A Geopolitical Shift in Russia’s Backyard Depends on Countries Themselves, Not External Powers

A Geopolitical Shift in Russia’s Backyard Depends on Countries Themselves, Not External Powers

The South Caucasus can be freed from foreign intervention when the countries of the region genuinely respect each other and reconcile, rather than seeking patrons elsewhere.


With all eyes on the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars, the status quo in the post-Soviet space is undergoing significant changes. With Azerbaijan’s establishment of full sovereignty over its Karabakh region, it seems that the three-decades-long dispute came to an end. However, the road to peace is still ongoing.

In the meantime, some experts speak about the region’s realignment, mainly focusing on Armenian-Russian relations, which are military and economic allies. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica that his country’s reliance on Russia was a mistake, especially in the area of military cooperation. He repeated his dissatisfaction with Russia in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, stressing that Armenia sees no advantage in keeping Russian military bases.


This change, which many Western experts rushed to announce as a strategic shift, should be taken cautiously. Armenia continues to provide many Western sanction-listed goods to Russia, and the United States has put several Armenian companies on the blacklist. Armenia is heavily dependent on the Russian economy, with $4.6 billion in trade, mainly consisting of Armenian exports of Western products that Moscow can no longer get directly.

Armenia voted against Ukraine in the UN and has consistently supported Russia, even taking a unique stance in the Council of Europe. Yerevan also sent troops to Syria and maintains close ties with Iran.

The current spat between Yerevan and Moscow has much to do with the Armenian expectation that Russia would continue to support its irredentist adventure into the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which, along with several adjacent areas, was under Armenian control for almost three decades. However, as early as 2016, when there were small-scale clashes between the two countries, it was obvious that Russia was unable to stop Azerbaijan’s military advancement.

With the current focus on the situation around Armenia and the so-called Zangezur corridor, which is supposed to connect Azerbaijan proper with its Nakhichevan exclave, several news outlets and experts have warned about the danger of a new escalation.

With a plethora of articles by experts about the possible Azerbaijan “takeover” of Zangezur and the Armenian departure of Karabakh, let’s first recall the basics.

First, the conflict between the two parties began with the Armenian slogan miatsum (unification) some thirty-five years ago, which means that the cause of the conflict was an Armenian territorial claim.

Second, 99 percent of all actions and destructions happened on the territory of Azerbaijan, which is the most adversely affected side of the conflict.

Third, the first complete ethnic cleansing happened in Armenia during 1988–89—no Azerbaijani was left there.

Fourth, international law was on the Azerbaijani side with four resolutions demanding the withdrawal of occupying forces from Azerbaijani territories.

During the conflict, both peoples suffered. However, the “reality” reported in the Western press, which has traditionally favored the Armenian narrative, has always been prone to Orientalist bias with Islamophobic and Turcophobic undertones.

While the West unequivocally supports the territorial integrity of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the position regarding Azerbaijan has been ambiguous, which can be interpreted through an Orientalist prism. Interestingly, in 2020, after the Second Karabakh War, some Western institutions and experts supported Russian control of Karabakh.

The war against Ukraine has raised the issue of territorial integrity to a new level. As a result, the United States and the European Union have gradually modified their approach to the territorial dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Not all Western actors envision the region’s future similar to Washington’s. France, which once posed as a conflict mediator, decided to move in favor of Armenia by supplying modern weaponry, including an air defense system. The problem is that Armenia’s air defense is in Russia’s hands. Let us recall how the United States reacted to the Turkish purchase of Russia’s S-400 and its complaint about the security threat to the NATO system. Here, another NATO member—France—is about to deliver weapons to a country where Russia controls air space.

The perpetuating stories about Azerbaijan’s plan to take over Armenian territory—a plan which was dismissed repeatedly by Azerbaijan and even U.S. officials reported as fake, serve no one in the region.

Both countries should make efforts to bring sustainable peace to the region. This rests on a peace treaty based on firm support and mutual recognition of the principle of territorial integrity. To achieve this, the media has a role to report fairly and encourage both countries toward cooperation. Stories infused with one-sided propaganda clichés ignite emotions and prolong the conflict.

Further, the conflict left deep emotional scars on both peoples and governments, and the public should work together to promote reconciliation. Here, international actors can help with relevant experience from the British-Irish dialogue, the Balkans platform, and other peace-building initiatives.

Third, the issue of refugees and internally displaced persons remains a burden for both countries. With the focus on the fate of Armenians who left the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, some countries call for their return to homes. However, the question of refugees needs a holistic approach, which implies that Azerbaijanis are also entitled to move back to Armenia, which will entail security guarantees and other arrangements. As I argued in December 2020, immediately after the war, “true reconciliation is not possible without efforts to return to more integrated populations such as were prevalent in pre-conflict days.”

Transportation projects and other economic incentives might break the barriers created by war. In this domain, efforts should go beyond the bilateral Armenian-Azerbaijani context. The trilateral format of South Caucasus countries where Georgia might emerge as an important interlocutor looks promising. The bottom line is that the region’s countries should take ownership of the South Caucasus back into their hands.     

The South Caucasus can be freed from foreign intervention once the countries of the region genuinely respect each other and reconcile rather than seeking patrons elsewhere, as happened first with Russia and now in the quest for the West.

Dr. Farid Shafiyev is the chairman of the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations in Azerbaijan.

Image: Shutterstock.