Matteo Gemolo, a PhD candidate at Cardiff University
The nearly three-decade old frozen conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh dramatically heated up on the morning of 27 September. After the loss of more than 2,300 of its servicemen, Armenia decided to sign a peace deal with Azerbaijan (and Russia) on 10 November, promising to withdraw from remaining occupied territories surrounding the Karabakh. Nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers are now meant to arrive in the mountainous zone and along the Lachin corridor to monitor truce violations and ensure the safety of the civilian population. The geopolitical shifts from seven weeks of fighting are worth taking account of.
Although Russian ruler Vladimir Putin’s main goal has always been to enshrine his country’s role as arbiter of the “post-Soviet space” or Russian “near abroad”, including the South Caucasus, the Kremlin did not dispatch a single soldier to support its Armenian ally during the recent conflict, despite pleas in various forms from Yerevan and the clear direction of the war from quite early on. The reasons for Russia’s lack of action are various.
Firstly, the conflict did not touch the territory of Armenia “proper”; the Karabakh is recognised as sovereign territory of Azerbaijan that has been under occupation by Armenia since 1994. This offered a perfect excuse for Putin to not intervene, claiming to be supporting “international law”, while denying support to the government of Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who has repeatedly proved to be a “Moscow-skeptic democrat”. Russia had looked with wariness upon Pashinyan from the outset, since he had risen in 2018 on the back of street protests and civil disobedience, which forced former Prime Minister, Serzh Sargsyan, the leader of the Republican Party of Armenia, to resign.
Secondly, if on the one hand Armenia has always been Russia’s strategic ally, Azerbaijan, on the other hand, has never represented an actual enemy. Unlike other former Soviet republics involved in frozen conflicts—such as Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova—Azerbaijan has neither been openly hostile to Russia, nor had a government practicing anti-Russian propaganda on the international scene. Baku’s anti-colonial rhetoric has always been moderate: the pros and cons of two-hundred-years of coexistence with a part of the Azeri people in one state with the Russians have been recognized, and the former Soviet Union was never proclaimed to be the source of all troubles.
Thirdly, and most importantly, despite all its contradictions and periodic clashes, there is Russia’s partnership with Turkey, a strong ally of Azerbaijan’s, which need to be preserved in order to keep NATO off-balance and keep Western countries, the United States in particular, out of regional conflicts. Putin and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are united by a common goal: establishing an anti-West platform in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Although Putin’s Christian values might suggest he would sympathize with the Armenians’ struggle, his political conservatism (which is social and not religious) remain stronger than any other interest: liberal and/or pro-Western Christians are much farther away from him than a Turkish, conservative, anti-Western Muslim.
It is for these three main reasons that Russia has stepped back and let Turkey, which had taken a lead in Azerbaijan’s military effort, take control over the area, turning a blind eye to their use of drones, tactical support from their senior officers, and transport of mercenary fighters from Syria to side with the Azeris.
Sources within the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA), the Turkish-controlled Syrian Arab forces, said that around 1,500 Syrians from the SNA had been deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh, being offered contracts for $1,500 a month, paid in Turkish lira. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) officially declared: “There were widespread reports that the Government of Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s assistance, relied on Syrian fighters to shore-up and sustain its military operations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, including on the frontline.” These SNA soldiers have been defined as mercenaries by UN Human Right experts. There are accusations that hardline Islamist forces lined to Al-Qaeda were among Turkey’s Syrian mercenaries, including individuals from the Uyghur Muslim terror group, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), but the investigations into these accusations continue and none of them have been confirmed yet.
By winning this conflict, Erdogan’s hopes to join the Minsk Group co-chairs in administering the South Caucasus, squeezing out Western influence, particularly that of Israel, a close ally up until now of Azerbaijan’s.
As a response to the peace deal, in reality an instrument of surrender, Armenian villagers began setting their houses on fire in order to avoid leaving them in the hands of the “Turks” (this is how locals refers to the Azeris). Left alone by the Christians of the West and of Russia, the Armenians, from both the Karabakh (the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh) and abroad have begun joining forces to help one another. As declared by Mané Alexanian, a French journalist of Armenian origin: “Real solidarity amongst Armenians has taken hold. In a very short time, a collection of medicines, supplies, and even clothing was in place. The information is relayed on social networks, day after day. Each of us has a brother, a father, a cousin, a friend on the front lines right now. Our land, our history and our people are in danger. This is also why Armenians from France, the United States, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere went to the front after Armenia declared general mobilization. It is this same spirit of solidarity that nourished them.”
The exodus of 150,000 Armenians from the Karabakh enclave is well underway amid the silence of the majority of Western leaders. One of the few exceptions was French President Emmanuel Macron, who declared his country would “stand by Armenia during this difficult time”. The lack of Western coherence even in rhetoric in the South Caucasus has left the area to the expansionism of Turkey and Russia. The West seems as if it will be focused on its own domestic turmoil for quite some time to come, leaving issues like international law and self-determination to be crushed under the feet of predatory states like Iran that will take the chance to get involved in areas like the Karabakh where there is a vacuum. Without the West, instability in the region is likely to increase and forms of imperialism with no interest in human rights are destined to gain the upper-hand as nasty sectarian feuds play out.
The Nagorno-Karabakh issue can be traced back to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet tyrant who ruled between the late 1920s and 1953; it was deliberately created to set two ethnic groups against each other, rather than against the central state that occupied them both. While the area is under Azeri sovereignty, it has been overwhelmingly Armenian in demography since the Middle Ages. This issue is “a classic instance of the clash of two international law principles: territorial integrity and self-determination”, said Stephan Astourian, director of UC Berkeley’s Armenian Studies Program. Many states have a mixed record on these two principles, and though the U.S. does have a general preference for one—territorial integrity—even the U.S. has exceptions, such as Kosovo, a province of Serbia that was detached by force to prevent a genocide in 1999 and declared its independence in 2008, an independence recognized by Washington.
If there is any silver lining in the latest round of conflict in the Karabakh, the bloodiest since the war of the early 1990s when Armenia took over the area, it is that it is a wake-up call to Western countries, in particular America and France, both of them members of the Minsk Group. When the West lets predatory states take the lead in “solving” disputes, Western interests and Western values are harmed.
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