Artsakh loses out

In the six weeks since we last looked at the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Armenians – including the ethnic Armenians who run the breakaway territory of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh – have not been having a good time of it.

Azerbaijan, strongly supported by Turkey, quickly gained the upper hand militarily; despite attempts to secure a ceasefire, it advanced into Armenian-held territory in Azerbaijan proper and then into Artsakh itself. Its success culminated with the capture at the weekend of Shusha, Artsakh’s second-largest city, whereupon Armenia sued for peace.

An agreement between the two sides was brokered by Russia and came into force yesterday. Azerbaijan has not gained its full objective, namely the extinction of Artsakh independence, but it has scored a major victory.

Armenia and Artsakh will withdraw from all the territory of Azerbaijan proper that they have previously occupied, leaving only the narrow Lachin corridor, which will be guarded by Russian peacekeepers, to connect Artsakh with Armenia. But Azerbaijan gets to keep the territory it has conquered in Artsakh, including Shusha (which in Soviet times was a majority-Azeri city, after its Armenians were expelled or massacred in 1920).

Azerbaijan will also be guaranteed rights of passage through Armenian territory to its enclave of Nakhchivan. Russian peacekeepers will patrol the contact line between Azeri and Armenian forces in Artsakh; Azerbaijan says that Turkey will also have a peacekeeping role, although this does not appear in the text of the agreement.

Armenia will be hoping that the peacekeepers do their job. Without them, Azerbaijan would be able to cut the Lachin corridor, and with Azeri troops and artillery positioned in Shusha, the Artsakh capital Stepanakert would be a sitting duck. (The BBC’s map of the armistice and Wikipedia’s map of the military situation may help to make things clearer.)

Russia is Armenia’s traditional ally, but president Vladimir Putin has also tried to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan. While he has limited what the latter could get away with, he was not prepared to exert his military might to protect the whole of Artsakh. It’s just possible that if Armenia had not replaced its authoritarian government with a more democratic one two and a half years ago, the Russians would have been more sympathetic.

As is, the situation looks set up for further conflict. Azerbaijan will now be riding a wave of confidence, and will be egged on by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, keen to expand his regional influence. Armenia, on the other hand, with a sense of having been let down by Russia, will probably look for other sources of support, particularly in the European Union. For other countries seeking to escape the Russian embrace, such as Ukraine and Belarus, it might even offer some encouragement.

The peacekeepers are supposed to be in place for five years, after which either Armenia or Azerbaijan can request their renewal. While the new frontiers do not look sustainable in the longer term, they could provide the basis for negotiations that would ultimately yield a compromise settlement – if only the parties were interested in compromise.

As the world commemorates a much larger armistice of 102 years ago, we talk a lot about the waste and the futility of war. And it’s true that war often leaves the underlying issues unresolved. But that’s not always the case; the Artsakh conflict reminds us that wars can be decisive, producing real winners and losers. When countries fail to settle their differences peacefully, a trial of force sometimes serves to bring clarity.

At least the killing has stopped for now. Azerbaijan has reclaimed territory that, in varying degrees, it was entitled to; Artsakh has preserved its rather shadowy independence, and Russia has demonstrated its indispensability as a powerbroker. And the rest of the world will no doubt go back to ignoring the issue, until one day it again forces itself on our attention.

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