Karabakh deal entrenches Russia’s power in Caucasus

Asia Times



Largely absent during the conflict, the US suddenly finds itself on
the outside looking in

By Neil Hauer


The ceasefire signed on November 10 between Armenia and Azerbaijan,
brokered by Vladimir Putin, establishes not only peace (one that is
more than merely tentative, it is hoped) in Nagorno-Karabakh, but also
entrenches Russia’s influence in the Caucasus.

Those who say, “Why not? This is, after all, on Moscow’s doorstep,” do
have a point. However, is it ultimately in the interest of the region?
That interest might have been better championed had the US not been
missing from action during the past month and half in the South
Caucasus. Now, it is in effect shut out of the region for the next
five years and perhaps longer.

The Karabakh ceasefire appears durable – as of this writing, no
violations have occurred. But there are powerful incentives for both
sides to restrain themselves: the presence of nearly 2,000 Russian
peacekeepers, the first of whom were already streaming across the
Armenian border into Karabakh within hours of the deal’s announcement.

A week after the signing, Russian forces already have established two
dozen observation posts lining both the line of contact between
Armenian and Azeri forces, and the crucial Lachin corridor that
connects Karabakh and Armenia proper.

These established facts on the ground, enshrined by Russia’s presence
as the sole international actor in the Armenian-Azerbaijani agreement,
leave little room for other international powers to involve
themselves.

The US, in particular, having been largely absent during the conflict,
finds itself on the outside looking in. With two months to go until
Joe Biden’s inauguration, what will the situation look like once the
new US president finally enters the White House – and what options
will Washington have for meaningful involvement?

On paper at least, there is significant leeway for US involvement in
what comes next in Karabakh. The most intractable issue of the
Karabakh dispute – the precise final status of the Armenian-populated
and controlled rump territory – remains wholly unaddressed, not even
mentioned in the deal signed last week.


Committed US diplomacy could play a key role here. There is
significant precedent for this: After all, it was in Key West,
Florida, in 2001 that the two sides, represented by then-Armenian
president Robert Kocharyan and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, the current
president, came as close as they ever had to a resolution.

That, however, was a long time ago. The auspices under which it
occurred, meanwhile, have since become all but irrelevant. Key West
was an initiative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe’s Minsk Group – a set of 11 states, headed by the troika of
Russia, the US and France, which has served as the main vehicle for
organizing negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the Karabakh
issue.

But the Minsk Group is dead in the water. Both Armenian and
Azerbaijani leaders have repeatedly criticized its effectiveness and
relevance, after 25 years without progress, and it played no
substantive role in halting the recent fighting. Russia’s unilateral
imposition of the present ceasefire deal, and the entry of Russian
forces into Karabakh, shows that Moscow holds the cards at present.

How, then, could the Biden administration play a constructive role in
the conflict, and more importantly attempt to counterbalance Russia’s
bolstered influence in the region?

Simply put, in the short term, there is little Washington can do. It
had a 45-day window during the war in which it could have asserted
itself as a major player, but with an election and the general state
of outgoing President Donald Trump’ administration more broadly, it
was never going to do so.

Missing this opportunity, and allowing Moscow full rein over how the
war ended, means Russia now sits with military bases on the territory
of all three South Caucasus republics. Any US engagement with Karabakh
now will thus start on a severe back foot, beholden to this
unfavorable reality on the ground.

In the near term, there is too much uncertainty to say what concrete
actions Washington might be able to take to get a seat at the table.
There are large sections of the current Armenia-Azerbaijan deal that
need to be clarified in practice, including exact lines of control on
the ground, but none of this is likely to involve Washington’s
influence.

Perhaps the US could help assuage the acute political crisis Armenia
itself is now entering. But this, too, will likely be resolved (or be
too far gone to help) before January 20.

Looking forward, the end of the five-year mandate of Russia’s
peacekeeping operation in Karabakh could mark a logical date to work
toward, with the US angling for a place in whatever comes next in
international peacekeeping securing the region.

[Photo: Russian troops in specialized combat training in the country’s
Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea. Credit: Russian Ministry of
Defense.]

Unfortunately for Washington, Russian peacekeepers do not tend to
leave an area once they are deployed, as many in Moldova and Georgia
(which have hosted Russian garrisons for 20-plus years) could tell
you. It is highly unlikely Moscow’s forces, now deployed, will simply
pull out of Karabakh in late 2025.

The reality is that the US has missed the boat on this conflict for
the next generation. The incoming Biden administration can fiddle
around the margins, playing a role in minor related issues, but Russia
is now enshrined, both in law and in practice, as the international
power through which Karabakh’s fate will be decided.

And by this fact, Russia has cemented its primacy in the region and
shut out the United States. The best the next US president can hope to
do in retaining American influence in the South Caucasus is to
redouble efforts in Georgia, which has its own host of problems and
unresolved Russian-backed conflicts.

What the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan shows is that even a brief
lapse in attention by Washington can have long-lasting repercussions.

*

Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Yerevan, Armenia.
Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other
things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.



 

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