Armenia and Azerbaijan are Committed to Peace, Yes, But…
Jan 18, 2024
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have stated repeatedly that they are committed to long-term peace between their two countries in the South Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union after Azerbaijan announced on September 20 that it had regained full control of Karabakh. Their most recent public assurance of this laudable, and potentially historic, goal came on December 26 after their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the sidelines of the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States. This was their sixth meeting in 2023.
Following the September 2020 war in which Azerbaijan regained control from Armenia of its districts surrounding Karabakh and much – but not all – of Karabakh itself, the European Union, the United States, and Russia supported a peace process, each in its own way, and began hosting meetings of the two leaders. It soon became apparent, however, that the two leaders found that they actually achieved more when they met directly on their own and weren’t under the auspices of one or another of the world powers supposedly trying to facilitate the peace process.
POST-SOVIET PROLONGED CONFLICTS
Should these two leaders, Pashinyan and Aliyev, achieve their stated goal, it would mean the historic settlement of one of the long-standing conflicts in the post-Soviet geography widely known as “prolonged conflicts” or “frozen conflicts.” These include not only Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, but also Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and, currently of special note, Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine where Russia has been embroiled in a criminal war for the past two years. These conflicts existed because specific ethnic groups were originally displeased about the Soviet Socialist Republic to which the Soviet Union had assigned them in the early 20th century. And their concern continued after the late 1991 fall of the Soviet Union and their republics became independent nations.
Armenians claimed that Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan was the birthplace of the Armenian Nation, and there was occasional violence over the territory between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis throughout the 20th century, even as late as the 1980s. And then after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, full-scale war broke out over the territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan that wasn’t brought to a halt, without resolution, until 1994. That war led to Armenian military and political control of a fair chunk of Azerbaijan’s territory – Nagorno-Karabakh and the districts surrounding it on the border with Armenia itself. And it also led to the internal displacement of over a half million ethnic Azerbaijanis and the absolute devastation of the farms, villages, and towns that they had been forced to flee.
THE OSCE MINSK GROUP: NOT WAR BUT ALSO NOT PEACE
As a result of this 1992-1994 war, what became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe created the Minsk Group, chaired by Russia, France, and the United States, to negotiate a final peace settlement between Yerevan and Baku. It soon became clear, however, that a final peace settlement was impossible because the two sides were too deeply dug into their positions to be able ever to negotiate in good faith. And so, over the years, the Minsk Group evolved as an institution to prevent full-scale war, if not to achieve real peace.
Over the next three decades, Azerbaijan emerged as a relatively wealthy nation with a streak of stubborn independence because of the burgeoning wealth from its Caspian Sea gas and oil deposits. It used some of that wealth to buy state-of-the-art contemporary weapons, especially drones and precision-guided missiles. Armenia, on the other hand, remained a close ally of Russia, to the degree that it hosted Russian military bases on its territory. But Moscow provided the Armenian military only with the standard weapons available from its own arsenal, some at no cost. And just recently, they also delivered a new batch of weapons as part of a recent contract signed by Yerevan and Moscow. Over time, a combination of these conditions opened the door for Azerbaijan to take military measures to reassume full control of Karabakh and the surrounding districts.
BEWARE THE KREMLIN
The question now, with Yerevan and Baku on the verge of an historic peace agreement, is this: would Moscow really allow the final resolution of one of the historic frozen conflicts that kept those nations generally within the Kremlin’s own orbit? This is not to imply that Russia would intervene militarily – Moscow is much too bogged down now in Ukraine to do so. But it well could, behind the scenes, encourage those Armenians – including the leadership of the Armenian Apostolic Church that has announced its opposition to a peace agreement – to organize a political overthrow of Prime Minister Pashinyan and the installation of a pro-Moscow leader who would restore the status quo ante.
In the end, that is the real threat looming over the current peace process, especially with the world distracted by the continuing war in the Middle East. And that threat comes directly from the Kremlin.