On Nov. 10, 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a ceasefire agreement, mediated by Russia, that ended what can now be recognized as the Second Karabakh War. Azerbaijan liberated the strategic city of Shusha in the heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh region as well as seven Armenian-occupied adjacent regions. Russia deployed peacekeeping troops inside Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin Corridor, which connects the region with Armenia. Azerbaijan also secured, on paper at least, a corridor between Azerbaijan’s main territory and its Nakhichevan autonomous region. With this agreement, the almost thirty-year-long occupation of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan, reconfirmed by the relevant UN Security Council resolutions of 1993, ended. However, further diplomatic efforts, both between Armenia and Azerbaijan and involving other international actors, will be required to create a durable peace.
While there has been a plethora of articles in the Western media about the geopolitical consequences of this conflict, mainly focusing on the roles of Russia and Turkey, the overwhelming majority of journalists and experts have concentrated on profiling the interests of the regional powers or the Western bloc, rather than discussing what might constitute a sustainable peace in the South Caucasus. To be overlooked—owing to religious and cultural bias, historical predispositions, and geopolitical interests—has been the fate of both the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples, who have suffered from ethnic cleansing and the losses of war.
The history of the conflict shows the pernicious influence of political elites and the expert community. When, in February 1988, Armenian nationalists for the first time chanted the slogan miatsum, demanding the unification of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomy of Azerbaijan with Armenia, they voiced a xenophobic project for the recreation of Great Armenia. Yet, through a network of Armenian lobbyists and influencers, this concept was presented as a fight for self-determination. Western policymakers and experts saw in this movement an opportunity to challenge the Soviet system. Without going into detail about the history of the conflict, which is closely related to the Russian imperial legacy of managing the peripheries—especially in what was regarded as the Muslim borderland—the West expressed sympathy for the Armenian project in the same way as, one hundred years ago, the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and Russia) promoted the Armenian Question to dismantle the Ottoman empire. Soviet authorities tended to support the Soviet Azerbaijani border to prevent the revision of other republics’ boundaries and thus maintain what the communist state had forged over its seventy-year rule. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Moscow chose to support its traditional ally, Armenia, to prevent Azerbaijan from leaning westward during 1992–93. This policy enabled Yerevan to occupy the ex-Nagorno-Karabakh autonomy and seven regions outside of it. However, to maintain its grip, Armenia became heavily dependent on Moscow’s political, military, and economic support. Overall, Russia’s strategy was to freeze the conflict in a state of limbo in order to exercise effective control over both countries.
The West realized that Russia’s policy in this and other conflicts during the post-Soviet era aimed at institutionalizing uncertainty. Western policymakers tried to convince Azerbaijani officials that they should yield Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. (I myself witnessed closed official meetings where Westerners spoke about the need to accept as a fait-accompli the results of the 1988–94 First Karabakh War). In their opinion, such a resolution would enable both countries to remove Moscow’s control, even though this proposal envisaged it at the expense of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory.
Various Western experts and scholars, funded by both European and American institutions and foundations, through numerous programs and projects, attempted to reconcile Armenians and Azerbaijanis. But, every time, Nagorno-Karabakh was presented as historically Armenian territory. Azerbaijan maintained that the entire internationally recognized territory should be returned to the control of Baku, which would grant a high degree of autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh. Enjoying full impunity due to the tacit support of the major powers, during the negotiation process, Armenians rejected handing over any territory to Azerbaijan.
In 2007–9, France, Russia, and the United States proposed the so-called Madrid Principles, which recommended that the seven regions be returned to Azerbaijani control and that the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh be postponed to some later time when more reconciliatory conditions might enable the resolution of this issue through a “legally binding expression of will.” Both Armenia and Azerbaijan accepted the Madrid Principles, but Yerevan received no international pressure to move forward with their implementation.
More recently, Moscow responded more favorably toward addressing Baku’s demands, perhaps in acknowledgment of Azerbaijan’s growing military and economic power. In the 2010s, Russia began reassessing its relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia as, in both countries, discontent toward Moscow became more visible, especially after the revolution in Armenia in 2018.
In 2011, Russia proposed the Kazan formula, which stipulated the immediate return of five occupied regions outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, thus excluding Lachin and Kelbajar, which lie between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. However, still shielded by Russia’s military and with international support from Western powers with influential Armenian diasporas such as in France and the United States, among others, Yerevan continued its policy of flouting international norms. Events in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and developments around the independence of Kosovo, created a false perception that Armenia was winning by ignoring successive proposed settlements and international resolutions.
Azerbaijan’s incumbent president Ilham Aliyev, unlike many other post-Soviet leaders, managed to build a constructive relationship with Moscow and avoided antagonizing rhetoric. The result is that, during the Second Karabakh War, President Vladimir Putin repeatedly acknowledged that the occupied territories of Azerbaijan had straightforward, internationally recognized status and Russia’s obligation to Armenia did not extend beyond Armenia’s borders. In other conflicts, Moscow has not hesitated to interfere on foreign soil.
The Second Karabakh War should be a reminder to the international community, and especially to America, Europe, and Russia, the principal mediators of the original conflict, that a ceasefire, no matter how long in duration, remains only a temporary solution. Furthermore, ignoring international law does not bring stability in any given region, despite whatever short-term benefits global and regional powers might gain from freezing a conflict—or leaving it unresolved. This is equally applicable to both the past twenty-seven years since the adoption of the UN Security Council resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh and the expiration of the five-year Russian peacekeeping mandate under the ceasefire terms.
Since the cessation of military operations after the Armenian defeat, there have been numerous calls for a lasting solution to the conflict. At present, however, the familiar and unhelpful rhetoric that has been voiced not only in Yerevan but internationally in Paris and other Western capitals, which does not give grounds for optimism.
Armenia needs a new approach to its future, which requires improving relations with its neighbors. If official Yerevan continues to insist on the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh and other xenophobic narratives, the country will be trapped in further isolation without an independent foreign and economic policy. Gerard Libaridian, an ex-advisor to former Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian, considers it essential to abandon this policy, which has been pursued for the past twenty-two years. Svante Cornell, Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, believes that the future of Armenia does not depend on the fact of whether the current Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, stays or goes; rather, it remains to be seen whether Armenia will learn from this misadventure and embark upon a serious attempt to negotiate a peace. As Russian expert Maxim Artemiev stresses, the ceasefire agreement “opens the way for Armenia to revival, the opportunity to become a normal country without historical complexes, phobias and myths.”
So far, nothing promising has come out of Yerevan. But even more troubling is that those in the West who decry the current miserable situation in Armenia often voice the same position that brought Yerevan to its current predicament. French president Emmanuel Macron expressed an anti-Azerbaijani position and France’s Senate adopted a declaration calling for the recognition of an independent Nagorno-Karabakh. France’s stance is the expression of its anti-Turkish sentiment and pandering to the Armenian lobby. It will not help Armenia to recover from its wounds caused by a discredited policy based on territorial claims. The Armenian diaspora lobby, detached from the realities of the home country, denies the geography of Armenia by perpetuating animosity against Armenia’s neighbors.
Western policymakers appear more concerned, for the time being, with Turkey’s assertive role, rather than the fate of the peoples of the South Caucasus. The cohort of Western experts is looking for new grants, and for this conflict to reach its endgame is not in their interests.
News about the conflict has also focused on geopolitics, owing to trending news from Russia and Turkey. This approach ignores the real problem, which is between two countries in the region—Azerbaijan and Armenia. The latter hosts a Russian military base and receives military support from Moscow, whereas the former has strong ties with Ankara. However, as experts know, the region was, for two centuries, under Russian rule, and any new actor should be considered as a balance to future Russian ambitions. Instead, the intellectual discussion quickly turns into a primitive, black-and-white picture.