Giving up Artsakh

It hasn’t exactly made the headlines in Australia, but there’s an important item of news this week from the Caucasus. Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan has indicated that he is willing to recognise “the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” effectively giving up the attempt to preserve the independence of the ethnically-Armenian territory of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh.

To understand why this matters, including its implications for the larger questions of geopolitics, it’s necessary to have a quick look at some of the history.

Internal boundaries within the old Soviet Union were often drawn with little regard to the wishes of the population or its ethnic composition. When the country fell apart in 1991 many of those boundaries became international borders, and they were fertile sources of ethnic conflict. Four in particular saw serious fighting in the early 1990s, as different groups sought self-determination: the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both officially part of Georgia), the mixed Russian-Ukrainian population of Transnistria (officially part of Moldova) and the Armenians of Artsakh (officially part of Azerbaijan).

In each case, Russian intervention imposed a ceasefire, and the conflicts became “frozen” in place. The four territories enjoyed de facto independence but without international recognition. This was an unsatisfactory solution, but it was better than continued warfare, and the peoples concerned did at least have a sort of national freedom; it was a cruder version of what the western powers later imposed in Kosovo.

But it meant that Russia had no interest in pressing forward to a more lasting settlement. It suited Vladimir Putin to maintain the state of tension; in 2008 he provoked Georgia into attacking the South Ossetians, and Russian troops defeated Georgia in a short war. The status quo returned, except that Russia and a handful of its allies then officially recognised the independence of the two Georgian breakaway states (but not of Transnistria and Artsakh).

In 2014 Putin tried to extend the model, after a fashion, to Ukraine. His forces overran Crimea and parts of the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk; Crimea was annexed to Russia, and the other two became frozen with a nominal, unrecognised independence. But there was an important difference: these were not places with ethnic minorities seeking their own state, they were simply territory disputed between Russia and Ukraine. There was no way to disguise this as anything other than Russian expansionism.

In case that was not already clear, it became manifest last year with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which destroyed any notion of Russia as an honest broker in the region. And it also meant that even countries that might want to rely on Russian assistance found that Putin already had his hands full: as Armenia discovered last September, when Azerbaijan broke the truce that had ended their 2020 war and Russia could offer nothing but sympathetic words.

So now, with the Azeris again exerting military pressure, the Armenians are basically on their own. Not only is their patron otherwise occupied, but in the light of what’s happened in Ukraine Artsakh and the other breakaway states look more like Russian projects, attracting correspondingly little western sympathy. And the need for a broad anti-Russian coalition also leads the west to downplay any criticism of rogue actors such as Azerbaijan.

It looks as if Armenia will have to take the best terms it can get, and they’re not going to be very good. Whether the Armenians of Artsakh will be offered anything other than wholesale deportation remains to be seen. It’s possible that a sufficiently vigorous program of ethnic cleansing may eventually awaken western interest, but by then it will probably be too late.

It also remains to be seen what the implications will be for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. Georgia’s attention is currently engaged with domestic problems, but if they should result in the return to power of Mikheil Saakashvili, who was president during the 2008 war, then expect some pressure to be applied for the recovery of its “territorial integrity” as well – with probably unpleasant consequences for the populations concerned.

As to Transnistria, the war in Ukraine has already put Moldova in the firing line. Its pro-western government has warned repeatedly of the danger of Russian subversion, and of the Russian troops in Transnistria being potentially used to open a new front in the war. But the Transnistrians are the ones who are really isolated, and Russian defeat would leave them with no protection and even less support in the west than the people of Artsakh.

It would be nice to think that Ukraine’s heroic resistance, especially if crowned with victory, would lead to a renewed appreciation worldwide of the importance of self-determination and national freedom. Sadly enough, politics tends not to work that way. Those that find themselves on the wrong side, even through no fault of their own, are likely to pay the price – no matter how sound their case.


5 thoughts on “Giving up Artsakh

  1. It doesn’t help that western leftists don’t seem to care who is running the “liberation” groups: see the Palestinian Territories where the Arab Muslim political and religious leadership makes life there very nasty for you if you are not an adult Muslim male: and a very specific type of Arab Muslim male at that.

    That outcome would have been the result had the Arab Muslims won in 1948 but your Shoebridges and your Bandts don’t seem to care about that.


    1. Paul – Maybe go easy on the Bandt/Shoebridge references; they seem to be popping up in increasingly irrelevant contexts.
      As to the Palestinian territories, I’ve remarked before that probably none of us show our best side when under military occupation. I don’t think Palestinians voted for Hamas because they supported its fundamentalist agenda, they voted for it because they were sick of Fatah’s corruption & incompetence and wanted someone who would offer effective resistance to the occupation.


      1. When people talk about an occupation – thus we talk about German-occupied France and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait – it usually means the occupation of one state by another – but there is no actual State of Palestine – the 1988 fantasy indulged by far too many poor countries that are UN members is a piece of political theatre designed to avoid direct negotiations with Israel – which is the only way an actual state of Palestine will ever be achieved. Australia recognising the fantasy state would be a grave error and would also be seen as a reward for Fatah and Hamas’s years-long campaign of terror and murder. Likewise, until the establishment of a Palestinian state (which no more existed in 1948 or 1967 than it does today), Jews and Christians and atheists have as much right to live on the West Bank as anyone else.


      2. No, I don’t think that’s true – the idea of military occupation doesn’t presuppose any formed state that’s being occupied. Of course there usually is, or at least was, such a state, but that’s just because the world in practice is mostly divided up into states; it doesn’t require that in order to trigger the Geneva conventions. Transferring your civilian population into an occupied territory is still a war crime.


    2. Leaders of the Arab population of the Palestinian territories have available to them choices between different policies or course of action, some of which might make the lives of people living there better and some of which might make those lives worse. It would be a good thing if they made better choices.

      The Israeli government has available to it choices between different policies or course of action, some of which might make the lives of the Arab population of the Palestinian territories better and some of which might make those lives worse. It would be a good thing if they made better choices.

      I don’t know how much power the leaders of the Arab population of the Palestinian territories have to improve the lives of their people, and I also don’t know how much power the Israeli government has to improve the lives of those people, but my guess would be that both have significant power and that of the two the Israeli government has more power. One thing I’m sure of is that either of them has much more influence over the situation than the Australian government does, and another thing I’m sure of is that even the Australian government has more power to influence the situation than Australian leftists do.

      Liked by 2 people

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