Geopolitical crises are sometimes very complicated indeed. The 19th-century British Prime Minister, Viscount Palmerston, wryly acknowledged this when asked about the cause of a labyrinthine dispute that almost triggered a major war in the 1860s.
“Only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten,” he said.
The South Caucasus can feel a little like this at times, with overlapping claims and trans-generational arguments about land and ownership.
While the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has sometimes seemed like this to outsiders, it has recently become much starker; both more alarming and more dangerous.
The enclave’s substantial Armenian minority of around 120,000 is now besieged by the Azeri forces that won back control in 2020. They have effectively cut off food and medical supplies. Pregnant women now lose their babies because they lack help, while others faint while waiting in food queues. Temperatures are rising, armies are on the move, intense gunfire is exchanged and a new war is threatened.
There are two major root causes. The first is Russian ambiguity, caused in part by the Kremlin’s focus on its unsuccessful war against Ukraine, and in part by its own uncertainty as to which of the two countries it supports. The second, linked, phenomenon is Azeri military superiority, which has given the Baku government of President Ilham Aliyev a sense that there will be no better time to move against its long-time Armenian rival and grab what it likes.
The mood in both capitals, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh, is now somber. Little has been achieved on the diplomatic front. Several attempts to hold direct discussions between Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian community have failed.
The Azeris deny there is a siege at all, and say they will supply the items needed by the Armenian population. Armenians see this as a precursor to ethnic cleansing.
A parallel negotiation has been underway. An initiative led by the European Union (EU) and supported by the US, seeks convincing mechanisms to ensure the rights of Karabakh Armenians. Moscow-led efforts meanwhile, have essentially pushed for a statement of rights enshrined in Azeri law.
The true aims of the participants are less obvious, particularly Russia’s. Since its all-out war in Ukraine began, the Kremlin’s behavior in the South Caucasus has been puzzling. Although Moscow is doing very little diplomatically, it appears to hope that no one else does very much either. And while it wants to keep a leading position as the key mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a position it traditionally enjoyed, it has become increasingly partial toward the Azeris.
Moscow has made little mention of the plight of the Karabakh Armenians, beyond statements indicating that it is essentially Armenia’s own fault. It also accuses Yerevan of altering the conditions under which Russian peacekeepers were sent to the troubled area in November 2020. Weeks before that decision, as fighting raged and 5,000 troops on both sides died, the Kremlin had refused Armenia’s appeals for help under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and their mutual Friendship Treaty.
Armenia was angry then, and has become even more so since. In a series of political moves and statements, it has questioned the point of its relationship with Russia. Thus on September 4, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan used an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, to criticize Russia and state that relying on the Kremlin’s security pledges was “a strategic mistake.”
With relations at a historic low, the ties that bind the two old allies are fraying. The Armenians have threatened to leave CSTO, and have recalled the country’s permanent representative to the organization. Armenia refused to join CSTO exercises in Belarus this month and instead announced its troops would drill with the US military. And just in case the Kremlin was failing to get the message, it sent the premier’s wife to personally deliver humanitarian aid to Ukraine, its first such shipment.
Russia appears to seek a closer relationship with oil-rich Azerbaijan. The EU has growing influence and interests in the country given its expanding energy links with Azerbaijan, something that worries the Kremlin. Azerbaijan is also a key player in Russia’s ambitions to develop the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) down to Iran to develop ties with that regime and improve routes for sanctions-busting.
This all plays well with the regime of President Aliyev, who runs a profoundly repressive domestic regime, and now sees opportunities aplenty on his borders.
He will need to be careful. Russia may switch policy if it can ever untangle itself from Ukraine, and an angry and resentful Armenia may simply bide its time before seeking to reverse the results of the 2020 war.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and Armenians are going hungry. Too often there is a temptation to resolve intricate geopolitical issues with the imagined simplicities of war.
Francis Harris is the Managing Editor at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.)
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.