The cease-fire brokered by Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh has silenced the guns and driven off the drones. That is good. But the deep-rooted feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the remote South Caucasus enclave has only been updated for an altered balance of power, not resolved. The burning houses of fleeing Armenians promise that it will erupt again. And in the demonic logic of conflicts which touch on elemental religious and cultural narratives, every eruption of violence adds another later of mortal grievances, pushing a lasting peace further beyond the pale.
Like other “frozen conflicts” left behind in the decomposition of the Soviet empire — Transnistria, Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Donbass — Nagorno-Karabakh is a legacy of a Soviet policies that distributed territory according to the imperatives of politics and central control, and not necessarily the identity of the inhabitants. The ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh ended up in Azerbaijan, and remained an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan, while the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhichevan ended up stranded on the western side of Armenia.
Nagorno-Karabakh exploded in ethnic violence even before the Soviet Union was fully dead, and by the time the fighting was finally stopped in 1994, 20,000 had been killed and ethnic Armenians were in control of Nagorno-Karabakh itself and a broad surrounding zone, all thoroughly cleansed of ethnic Azerbaijanis. The Armenians proclaimed a republic in Nagorno-Karabakh that no one, not even Armenia, recognized, while hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees became a smoldering symbol of national shame and humiliation in Azerbaijan.
In the ensuing quarter century, as Azerbaijan grew wealthy on oil and built up its military, the lost lands remained an open national wound. So on Sept. 27, backed by an increasingly aggressive Turkey (much of whose population is of the same Turkic ethnic group as the Azeris) and armed, among other weapons, with Israeli drones, Azerbaijan charged back. Threatened with total defeat after a few weeks, Armenia agreed to a Russian-proposed cease-fire that entailed relinquishing much of the territory it had taken in the 1990s but retaining Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The arrangement also called for Russian peacekeepers to patrol corridors linking Armenian and Azerbaijani populations through each other’s territory, and to reopen a transportation route between Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan proper.
Before long, as Carlotta Gall and Anton Troianovski wrote in The Times, the Armenians were in flight, burning their homes and taking what they could. Azerbaijan erupted in wild celebrations. In Armenia, whose population was told until the end that they were heading for victory, furious mobs ransacked the Parliament and demanded the ouster of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. It was their turn to write a narrative of humiliation and shame, made all the more bitter because of the powerful national memory of the genocide Armenians suffered at Turkish hands between 1914 and 1923.
It is tempting, given the current Western animus toward Vladimir Putin, to paint Russia’s actions as a fallen imperial lord trying to restore a measure of its control over former fiefs, as it has done in eastern Ukraine or northern Georgia. Yet the fact is that Russia was the only power capable of putting an end to what could have become a dangerous regional clash.
After the last round of fighting, the United States and France — countries with large and influential populations of Armenian expatriates — teamed up with Russia in the “Minsk Group” charged with seeking a long-term solution. They did not reach one, and when the current fighting broke out, the United States was occupied by the presidential contest and France, without America, lacked the clout to achieve a cease-fire.
Russia, by contrast, had serious reasons to stop the fight. It is a supplier of arms to both sides and bound by alliance with Armenia. Azerbaijan was actively and materially supported in the attack by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Mr. Putin had little interest in another confrontation with Turkey after their agendas clashed in Syria. The deal Russia pushed through was, in its broad parameters, the only one possible, effectively recognizing Azerbaijan’s victory while preventing it from overrunning Nagorno-Karabakh or drawing Russian forces into the fray.
Beyond putting out a dangerous fire and demonstrating its continuing clout in its former lands, Russia could not claim an unqualified triumph. Moscow is now committed to maintaining a nearly 2,000-strong peacekeeping force in a volatile corner of what Russians call their “near abroad” for at least five years, and it must deal with a Turkey increasingly prepared to throw its weight around, especially on behalf of its Turkic (and oil-rich) cousins in Azerbaijan.
The United States also has little to celebrate. Given that Turkey is a NATO ally, and the importance of Azerbaijan’s oil, the oil pipelines running near the conflict zone, the proximity of Iran, the large Armenian diaspora in America, the use of Israeli drones in the conflict and the need to balance Russia’s influence beyond its borders, the United States should have been at the forefront of peacemaking with its European allies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did summon both sides to Washington, but it was a measure of the Trump administration’s lost standing in the world that the cease-fire he announced promptly collapsed.
The fighting has stopped. But the new geopolitical configuration in the region makes a negotiated peace all the more imperative, and an American involvement all the more important. This is not a region the United States can abandon to the machinations of Mr. Putin or Mr. Erdogan.The “Minsk Group” still has a mandate from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to find a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This time, it would be wise not to wait for the next round of violence.
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