After over three decades of conflict, a joint communique on December 7 between Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated they were close to signing a peace treaty. This is good news for both countries, especially smaller and less economically developed Armenia, but also good news for the South Caucasian region. The peace treaty would recognise the territorial integrity of both countries and open regional communication routes hitherto blocked.
The irony is that outside powers had nothing to do with Armenia and Azerbaijan being close to concluding a peace treaty. The OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Minsk Group failed to achieve any success whatsoever since it was founded over three decades ago in 1992. The OSCE’s failure in the South Caucasus added to its long record of failures elsewhere, such as in eastern Ukraine from 2014-2021.
OSCE Minsk Group members were never fully committed to resolving the conflict. France and Russia were biased and supported. Meanwhile, Washington did not view, until recently, the South Caucasus as an area of strategic importance to US national security interests. From 2010, the US and France became passive allowing Russia to fill the vacuum in claiming for itself the primary place for pursuing peace talks, obviously duplicitously with no intention of bringing the conflict to a close. The EU only became interested in the South Caucasus 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when it sought to broker a peace treaty, but ultimately failing because of Azerbaijan’s long held distrust of pro-Armenian France.
Azerbaijan’s retaking of Karabakh closed the separatist quasi regime and disbanded its self-defence forces. Armenia had denied it was supplying these armed forces and yet they were illegal under the terms of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement. Some Armenian leaders were detained and put on trial for crimes against humanity committed against Azerbaijani civilians and soldiers in the First Karabakh War from 1988-1992. Although granted minority rights if they continued to live in Azerbaijan, most of the Armenians living in Karabakh moved (but were never ethnically cleansed) to Armenia.
Russia has a similarly poor record of resolving conflicts on the territory of the former USSR. After manufacturing ethnic conflict directly in Moldova and Georgia and indirectly in Azerbaijan, the Kremlin preferred to freeze conflicts rather than seek to bring about a negotiated settlement. Russian security interests, whether under ‘democratic’ Borys Yeltsyn, or imperial nationalist Vladimir Putin, remained the same; namely, to use frozen conflicts to establish military bases as spheres of influence over Eurasia. From the early 1990s, the Kremlin has demanded the West recognise Eurasia as its exclusive sphere of influence. The resolution of frozen conflicts would lead to the closure of Russian military bases and Russia’s so-called ‘peacekeeping’ forces returning home.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been critical of Russian policies since his country was defeated in the Second Karabakh War in 2020. Armenia, he has repeatedly said, feels betrayed by Russia which did not come to its military assistance in 2020 or this year when Azerbaijan retook back the last part of its occupied territory in Karabakh.
The loathing is mutual. Pashinyan accused the Kremlin of attempting to stage a coup against him after he condemned Russia for passivity when Azerbaijan retook Karabakh. Putin views colour revolutions through his KGB lenses as a manufactured coup organised by Western intelligence agencies aimed at reducing Russia’s sphere of influence in Eurasia. Pashinyan came to power in 2018 in a popular uprising against corrupt rulers who had led Armenia since it became an independent country in 1991.
Progress is being helped by a high 79% of Azerbaijani’s supporting the signing of a peace treaty with Armenia and the marginalisation of the pro-Russian ‘Karabakh clan’ (led by former Presidents and Prime Ministers Serzh A. Sargsyan and Robert S. Kocharyan) who ran Armenia as a corrupt fiefdom until the 2018 revolution. The loss of Karabakh removed the home base of the ‘Karabakh clan,’ the main domestic opposition to Pashinyan.
Armenia, long Russia’s main military ally in the South Caucasus, is seeking to at least pursue a more balanced, multi-vector foreign policy by reaching out to the West. In France and the US there are powerful and influential Armenian lobbies.
Russia geopolitical loss in Armenia is matched by the decline of its influence throughout Eurasia. Belarus defends Russia at the UN where it alone votes against UN resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine. Other ostensibly pro-Russian states in Eurasia, such as Kazakhstan, abstain in UN votes.
Russia’s decline leaves a regional vacuum that is being filled by Turkey and Iran. While much focus has been on Turkey, Ankara is a younger ally of Azerbaijan’s than Israel with whom there has been a security relationship since the mid 2000s. The signing of a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan will open the door for the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkey whose border has been closed since 1993.
Iran views Azerbaijan in the same manner as Russia views Ukraine, a lost province that should be returned, by force, if need be, to the motherland. The Persian nationalists who run Iran’s theocracy deny Azerbaijani’s are a separate people in the same way Russian imperial nationalists claim Ukrainians are a branch of the pan-Russian people.
Following two relatively short wars in 2020 and 2023, the ground is set for the normalisation of relations Armenia and Azerbaijan. Pashinyan is optimistic that a peace treaty will be signed with Azerbaijan in the near future. Azerbaijan’s insistence that the treaty recognise the former Soviet republican boundary as their international border is in keeping with the December 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration signed by former Soviet republics. Delimitation and demarcation of their border would follow the signing of a peace treaty.
There is likely to be a breakthrough in peace in the South Caucasus in 2024 between Armenia and its Azerbaijani and Turkish neighbours. Although the West will have not contributed to this breakthrough, the normalisation of relations between these three countries will contribute to reducing Russian-Iranian influence and enhancing that of the West at a time when it is at war with the anti-Western axis of evil in Ukraine and Israel.