normalising relations with the state that it has demonised for a century. The independence that Armenia declared in 1991 can only be made into a reality through Turkish assistance, opening the road to Europe. And that can only be accomplished by an ending of territorial revanchism and a building of a functional independent state of Armenia composed only of its existing territory.

Geopolitical Competition

The momentum in the peace process has been undoubtedly generated by the intensifying geopolitical competition brought about by events in Ukraine.

Recently there has been the 2 October meeting in Geneva between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the 5 October meeting in Prague between President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia, the 14 October 2022 meeting in Astana between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Sochi meeting between the heads of both states presided over by the Russian President on 31 October.

Significantly, the meetings have taken place under the auspices of international states on both sides of the geopolitical divide, with the President of Russia still mediating the main process but with events facilitatedby the President of the European Council, and supportedby the US Secretary of State and the U.S. National Security Advisor augmenting (or competing with?) the process.

Before Sochi, the last time the Armenian and Azerbaijani heads of state and Putin had met was on November 26, 2021 to discuss the realisation of the November 10, 2020, and January 11, 2021, Trilateral statements. At that time, Russia was holding a tight grip over the Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiation process, and it seemed that no one could challenge the Russian position which had been gained by Putin’s successful management of the ending of the War in November 2020.

However, since then, came the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine and the West has seized its chance to recover influence in the process lost by the years of failure by the OSCE Minsk group. The European Union, and recently the US, have re-engaged in active involvement in the Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations. European Council President Charles Michel has organised 4 Armenia–Azerbaijan summits in Brussels (December 2021, April, May and August 2022). The next talks in this format are preliminarily scheduled to take place in Brussels later this month.

The US evidently believes that Russia has recently become distracted from the Southern Caucasus and the Ukraine conflict has diverted its focus and energy elsewhere. The Kremlin’s difficulty is Washington’s opportunity. Luke Coffey has argued that Ukraine is the continuation, and indeed culmination, of the Soviet Union’s collapse with the result that there is a huge question mark lying against the future of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. Washington perceives that Russian power is in decline on its periphery through its failure to suppress Kiev in short order.

The US entered the South Caucasus peace process in mid-September 2022, bringing Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers to New York and the Secretary of the Armenian Security Council and top foreign policy aide to President Aliyev to the White House during late September 2022. As a result of the EU and the US mediation efforts, the sides approved the Prague statement on October 6, 2022, which recognised mutual territorial integrity, reinforcing the UN Charter and Alma-Ata declaration of 1991 (The UN Charter established the principle of territorial integrity of states, while the Alma-Ata protocols stated that communist-era administrative boundaries became state borders after the Soviet Union’s collapse).

Simultaneously, the US ambitiously proposed a signing of an Armenia-Azerbaijan peace treaty by the end of 2022. According to the Secretary of the Armenian Security Council, Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed to sign a peace agreement and finish the border delimitation process by the end of the year during the September 27, 2022, meeting in the White House. 

The active re-involvement of the US in Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations while generating a competition that has injected momentum into the process has also potential to bring the South Caucasus peace process within the framework of the US–Russia geopolitical confrontation.

The renewed US involvement in the South Caucasus has undoubtedly concerned the Kremlin which believes that the primary goal of the US is to use influence over the Armenia–Azerbaijan peace agreement to push Russian peacekeepers out of the remaining Armenian rump of Karabakh as a part of the a global strategy against Russian interests. The Russian logic is that if Armenia and Azerbaijan were to sign a peace treaty, Azerbaijan would be influenced not to extend the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers beyond the initial five-year term, which ends in November 2025. Moscow is concerned that an Armenia–Azerbaijan peace treaty and withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from Karabakh would be the first step to push Russia out of the region and increase Western influence in the South Caucasus, on the borderlands of the Russian Federation. 

The West would undoubtedly like to encourage the demand for the withdrawal of the Russian military base and border troops from Armenia itself. But to achieve this it would have to bring about the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkiye. President Erdogan has reiterated that Turkiye would normalise its relations with Armenia immediately after the signature of a Armenia–Azerbaijan peace treaty.

Russia’s failure to assert its will against Kiev has made many nervous about Armenia’s traditional dependence on Moscow for its security.

Within Armenia itself, some political forces and intellectuals are already demanding the withdrawal of the Russian military base at Gyumri from Armenia and argue that Armenia should leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The normalization of Armenia–Azerbaijan and Armenia–Turkey relations will undoubtedly strengthen these pro-Western voices in Yerevan. In August, Azerbaijani military action forced the handing back of the Lachin corridor between Armenia and Karabakh to Azerbaijan. This demonstrated to the Armenians that the Russian were not prepared to militarily intervene on their behalf and sounded alarm bells in Yerevan and among the Armenians of Karabakh, who see the Russians as their guarantors of security. These alarm bells rang again in September, when Azerbaijani forces crossed the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in some places after a military confrontation with Yerevan’s forces.

At the CSTO Summit held in Yerevan in mid-November Pashinyan proposed that the organisation support a statement demanding the “immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Azerbaijani troops from the sovereign territory of the Republic of Armenia to their original positions as of May 11, 2021.” The other members (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) rejected Yerevan’s proposal in the CSTO statement, leading to an Armenian refusal to sign the document. Pashinyan complained that the CSTO’s inaction would give Baku “the green light to continue the aggression against Armenia.”

Two days before the CSTO summit in Yerevan the President of Azerbaijan had remarked that within this organisation “Azerbaijan has more friends than Armenia.” It seems that the new geopolitical reality, both in the region following the 2020 War, and globally, as a result of the events in Ukraine, was making the Turkiye/Azerbaijan axis an even more important relationship than that within the CSTO between Russia/Belarus and Armenia. Lukashenko was particularly dismissive of Armenia’s demands of action against Baku.

The most important thing about the September military escalation for Yerevan was who stopped it. The war of 2020 was stopped by Moscow and its ending carefully managed by the Kremlin. But in September the Armenians certainly believe that calls from Washington to Baku were sufficient in rescuing them from defeat while the Russians stood idly by.

The West’s diplomatic offensive in the South Caucasus reached its peak at the European Political Community summit held in Prague in early October, where the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in person and agreed to allow an EU observer mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. This was something that would have been difficult to imagine a few months ago, before the events in Ukraine. Yerevan’s decision to involve the European Union in the border delimitation process on the ground, and the EU’s agreement to do so, was probably the immediate cause of Moscow’s dissatisfaction with what it perceived to be an EU attempt to enhance its role from facilitatorof the peace process to one akin to that of a mediator, like Russia. Azerbaijan has subsequently blocked the EU observers from appearing on its side of the border.

The most striking statement to come out of this summit, however, was the aforementioned declaration that the signing of a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia was expected by the end of the year.

The United States Strategic Interest

The Hudson Institute’s roundtable Azerbaijan-Armenian Conflict and the American Interest produced in late September and involving several important figures in the US with long-standing dealings in the South Caucasus is a very enlightening webcast.

It should be pointed out that it contains the views of those who are critical of the current US administration’s pro-Armenian policy with regard to the Southern Caucasus. They regard this as self-defeating in relation to the interests of the United States. However, recent turn of events suggests that a powerful case is now being made for Washington engaging more deeply within the region on a more balanced basis to advance US Eurasian strategic interests.

James Carafano, West Point and former Lt. Colonel US Army, a leading expert in US national security and foreign policy and Vice-President of the Heritage Foundation, argues that the United States must assert its influence in the South Caucasus because there are important opportunities for the West there. Having visited the liberated territories he notes that Armenia destruction created “a Carthage of these lands” and Azerbaijan needed to be supported in their redevelopment of them. There was an opportunity for Washington because Azerbaijan wanted security and stability in the region to promote economic development and the US could provide this. Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute suggested that the US had 3 major strategic objectives regarding the Southern Caucasus: Containing Russia, containing Iran and unlocking the natural resources of Central Asia for the West, particularly Kazakhstan’s and Turkmenistan’s vast energy deposits.

Doran notes that these very significant energy resources currently lie captive to the Russian and Chinese markets. A pipeline through Azerbaijan along the Southern Gas Corridor would facilitate the bringing of much greater gas supply from Central Asia than Azerbaijan could ever offer to Europe (maximum of 5 per cent of European needs). Zbigniew Brzezinski, of Grand Chessboard fame, who saw Armenian diaspora influence within the US Congress as detrimental to US interests in Eurasia, once described Azerbaijan as “the cork in the bottle containing the riches of Central Asia.” He wanted to open the Central Asian bottle of energy riches to the West through Turkiye, Azerbaijan and Iran (which he believed was only temporarily antagonistic to the West but had the same fundamental geopolitical interests).

Doran suggests that if Azerbaijan were to fall fully into the Russian sphere Moscow could dominate the European energy market indefinitely. On the other hand, if Washington succeeds in disabling Russia through its economic and military support for Kiev the vast energy riches of Central Asia may end up falling into the lap of China – the US’s main geopolitical opponent. Therefore, it is imperative to provide Azerbaijan with an outlet to Europe in order for the West to capture the great energy resources of Central Asia. That is Azerbaijan’s central strategic importance for US geopolitics – as a transit hub for the future Eurasian energy security system. The political character of Azerbaijan is of no consequence for Washington, as long as it is stable.

Luke Coffey argues that the US objective in Eurasia is to replace the Chinese Belt and Road and turn it into a transportation and development generator in the Western interest, usable by both Japan and South Korea, the US capitalist satellites in East Asia. This would involve the diversion of Turkmenistan’s gas from the Russia/Iran North/South axis to Europe/East Asian West/East axis. Doran and Carafano believe that the infrastructure needs to be developed to enhance the capacity of the Middle Corridor to make this economically viable. To do this Washington needs to revive the interest and enthusiasm of the Clinton years, when Zbigniew Brzezinski was sent by Washington to do business with President Heydar Aliyev. A little American elbow grease needs to be applied to make this happen and create an energy corridor that enhances the independence of Azerbaijan and the Central Asian states from Russia and China. This is imperative when there is the distinct possibility that the decline of Russia, after Ukraine, brings the US/China geopolitical conflict on.

James Carafano makes the important point that fossil fuels are still the future not the past. The ideological net zero commitment is completely at odds with physics, chemistry, economics and geopolitics. It is bogus because the new climate policy advocated is completely unrealistic if it is expected to produce the stable market conditions and energy supplies needed for political stability and development. Carafano predicts that the policy will have to be stopped internationally from Washington because fossil fuels are here to stay. Climate Emergency policies are dysfunctional and Europe, which has now been firmly placed back under US hegemony by the Ukraine war, and deprived of cheap Russian energy supplies, has not woken up to its predicament yet. Green energy replacing fossil fuels is a pipe-dream of European ideologues.

This all makes the South Caucasus and particularly Azerbaijan of increasing geopolitical concern for the United States.

Russian Fightback at Sochi

In late October, Moscow attempted to regain the initiative which was being wrested from it by Washington and the EU. The Russian President hosted the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Sochi.

The Sochi statement itself tends to suggest this was a kind of a holding operation. There was still some momentum in the Russian peace process. But nothing looked like it had changed. The major importance of it were the things that were omitted from the statement. Pashinyan’s wanting a reference to the future “status” or future negotiations on “status” were not in the statement. And certain territorial gains Azerbaijan has made, which Pashinyan wanted the Russians to reverse, were not overturned or even referred to in the statement. So, the most significant thing about the statement is what was not in the statement.

At Sochi President Aliyev made it clear that the question of special “status” for the Armenian populated parts of mountainous Karabakh was not on the table. He emphasized to Yerevan that Azerbaijan will only sign a peace treaty with Armenia if that treaty fixes the existence of all of Karabakh as an integral territorial administrative unit of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan again rejected any ethnic-based Armenian autonomy for Karabakh.

The Armenians were concerned that Washington was ready to support this position if it forced a Russian retreat from the region.

Some Armenian sources have suggested that the primary Moscow goal in the Sochi summit of October 31 was not to achieve a breakthrough in Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations but to prevent the signature of a potential US-mediated peace agreement. This argument suggests that the Kremlin is satisfied with the current status quo with Karabakh being a de jure part of Azerbaijan but part of it remaining de facto controlled by Russia and its peacekeeping presence. The best case scenario for Russia, it is argued, would be to extend this situation for at least another 5 years after 2025 to maintain leverage over all parties. The Kremlin would then be able to use the absence of a peace settlement as justification for its continued military presence in the region.

On the other hand, a peace agreement would undermine the basis of the Russian military presence. Putin made the remark to Prime Minister Pashinyan that if he wished to sign an agreement with President Aliyev he could – but he would be taking his chances with the West if he did and, in that event, there would no longer be “Russian protection”. That was probably designed to concentrate Armenian minds on the value of the Russian presence.

On 27 October, when asked a question by a journalist at the Valdai Club, Putin answered by saying that there were now two competing peace plans: One was represented by a Washington plan recognising “Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh as a whole”. The second was the Russian plan which recognised the complexities of Karabakh, taking account of the Armenian presence as well as Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.

This was undoubtedly Putin’s play to Yerevan in providing a carrot along with the stick, to maintain Armenia’s adherence to the Russian peace plan, lest they be tempted away by Nancy Pelosi, Washington and the EU into a new Promised Land of Western milk and honey. 

A few days before the Sochi summit, Pashinyan said he was himself ready and willing to sign a document in Sochi that would extend the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate by up to 20 years. However, the Sochi statement did not extend the mandate, currently set to expire in 2025.

Certainly if Russia’s primary goal during the Sochi summit was to obstruct progress it succeeded. It was shown that Armenia and Azerbaijan could not agree an extensive joint statement because of disagreements. President Putin was able to present the argument that if Armenia and Azerbaijan could not agree on an extensive statement, how could they ever agree on a final peace agreement? Both Armenia and Azerbaijan confirmed the significant role of the Russian peacekeepers and agreed not to use force or the threat of force in the future. The Sochi summit therefore succeeded in obstructing any hopes Washington had in detaching either Armenia or Azerbaijan, or both, at present from the Russian process.

After Sochi Edmon Marukyan, Yerevan’s Ambassador-at-large said that Armenia’s negotiators were “satisfied” with the Sochi summit because it showed that two competing peace tracks — a Western one and a Russian one — are not “contradictory.” This was very much in line with Armenia’s policy of riding 4 horses at once – US, France, Russia and Iran – waiting to see which horse delivers the best deal for them. However, the fact that these 4 horses are riding off in different directions will surely make this policy unsustainable and hazardous.

Some pro-Western observers have suggested that Baku should jump at the Western offer and embrace the Washington peace process as an alternative to the Kremlin’s. But Baku is wise to express caution at “Greeks bearing gifts”. For one thing, any such move would drive Yerevan firmly toward Moscow and the protection of Russian power. The Azerbaijan Government would be wary of Western Governments, particularly those of the US and France, with their influential Armenian diasporas and interest groups, presenting themselves as “honest brokers” when they have been pro-Armenian before, during and after the wars over Karabakh.

The French meddling in the Karabakh issue is particularly detrimental to Western interests in Azerbaijan, including those of the US. The French Senate’s hostile Resolution of 15 November along with Emmanuel Macron’s statement of 12 October, accusing Baku of “unleashing a terrible war against Armenia in 2020,” will have confirmed Baku’s view of France as a historically anti-Azerbaijan, anti-Turk and anti-Muslim force. It has raised suspicions that Paris is angling to expand its influence in the South Caucasus and ultimately displace Russia’s position in Armenia by seeking to act as Yerevan’s patron and protector. This is dangerous because, with the departure of Britain from the European Union, France is the main military power of the EU and seems to be operating a parallel policy to that of Brussels. And the foreign interventions of Paris, like in Algeria and lately in Libya have almost always led to chaos in the regions concerned with the French retiring home leaving a mess behind them. Baku can only see the hostile, pro-Armenian meddlesome France beneath the EU mask of benevolence.

The Azerbaijani experience of the OSCE from 1994-2020 would not have engendered confidence in Baku in the objectiveness of Western diplomacy. The historical experience of the 1920s, when the Western Governments abandoned the Azerbaijan Republic to the Red Army also could not be forgotten. A year or two earlier Russia was down and out and on its knees, with Britain in control of the South Caucasus. By 1920 Russia was back in the region for a further 70 years. Predictions of Russian disaster should always be treated with a pinch of salt by any statesmen who have to deal with the reality of power in the region!

Another possible platform for the peace process is emerging in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where, as SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming said in March 2022, the granting of observer status to Azerbaijan and Armenia is now being actively discussed. The 3+3 regional formula proposed by the Azerbaijani and Turkish Presidents remains relevant too. This format could bring Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia together with Iran, Russia, and Türkiye in order to deal with regional issues. At present this proposal is handicapped by Georgia’s reluctance to participate within such a format due to its unresolved territorial disputes with Russia over the two breakaway entities, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that unilaterally declared their independence from Georgia in 2008.

The hedging Armenian policy, and the West’s toleration of Yerevan’s links with Russia and Iran, which would not be tolerable in relation to other countries, makes Azerbaijan’s position a difficult one. It can only pursue a principled position in relation to Moscow and Washington and react to Yerevan’s opportunistic choice when it comes. On the other hand, Azerbaijan’s traditional balanced, policy of non-alignment has been provided with a breathing space by the Western intervention and an opportunity to pursue its more independent policy in the future.

All this resembles a game of Chess on the South Caucasus chessboard.

Approaching High Noon, 2025

Early 2025, when the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers comes up for renewal, is likely to be a High Noon moment – unless it is postponed until 2030. At that point it is likely that Baku will be faced with a fateful choice: whether to collaborate with Moscow in an extension of the mandate or to request termination of it. 

It is possible that Baku may choose to kick the can down the road in order to complete the process of reconstruction and repopulation and buy more time for confidence building with the remaining Armenian population of Karabakh and Yerevan. 

After the 2020 war was won the Azerbaijan government began to reconstruct its liberated territories after 30 years of occupation. Up to June 2022, the Azerbaijani government had already invested more than $2.5 billion in the reconstruction process and allocated a further $1.7bn for the following year. In July 2022, the return of the first 10 families, to the Zangilan region, took place. The process of restoring roads and transport net-works in Karabakh have so far included 600 kilometres of roads, regional interlinking motorways, and more than 150 kilometres of railway tracks. The flagship in this regard is the 100-kilometer-long Victory Road to Shusha, which has already been completed. In February 2021, the foundation of the Horadiz-Agbend railway line to the districts of Fuzuli, Zangilan, Lachin, and Jebrayil was laid. The strategic importance of this railway line, with a total length of 100 kilometres, is significant. First of all, transportation infrastructure will play a decisive role in the bringing of Azerbaijani citizens to the liberated lands. Secondly, it will be instrumental in establishing a direct transportation link between Azerbaijan’s mainland and its Nakhchivan exclave and onwards to Turkiye.

The construction of new airports also gives an impetus to the development of the liberated territories. In September 2021, an international airport in Fizuli was put into operation in a record seven months. A second one, located in Zangilan, is expected to be commissioned before the end of 2022. The construction of a third airport in the city of Lachin is earmarked for completion in 2024. This is possible with the return of the city of Lachin, as well as the villages of Sus and Zabuh, to the control of Azerbaijan at the end of August 2022.

Unfortunately the extensive land-mining of the occupied territories by the Armenians has led to the slower progress of reconstruction and particularly repopulation that would be desired.

In 2025 the Azerbaijan Government may perhaps bite the bullet and request Moscow to withdraw its peacekeeping forces, which have been useful in some respects in curbing (although not ending) Armenian military activity. Yerevan’s repeated refusal to implement Article 4 of the Trilateral Agreement and Moscow’s reluctance to force adherence to it on the Karabakh Armenians is a sore point for Baku. Article 4 requires the “withdrawal of the Armenian troops” concurrently with the deployment of the Russian peacekeeping forces makes it clear that “Armenian troops” does not refer solely to the official Armed Forces of Armenia but also to men at arms under the command and control of the remnant of the Armenian secessionist entity.

In circumstances of requesting the termination of the Russian presence it is likely that Baku may have to make one or other concessions to Moscow and/or Armenians. It is perhaps too optimistic to believe that the Kremlin will not exact a price for its cooperation in this matter, and it is likely that this will mean a security arrangement treaty of some sort to the satisfaction of Moscow. Of course, the outcome of the war in Ukraine has made speculation about this much more difficult than it would otherwise have been.

Azerbaijan has in its favoured, however, the importance the Kremlin attaches to good relations with Baku and Ankara, which is of far greater geopolitical significance for Russia than what it has with Yerevan or the territory of the Karabakh rump. That was the fatal miscalculation the Armenians made when they believed the Kremlin would intervene on their behalf during the War.

On the other hand, if Baku attempts to outmanoeuvre the Kremlin to lever the Russian peacekeepers out in 2025 there is an imperative to work with Yerevan and the Karabakh Armenians in the mutual independence interest. That means the development of regional confidence building and inter-governmental structures aimed at alleviating the present antagonism that exists and which will affect the future inclusion of the Karabakh Armenians within the Azerbaijan State.

President Aliyev has made recent statements to that effect:

“We are ready to talk to people who live in Karabakh and want to live there. We are ready for it. By the way, this process has already begun. If there is no interference from (other) countries… and no attempts are made to stop this process, then I think it could go well. However, this has nothing to do with Pashinyan and his government. As I said, there should be a consensus between Azerbaijan, the European Union, the United States and Russia, between those countries, and about structures that are capable of assisting in this matter.”

An Alternative Suggestion

What I have outlined above are the changes that have taken place in the Armenia/Azerbaijan peace process since the ending of the war in 2020 and the recent change in the process from a Russian one into a competing Russian vs. Western one. In some respects the reappearance of the West has been a positive force, injecting momentum into a slow-burning process, hampered by Russia’s distraction by events in Ukraine.

However, there are dangers in this in relation to the South Caucasus becoming part of a wider, intensifying geopolitical conflict between the West and Russia. The region has had its fill of wars and the intrigues of international powers and it could do with a respite from such, as was promised by the armistice of 2020.

So, the present writer will make some brief suggestions as to how a positive course could be plotted that would insulate the region from the negative aspects of geopolitical competition whilst availing of the positive aspects of international assistance in the peace process.

Along with the Five Principles put forward by the Azerbaijan Government the following conditions could be provided for:

  1. The South Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) to establish a formal non-aligned neutral buffer zone between the West and Russia.
  2. No foreign forces to be permanently stationed on the territories of the 3 South Caucasus states.
  3. No membership of global military alliances (i.e. NATO and CSTO).
  4. Establishment of Transcaucasus Intergovernmental Council to facilitate economic and security for the mutual benefit of the 3 states in the region.

The point of this would be to secure a peaceful Russian withdrawal from the South Caucasus while guaranteeing Moscow’s security concerns about NATO/Western military enlargement into the region. It would remove Moscow’s hold over Armenia’s independence and sovereignty and end the manipulation of forces within the region by external powers for their own interests. There would be no repeat of the tragedy that has engulfed Ukraine and its people in the South Caucasus.

The South Caucasus would be a model for peaceful coexistence and cooperation of peoples, involving mutual security, stability and economic development.

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