It has been just over a year since Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire to end the ’44 Day War’. A war started by Azerbaijan in order to gain back land they lost more than 25 years ago following a defeat to Armenia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Land which was given to Azerbaijan by Stalin in his efforts to divide and conquer. This is all very controversial and any way one explains it risks offending somebody of the opposite opinion in a situation which is still extremely sensitive to Azerbaijan who suffered greatly during the last war and Armenia, a tiny nation surrounded by enemies, enemies who once carried out a genocide.
But because things are complicated does not mean that the United States should not engage. The reality is that Russia uses divide and conquer methodology in the South Caucasus the same way the Soviet Union did, and for the same reason. To guarantee their permanence in their buffer zones. When the USSR collapsed, Russia lost its buffer zones in the South Caucasus meant to ward against attacks from Persian and Ottoman imperial ambitious. Over control of the Black Sea – Russia is, above all, a Black Sea nation. Vladimir Putin used the 44 Day War to humiliate Armenia’s new reform-minded Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and to guarantee the deployment of Russian Armed Forces to their buffer zones – the natural fortress of Nagorno Karabakh (the place the Armenians call Artsakh). From their bastion, the Russian Army can now patrol and secure their southern flank.
The Russians have been allowed to take advantage of the instability because the West has been unable to make any meaningful progress on peace. Specifically, the Minsk Group, led by United States, Russia and France and created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in March of 1992 following the first NK war has failed to achieve the desired end. In fact, they quickly crystalized the problem into a “frozen conflict” and forgot about it. Furthermore, now they work at cross purposes, micro-managing from Foggy Bottom any attempt by our Ambassadors in the region to creatively solving the issue on a bilateral basis while offering no solutions. Even worse, Russia now uses the Minsk Group as an opportunity to pretend they are neutral – inviting in the member states when they need to whitewash Putin’s maneuvers.
We need new policy in the South Caucasus, which will advance the cause of peace which is the only way to loosen the grip of Putin in that part of the world. First, we need to reassure Armenia of their territorial integrity, and their security. Following the genocide, so much of their decision-making is security based. 80% of their borders are closed, and the hate-speech between the Armenians and Turks (the Azeris are Turkik peoples, who buy into President Erdogan’s Pan-Turkish agenda) makes any negotiation impossible. Second, we need to put pressure on Turkey to make peace, open its borders and cease supporting the Azeri war (including the deployment of drones and mercenaries from Syria). This is hard, Turkey is a treaty ally. But without Turkish support Azerbaijan might sue for peace. Finally, we need to work with our French allies to find a lasting solution to the status of Nagorno Karabakh – what the Armenians call Artsakh. The Azeri solution of integration into Azerbaijan will not work while cultural and historic vandalism take place, including attempts to rewrite history. Also a Russian protectorate in the region, with 2000 Russian ‘peacekeepers’, will also not work – Putin does not seek peace, only position. Some have mentioned the model of Kosovo, which has been for the most part successful. Others have proposed reunification with Armenia proper – which could only occur with guaranteed security and a safe-corridor for movement.
Armenia will have to make concessions. They must accept that outside of Nagorno Karabakh, they have no legitimate territorial claim to land recently retaken by Azerbaijan. They cannot spend the next twenty years preparing for the next war. And they must negotiate with Turkey, who are said to be willing to establish trade relations and even diplomatic relations while opening the border. And they must find a way to allow for some connectivity between Nakhichevan, the Azeri enclave and Azerbaijan proper. Only this will allow them to eliminate the draft which is a tax on the youngest generation and reduce the military expenditures to an acceptable level allowing them to invest in education for the children and facilities to support a rapidly aging population.
The solutions are apparent, though difficult to achieve. Allies we have in our French colleagues independent from the constraints of the Minsk group. Now however is the time. Things are in play, relations that were frozen for decades are becoming fluid again. Let’s use this to our advantage to advance the cause of peace. The future will thank us.