The end of Nagorno-Karabakh and the future of unresolved conflicts arising from the USSR’s demise

Tropes russes desplegades al Karabakh, entre 2020 i 2023.
Tropes russes desplegades al Karabakh, entre 2020 i 2023. Author: Karlos Zurutuza
Hundreds of Azerbaijani soldiers march through the empty centre of Stepanakert (now Khankendi) under President Ilham Aliyev’s proud gaze. They walk steadily down the main avenue of what was, until recently, the capital of the now-defunct Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, in front of a deserted parliament and the former presidential palace, now crowned with the Azerbaijani coat of arms. Flags of different sizes with blue, red, and green horizontal stripes, the crescent moon, and the eight-pointed star adorn the site, replacing those of the defunct republic. This scene took place on 8 November, the culmination of Azerbaijan’s military victory and occupation of the whole of Karabakh following their blitzkrieg offensive of 19-20 September, which led to the exodus of almost the entire ethnic Armenian population residing there. It was an image that made the Armenian population’s deepest nightmare come true. It put a definitive end to three and a half decades of conflict and buried the dream of Artsakh forever.

The parade was also intended to commemorate the Azerbaijani victory in the Second Karabakh War in autumn 2020, when they regained more than two-thirds of the territory under Armenian control since the war in the early 1990s. Of the more than 120,000 Armenians who inhabited it, only a score have remained. This erases a presence with deep historical roots more than 2,000 years old, in the face of the international community’s permissiveness. It is also causing the disappearance of a strong local identity and jeopardising the survival of the local dialect, Karabakhi, spoken in the area. Eight former political and military leaders of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh were detained for trial by Azerbaijan, one of the most authoritarian states on earth. In addition, 41 prisoners of war and six civilians have been captured. There are also fears about the future of the region’s vast historical and cultural heritage, such as the Amaras monastery, one of the oldest Christian temples in the world, where the monk Mesrop Mashtots opened the first school in the 5th century AD to teach pupils the Armenian alphabet, which he himself had created. The actions against Armenian architectural and sculptural heritage perpetrated in the areas of Karabakh that came under Azerbaijani control following the 2020 war, or the eradication policy carried out in the exclave of Nakhchivan between 1997 and 2006 —which included the destruction of 89 churches, 5,840 khachkars (Armenian stone crosses), and 22,000 tombstones in order to erase their ancestral footprint— are worrying precedents.

Between the normalisation of relations and the possibility of another war

The extinction of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh declared in 1991 and the abolition of the region that had borne that name since 1921, and the fate that the Armenians of that territory have suffered, are a sign of the return of geopolitics on the fringes of Europe in its crudest form. Karabakh’s historical dispute has been resolved in favour of Baku’s interests, but interstate consequences still remain. Border delimitation between Armenia and Azerbaijan and mutual recognition of each other’s territorial boundaries are still pending. The issue of Armenia’s regional isolation, which has been maintained by Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey for three decades by keeping the borders closed on both sides in retaliation for Armenian control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven adjacent provinces, will also have to be addressed. Over the past two years, Azerbaijani forces have conducted small military incursions to pressure the Armenians to relent over the Karabakh issue, and now control tens of square kilometres of Armenian territory according to the 1991 borders.

At the heart of the territorial reintegration issue is the possible construction of a new east-west transport corridor connecting Azerbaijan by rail and road to its exclave of Nakhchivan and, in turn, Turkey to the Caspian Sea. The Syunik region in southern Armenia is the target of Ankara and Baku’s desire for the construction of this strategic infrastructure, to the extent that they have even threatened military action if Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan refuses to accept it crossing sovereign Armenian territory. The Armenian government distrusts Turkish and Azerbaijani intentions. However, it also sees the corridor as an opportunity for Armenia to become a key player in the new interconnectivity of the post-Karabakh South Caucasus. To add pressure on Yerevan, Azerbaijan is likewise toying with the option of opting for Iran’s north as an alternative. This is a possibility that Tehran views favourably. Both variants, especially the Armenian route, are also viewed favourably by Moscow, to create other transport routes to Turkey that avoid Georgia.

Baku and Yerevan are engaging in a tug-of-war over proposals and declarations, as well as negotiating formats. Thus, while the Armenian authorities are in favour of maintaining direct US and EU involvement to ensure balanced agreements, Ilham Aliyev’s regime advocates a regionalisation of the issue. This is done by prioritising the role of Turkey and Russia —the two historical patrons in the area— and even Georgia and Iran. Azerbaijan’s growing strength is combined with its desire to make full restitution for what it considers a humiliation suffered in its defeat in the 1991-1994 war. Its willingness to negotiate is often accompanied by unrelenting Armenophobic rhetoric, which has been enshrined as a fundamental element of the Azerbaijani regime’s ideology over the past three decades.

As for Moscow’s role, its inaction in the face of Azerbaijani military aggressions against Armenia’s sovereign territory over the past two years, and the fact that it has turned a blind eye to the September offensive in Karabakh despite having a peacekeeping force deployed there, has blown its role as Armenia’s supposed guarantor of security out of the water. It maintains its military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri, but its pro-Azerbaijani strategic shift is increasingly evident. For Armenians, relying exclusively on Moscow for their protection has proven to be a fatal mistake for their national interests. For this reason, despite maintaining close ties (it is highly dependent on Moscow in several sectors, including energy), the bilateral relationship could become increasingly conflictive due to Russia’s desire to dominate Armenia’s destiny, while Yerevan is beginning to draw the contours of a more multi-vector foreign policy, intensifying its defence relations with European partners such as France, and Asian ones, such as India.

Despite Baku’s inherent risks and warmongering temptations, this emerging geopolitical mosaic is likely to be one of the shaping features of the new post-conflict regional status quo. Sooner or later, it will inevitably involve a normalization of diplomatic relations between Armenia, on the one hand, and Azerbaijan and Turkey, on the other. This will be done with a more active EU and Iranian presence, with Russia playing an important, but diminishing, role. However, the threat of another war hangs over the air, and is used as a form of coercive diplomacy by the Azerbaijani regime. This lets Armenians understand that if negotiations do not progress, they can again resort to force to achieve their political objectives.

Horizons for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria

Nagorno-Karabakh’s demise marks the end of the second self-proclaimed state to emerge from USSR dissolution, 23 years after the extinction of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. But while part of the South Caucasus could move towards hypothetical reintegration, the other two historical conflicts that remain unresolved —Abkhazia and South Ossetia— still condition regional geopolitics. On 6 November, the first shooting death in South Ossetia since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war occurred when Russian troops killed a Georgian civilian on the de facto border. This drew condemnation from the EU and several European countries. The episode was a consequence of the border-building policy imposed by the South Ossetian government and its Russian ally, which remains one of the main sources of tension in the area. This policy consists of installing separation fences and advancing them in certain places to occupy additional portions of Georgian territory, making it difficult or even impossible for the local population to move from one sector to another. While a tense and hostile peace is maintained, the idea of organizing a referendum on union with Russia, which the local authorities reinstated in 2022, has been put on hold for the time being due to Moscow’s lack of interest, given that the current status quo is already favourable to it.

In the case of Abkhazia, on 9 November its Defence Ministry set off alarm bells by circulating information that a group of 50 saboteurs had infiltrated its territory to commit an act of terrorism against the airport in the capital Sukhumi, the most serious security incident since the war in the summer of 2008. No evidence was provided about the incident, nor about the countermeasures allegedly taken, and the episode came to nothing.

All this came as the parliament of the self-proclaimed republic continues work on applying to join the Union State, a supra-state organization formed by Russia and Belarus that would solidify existing dividing lines. Recently, the Abkhaz Foreign minister approved increased restrictions on western NGOs operating on its territory.

Similarly, Abkhaz de facto President Aslan Bzhaniava announced in October the signing of an agreement with Moscow for the establishment of a Russian naval base in Ochamchira, on the Abkhaz coast. The statements provoked anger from the Georgian government. The Georgian Foreign minister stated that the base construction would violate Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. If implemented, it could be interpreted as Moscow’s need to seek alternatives for its Black Sea fleet beyond the Russian port of Novorossiysk, as port facilities in Sevastopol are increasingly attacked by Ukrainian ballistic and drone attacks. Furthermore, it would strengthen Russia’s military presence in the two self-proclaimed republics by expanding its two existing land bases.

Unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have enjoyed limited international recognition since 2008 from Russia and five other states, all geopolitically close to Moscow. In addition to recognition, Russia provides economic support, which is necessary for their operation. Although without international recognition, this situation is comparable to that of Transnistria, the other unresolved dispute that erupted in the context of the USSR dissolution, and the one most directly affected by the dynamics of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Russia has some 1,500 military personnel in this de facto independent territory of the Republic of Moldova, officially as “peacekeepers”, and the local economy is sustained by generous Russian energy subsidies, which allow it to maintain its industrial production.

Transnistria is territorially isolated between Ukraine and Moldova, with no access to the sea and no land connection to Russia. Kyiv has closed its border crossings with Transnistria several times since the Russian offensive in February 2022. Between April and June of the same year, there were several attacks and sabotage actions against public buildings and communication antennas, which were not claimed. The situation has stabilized, and the possibility of this war extending into this territory is now very distant. Even so, it is far from unaware of historic changes taking place in the region.

With a rather pragmatic relationship with the Moldovan government and President Maia Sandu, in recent years Transnistria has benefited from the trade advantages derived from the 2016 Association Agreement between Moldova and the EU in terms of access to the European market, on which it is increasingly dependent. Sandu herself has stated that she does not rule out that Transnistria could be effectively integrated into the EU for certain purposes, despite maintaining political independence, if Moldova eventually joins the Union. A paradoxical situation, but one that could, incidentally, foster greater integration between Transnistria and Moldova proper through the structural and cohesion funds, which would bring a resolution of the conflict a little closer to the horizon.

The acceleration of the EU integration process of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia is one of the multiple consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, reflecting the will of increasingly pro-European local populations in reaction to Moscow’s aggressiveness, and of an EU seeking to play an increasingly assertive role in its eastern neighbourhood. But while in the case of Transnistria this integration may bring some progress, Georgia’s integration into the EU may take a form similar to that of Cyprus in terms of its unresolved conflict: the north of the island is governed by a de facto state outside the EU to all intents and purposes, supported by an external power (in this case Turkey), where the dividing lines are very solidified, including in their ethnic dimension.

Changing rules of the game in Russia’s former “backyard”

“We have brought peace. We have brought peace by making war. I think this should be evaluated more broadly than just in the Caucasus region. How to achieve peace? Through war.” This warmongering proclamation was made by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on 6 December at a conference in Baku entitled “Karabakh: Back Home After 30 Years. Accomplishments and Challenges.” In a world characterized by increasing multipolarity, his words are paradigmatic in that they call for an international policy based on brute force, the law of the strongest, and the establishment of new regional hierarchies.

In this changing and increasingly unstable conjuncture, Russia’s weakening is another main consequence of the Ukraine war. The military, political, economic, and reputational costs it has incurred have reduced its capacity to exercise power in the areas it historically considered its “exclusive sphere of influence.” As a consequence, geopolitical competition between different actors has grown significantly in the region. In this constantly mutating regional jigsaw puzzle, unresolved conflicts evolve in accordance with the new, increasingly conflicting, and competitive power relations that are taking shape. With each passing day, balancing between actors becomes more complex.