Avoiding another war in the former Soviet Union

Oct 31 2023

GEOPOLITICAL TANGLE — For weeks now, there have been warnings that yet another bloody war could break out on the edge of Europe — pushing the U.S. and E.U. further into a geopolitical tangle with Russia. Now, all eyes are on the South Caucasus to see whether a decades-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan can be averted, or if it will be added to the growing list of geopolitical hotspots that require attention from the West.

While the standoff has flown below the radar amid growing tensions between Serbia and Kosovo; as well as war between Russia and Ukraine and Hamas and Israel, the space sandwiched between Russia and Iran has become increasingly tense. Washington and Brussels have laid out clear red lines that have since been crossed. And there’s a growing suspicion that peace isn’t in Moscow’s best interests.

Last month, Azerbaijan launched an offensive to take control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, with thousands of troops and tanks pushing forward under the cover of heavy artillery fire. Within 24 hours, taking heavy casualties on the front lines, the ethnic Armenian authorities had surrendered, effectively ending thirty years of de facto independence since a war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

More than 100,000 people were forced to flee their homes with what few possessions they could pack into cars, buses and even open-topped construction trucks. Few think they’ll ever be able to return, despite Azerbaijan’s promises of “reintegration.” And the Armenian government has accused Azerbaijan of carrying out ethnic cleansing in the region, with concerns of more aggression to come.

While the U.S. and E.U. have condemned the use of force, they’ve been unwilling or unable to take a tougher stance. Azerbaijan is a close partner of both critical NATO ally Turkey and of Israel, and has also stepped up exports of natural gas to Europe as part of efforts to wean the continent off Russian fossil fuels. On top of that, Azerbaijan maintains it was only acting to take control of its internationally-recognized territories, and insists that makes it an entirely internal issue.

But concerns have been growing that Azerbaijan could be planning an invasion of Armenia itself to seize a strategically important transport route that would link it up with Turkey — known as the Zangezur Corridor. Armenia’s new ambassador to the E.U, Tigran Balayan has said his country expects the attack “within weeks.”

Now though, both Azerbaijan and Armenia are saying a long-awaited peace deal could be done over the next few months instead. Speaking to POLITICO, Azerbaijani foreign policy chief Hikmet Hajiyev insisted there was no plan for a confrontation and that the corridor project “has lost its attractiveness for us” because of alternative routes through neighboring Iran.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, meanwhile, said last week that a final ceasefire could be signed soon — and unveiled a “Crossroads for Peace” project designed to bolster transport links with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The move would be a major blow to Russia, which still has troops patrolling Armenia’s closed borders — once the frontier between the Soviet Union and NATO. With talk of peace in our time, Pashinyan has even hinted it might be time to tell Moscow’s military to leave once and for all.

The efforts to secure a diplomatic settlement would also be touted as a win in Washington and Brussels, despite the mass exodus and shattered lives as a result of last month’s war. Behind the scenes, Western diplomats have been fighting to avoid a repeat of the violence and prevent the worst case scenario from coming about.

And, at a time when Russia is reportedly seeking to stretch the West thin between conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and in Africa, it would be a rare moment where calmer heads prevailed and chaos could be averted. Only time will tell if that’s the case — but both Armenia and Azerbaijan are, for the moment, optimistic.