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How the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a lesson to the West in geopolitical reality

Constant consideration of intervening in the region inflames tensions with local powers, including Russia.

When Azerbaijan launched an offensive in the fall of 2020 to retake the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, the United States, NATO, and the European Union played no role in ending the conflict. All that came from Brussels and Washington were pious statements about regrettable civilian casualties and the need for a peaceful solution.

Intervention to end the fighting was left to Russia. After Azerbaijan had reconquered much of the territory, Russia imposed an armistice agreement backed by Russian peacekeepers. Under this agreement, Armenia handed back more Azerbaijani territory outside Nagorno-Karabakh itself; with a Russian peacekeeping force now guaranteeing the security and de facto continued independence of the remainder of Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, Russia’s defensive alliance with Armenia, and the presence of Russian forces in that country, guarantees the settlement against any attempt by Turkey to intervene on the side of Azerbaijan.

This Western inaction was inevitable, for two sets of reasons. First, (as magisterially set out by Thomas de Waal in his standard book on the subject, “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War,”) the N-K conflict has been intractable even by the miserable standards of separatist disputes.

Under Soviet rule, the region (with a population roughly two-thirds Armenian and one-third Azeri) was an autonomous province within Azerbaijan. It was wrested from Azerbaijan in war between 1991 and 1995, and in effect joined to neighboring Armenia. The Azeri population fled or was driven out. During the war, Armenian forces also occupied several surrounding districts of Azerbaijan proper.

Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan was always determined eventually to reconquer the territory. Repeated attempts by the West and Russia, through the OSCE’s “Minsk Group,” to broker a peace agreement on the basis of guaranteed autonomy for N-K within Azerbaijan, foundered on the inflexible positions of the two sides and the implacable nature of facts on the ground.

The Armenians could not accept any solution that would give Azerbaijan any security role in N-K, fearing with reason that this would render the position of the N-K Armenians completely insecure. Azerbaijan could not accept any solution that would establish de facto N-K independence, even by an agreement that restored theoretical Azeri sovereignty. And just as the Armenians could not accept the presence of Azeri forces, so Azeri refugees could not return to areas controlled by Armenian troops. The mutual ethnic cleansing that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s made that all too obvious.

As an additional malign twist, any solution to the conflict had to involve the return to full Azeri control of the town of Shusha, a historic center of Azeri Muslim culture. The position of Shusha however means that its control by Azerbaijan renders Armenian N-K completely insecure; for it is situated on a steep hill that overlooks both Stepanakert, capital of N-K, and the road linking N-K to Armenia. Its capture by the Armenians in 1992 was a small masterpiece of military skill and daring (when I visited it previously it had seemed to me impregnable), and Armenians with whom I spoke were always categorical in their refusal to consider handing Shusha back.

It always therefore seemed probable that any change in the status quo created by Armenian victory in the 1990s would be affected by a new war and victory for one side or the other. It was also always certain that any provisional territorial compromise could only be created and enforced by the ability and the will not only to deploy a well-armed peacekeeping force, but to back it up with the credible threat of full armed intervention.

No such credible threat could have been issued by the United States and NATO, let alone the European Union. For partly by force of circumstance, and partly by their own ambitious folly (and in the case of the EU, subservience to U.S. agendas), by the time the war resumed last year, the West found itself bitterly at odds with all three great powers of N-K’s region: Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

By driving NATO expansion and backing Georgia in its conflicts with its Russian-backed separatist minority regions, the West ensured Russian hostility and determination to exclude any Western troops from the southern Caucasus. Iran for its part naturally hated the idea of U.S. or allied forces appearing on its northern border, given the likelihood that they would be used to put additional pressure on Iran, and possibly encourage separatism among its large Azeri minority.

Under the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish state, though still formally a NATO member, has become strongly anti-Western in its attitudes and agendas. Clearly, an outside attempt to intervene in a region in the face of the hostility of all the major regional powers is bound to fail, and the United States, NATO, and the EU were correct to not even consider this.

An additional obstacle to Western intervention was created by the internal politics of the West, and especially the United States and France, which counteracted the West’s geopolitical ambitions in the Caucasus. A hardline supporter of expanded U.S. power in the Caucasus and Central Asia once told me that America should “twist the Armenians’ arms until they break.” I replied that he might want to say that to a U.S. member of Congress from southern California, the main center of America’s Armenian population.

The power of the Armenian lobby led to resolutions in both the U.S. Congress and the French National Assembly naming and denouncing the 1915 Ottoman genocide against the Armenians (in the U.S. case, in the face of opposition from successive U.S. administrations). This resolution however was also a small monument to a congressional combination of domestic electoral opportunism and pseudo-idealistic international irresponsibility. For while the genocide resolution infuriated the Turks and pushed them still further in an anti-Western direction, it did absolutely nothing practical to help the Armenians.

This relates to the real charge that can be made against Western institutions over the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020: not their failure to intervene, but that for much of the previous 30 years, NATO, the EU, and institutes and writers working for them had pumped out papers, reports, briefings, and speeches about the role and responsibility of the West for the security of the southern Caucasus (and Central Asia), when the most basic geopolitical and military common sense should have made obvious the emptiness of such statements (see for example the publications of the EU’s Centre for European Policy Studies on the subject, or the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies.)

It may be argued that such work gives relatively harmless employment to Western officials and “thinkers” who would have done much greater harm if encouraged to write about places where the West actually might intervene. The effusions generated by NATO and the EU do nonetheless cause real damage, and not only to relations with regional great powers. Court poets have always corrupted rulers with their flattery; and NATO and EU officials floating in a perpetual fog of institutional self-praise and impotent megalomania are apt to spread their befuddlement to the Western public mind in general.

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