War for Artsakh?

Two months after the last flare-up, more serious fighting has broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Unlike July’s border skirmishes, this looks like a more serious offensive by Azerbaijan with the intention of recovering all or part of the breakaway territory of Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh.

Artsakh, populated by ethnic Armenians, has enjoyed de facto independence since the early 1990s, but it is still recognised by the international community as part of Azerbaijan. Even Armenia, which supports it militarily, does not officially dispute its status; its only diplomatic recognition comes from the three Russian-supported “frozen conflict” zones of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.

If it hadn’t already occurred to you, that last fact might put you in mind of the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. On the surface the current conflict looks eerily similar, with Azerbaijan taking the offensive against the separatists just as Georgia did, and Russia potentially able to play the same role of forcing it to back down.

Unfortunately for the Armenians, Russia is not in as strong a position as it was twelve years ago. It lost a lot of international goodwill after its 2014 intervention in Ukraine, and it currently has its hands full in trying to prop up its ally Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. There is internal dissent as well, highlighted by the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as well as continuing economic trouble.

So while Vladimir Putin no doubt has the capacity to crush Azerbaijan militarily, it’s most unlikely that he will undertake such an exercise except as an absolute last resort. More effective to hold it as an unspoken threat in the background while working with other countries to try to impose a ceasefire.

The other big difference is the position of Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan. It and other NATO countries gave some moral support to Georgia, but it wasn’t worth much in practical terms. Its support for Azerbaijan could be much greater and therefore much more dangerous for the peace of the region.

And that’s another problem for Putin. For the last few years he has been trying to mend fences with Turkey, seeing the opportunity of drawing it away from the west; the decay of democracy in both countries (although less advanced in Turkey) seems to have given them something of a common bond. War in the Caucasus could ruin that project.

What about Europe and the United States? Although Armenia has always been seen as a Russian ally, it has friends in the west as well, helped by a large Armenian diaspora in several countries (notably France). To some extent it can also draw on its image as a small Christian nation threatened by Muslim neighbors, although such sentimental considerations usually run a poor second to geopolitics.

Conversely, Turkey has a difficult relationship with many of its NATO allies, as seen most recently in tensions with Greece in the eastern Mediterranean. They are unlikely to look kindly on military adventurism in support of Azerbaijan, especially if it is regarded as the aggressor.

The United States is the biggest wild card, as we have become used to in the Trump era. A foreign policy based on friendship with authoritarian rulers is inherently unstable, because the interests of different authoritarians are likely to clash. But this is one case where it would probably not be a bad thing for Donald Trump to be guided by Putin, and to co-operate with him in trying to calm the situation and rein in the Azerbaijanis.

The only long-run solution is a general recognition that Artsakh belongs to the people who live there, and that if they want to be part of Armenia then a way should be found to arrange that. But given the reluctance of most commentary on the conflict to even mention the question of self-determination, it looks as if that day is as far off as ever.

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