The Brief – Game over in Karabakh?
Now that, after decades of fighting, Azerbaijan has regained full control of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, has the wider region become a safer place? Or is the reverse actually true?
As some kind of pragmatic consolation, one might say that Azerbaijan was always going to have the upper hand in the end – and that at least the endgame was not too protracted or more bloody.
Indeed, Azerbaijan, an authoritarian country rich in oil and gas with a population of over 10 million, has become a serious military power, while its rival Armenia, with a population of 2.8 million, is on the economic decline, compounded by political instability.
What has prevented Azerbaijan over decades from asserting its control over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated region inside its territory, is that Armenia is in a sort-of a military alliance with Russia, as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), whose other members are Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Azerbaijan too has an ally. Although there is no military pact between Baku and Ankara, Turkey provided decisive military support in the last Karabakh war in 2020, which improved the Azeri positions, further squeezing the Armenians in Karabakh.
In 2023, the situation is different: Russia is too busy with the full-scale war it started against Ukraine. Moreover, in this war, which has pitted Moscow against the West, Russia needs Turkey, at least as a friend, if not an outright ally. Therefore, for Russia, dropping Armenia was not a problem.
Armenia realised that the tables had turned and made its moves. However, Yerevan’s decision to invite the US to hold military exercises on its territory handed Russia the perfect excuse to forget its commitments under CSTO.
To add insult to injury, Yerevan decided to join the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court, which would require Armenia to arrest Vladimir Putin if he ever visits.
The development also marks a rapprochement between Moscow and Baku, and thus, the constitution of a like-minded authoritarian triangle with Ankara.
International attention is now focused on the humanitarian situation in Karabakh, where some 120,000 Armenians would presumably seek to leave the recaptured territory. Photos posted on social media show a sea of vehicles leaving Karabakh.
If all Armenians leave, Azerbaijan will repopulate the area with Azeris and the end result will effectively amount to ethnic cleansing, or “humane resettlement”, as the engineers of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans liked to say in the 1990s.
The UN and Western mediators would seek to prevent that and insist that the rights of the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan be guaranteed.
But this is only part of the picture. The real problem is Armenia itself. It is difficult to imagine a more vulnerable country in such a difficult environment.
Left without friends, this country is being pushed toward rapprochement with its neighbour Iran on an anti-Azerbaijan ticket.
Iran is home to more Azeris than those in Azerbaijan proper – and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 2020 recital of a poem claiming the lands of Iranian Azerbaijan as the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan sparked an angry backlash from Tehran.
And there are other potential hotbeds of tension to ignite the fire.
Nahichivan (also spelt as Nahichevan or Nakhchivan) is an Azeri enclave lodged between Iran, Armenia and Turkey. Azerbaijan would of course be interested to have a direct link to this territory, and Turkey is pushing in the same direction.
This is part of a master plan by Ankara to constitute a Turkic axe spanning from Turkey’s mainland through to the Uigurs in China. The Turkic world, which Ankara is consistently building, consists of Turkey proper, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Today (25 September), Erdoğan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev are meeting – in Nahichivan, of course.
And where is the EU in all this?
France, home to a large Armenian diaspora, is a big critic of Azerbaijan. President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday that his country was “very vigilant concerning the territorial integrity of Armenia because that’s what’s at stake”.
But what can France do? French diplomacy has failed miserably in Africa, across the Sahel, where other geopolitical forces are now pulling the strings. Why should France expect to do any better in the Caucasus?
Macron will be present at a 5 October meeting organised by the Spanish EU Council Presidency in Granada. The meeting will reportedly gather Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Azerbaijan’s Aliyev, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and European Council chief Charles Michel.
Many things may happen before 5 October. The only thing we know for sure is that if Turkey and Russia in the meantime split Armenia in two, it is not Charles Michel who will stop them.
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