ISSN 2330-717X

The World Is Entering Uncharted Territory – OpEd

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By Luke Coffey*

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As the war in Ukraine enters its third week, it is clear that a quick end to the fighting is not going to happen. At the time of writing, Russian troops remain stuck outside the major cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv and they are not even close to reaching Odessa.

Last week, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, met in the Turkish city of Antalya for the highest-level talks since the war began. Unsurprisingly, nothing came of them. The fighting continues.

In recent months, Russia has been involved in a number of major diplomatic initiatives, from Iran to the South Caucasus. Now that Moscow is fully committed to Ukraine, however, it will have very little bandwidth or resources to deal with other matters. In particular, there are three areas in which there will likely be little progress in terms of diplomacy.

The first is the prospect of a lasting and enduring peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia. During the chaos resulting in the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Armenia captured huge swathes of territory considered by the international community to be part of Azerbaijan. In September 2020, major fighting broke out between the two countries after almost 30 years of deadlocked conflict. Russia brokered a ceasefire agreement that halted the hostilities in November 2020.

The end results were that Azerbaijan liberated much of its land that was occupied by Armenia, the establishment of a small Russian peacekeeping force in the region, a commitment by all sides to open new regional trade and transit routes, and a commitment to delineate the Azerbaijani-Armenian border.

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The 2020 agreement was supposed to be a foundation on which to build a lasting peace. Sadly, little progress has been made on implementing its terms.

According to the agreement, “all economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked.” Almost a year-and-a-half later, no progress has been made on this. In addition there has been no meaningful effort to begin the border-delineation process. Meanwhile, morale among the Russian peacekeepers in the region is low, apparently, and their discipline poor.

In recent weeks, skirmishes have broken out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. Moscow is the main powerbroker in the conflict and the enforcer of the 2020 deal. With Russia deeply involved in Ukraine, the prospects for a lasting peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia remain low.

Secondly, Russia has also been leading the efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia and reopen the border between them. It is likely that this effort will also be put on ice.

Turkey and Armenia have had a difficult relationship over the past few decades. Even though the former was one of the first countries to recognize the latter’s independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between the states quickly soured after the Armenian invasion of Turkish ally Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.

In January this year, Moscow hosted talks between the two countries. Both sides have appointed special envoys to negotiate during discussions about normalizing relations. Turkish and Armenian airlines have resumed direct flights between the two countries and Armenia recently lifted its embargo of imports from Turkey.

There are many benefits to be had if Turkey and Armenia find a way to normalize relations. Armenia is a poor, landlocked country in the South Caucasus that has missed out on many of the big infrastructure projects in the region in recent decades. Reopening the border with Turkey could create new economic and investment opportunities that might not only benefit Armenia but also the wider region.

Because of the war in Ukraine, this issue will also now be on the back burner for Moscow. Far from Russia hosting further talks between Turkey and Armenia, Turkey is now hosting talks between Russia and Ukraine.

The issue of normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia is linked to Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. Turkey will want a commitment from Armenia that it will work to resolve the outstanding issues with Azerbaijan before Ankara and Yerevan can normalize. Therefore, the prospects of Turkish-Armenian normalization remain dim.

Finally, the talks in Vienna between the US and Iran about the latter’s nuclear program might be affected by the breakdown in relations between Washington and Moscow. Since the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, was signed in 2015, Moscow has backed Tehran by providing diplomatic cover, both within the UN Security Council and as part of the P5+1 negotiation framework that includes the UK, France, China and Germany in addition to the US and Russia.

In many ways, Russia is America’s main interlocutor in the ongoing indirect talks with Iran in Austria. It is inconceivable that the talks in Vienna should continue, given the current state of US-Russian relations. However, the breakdown of the talks could be a blessing in disguise, as they have resulted in little meaningful progress in recent months. Iran continues to drag them out based on a perception that a new deal can be agreed, while continuously squeezing new concessions from the US.

A collapse of the negotiations might usher in a more realistic policy toward Iran, focused not only on curtailing its nuclear-weapons program but also reining in Tehran’s malign influence in the region.

The geopolitical consequences of the war in Ukraine are unknown and will not be fully felt for years. Unfortunately, they will not be limited to Ukraine. Other important issues, such as peace and stability in the South Caucasus, might remain unaddressed for even longer, unless smaller regional countries stop relying on Russia and take it upon themselves to act.

The world is entering uncharted territory.

• Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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