One battle that has alternately simmered and flared for the reason that final years of the Soviet Union is over. The predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is within the strategy of being utterly absorbed by Armenia’s neighbour, Azerbaijan. Many if not most of its over 140,000 inhabitants have both left or are getting ready to go away. Since final week, convoys of automobiles, lorries and buses have been making their approach to the Armenian border, with a lot of these onboard sorrowfully – and possibly appropriately – lamenting that they are going to by no means see their properties once more.
Nagorno-Karabakh had change into an archetypal frozen battle – a long-standing dispute reopened by the weakening of Soviet energy and left unresolved after the Soviet collapse. The territory was populated primarily by Armenians and was regarded by Armenia as ancestral land. Though quasi-autonomous for the reason that Soviet break-up and administered by Armenians, it had one essential vulnerability. It was inside Azerbaijan and recognised by the UN as a part of Azerbaijan. Only a slim hall linked it to Armenia.
The top, when it got here, got here all of a sudden. Two weeks in the past, Azerbaijan launched what seemed to be an opportunistic assault on Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, and seized energy. There was little resistance; there was no level.
Armenia was taken abruptly. And Russia stood apart, regardless of having mediated a ceasefire and equipped peacekeepers after the final severe clashes there in 2020. These Russian peacekeepers are actually reported to be aiding the evacuation – which some have described as an ‘ethnic cleaning’ – by defending the refugee convoys making their approach to Armenia.
Azerbaijan’s swoop on Stepanakert and the failure of Armenia and Russia to forestall it have been broadly seen as proof of a distracted Moscow. Russia, so it appears, is preoccupied with Ukraine and is now paying the worth for launching that struggle.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 18 months in the past discredited any ambitions it might need needed to being a mediator or a peacekeeper wherever, together with in Nagorno-Karabakh. And when what Moscow had clearly meant as a lightning takeover of Ukraine turned as an alternative a protracted battle, Nagorno-Karabakh couldn’t assist however fall down Russia’s order of priorities.
However Ukraine shouldn’t be the one cause why Nagorno-Karabakh has been misplaced – as Armenia would see it – to Azerbaijan. Different forces had been additionally at work.
Certainly one of these was Armenia’s shift in direction of the West, and particularly in direction of the US, on the a part of Nikol Pashinyan’s authorities. Pashinyan got here to energy in 2018 and, like his predecessors, managed for essentially the most half to stroll the slim line between preserving long-standing financial ties with Russia and secure relations with the West, together with by the massive Armenian diaspora. Lately, nevertheless, this stability has began to tilt westwards.
It’s onerous to guage how far this mirrored disapproval of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the way far it mirrored inner political dynamics. It’s onerous, too, to discern which got here first. Was it Pashinyan beginning to look West that prompted Russia’s disengagement? Or was it Russia’s disengagement that triggered Armenia’s tilt?
Regardless, one very seen results of Armenia’s renewed relationship with the West was the joint navy workouts that Armenia held earlier this month with the US. Russia, clearly, took a dim view of US navy involvement within the area. This might assist to clarify why Russia, beforehand enjoying the function of peacemaker, didn’t rush to Armenia’s support when Nagorno-Karabakh got here beneath its newest assault from Azerbaijan.
Russia, for its half, had been busy mending fences with Turkey – Azerbaijan’s chief regional backer – after Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election in Might. Consequently, the alignment with Armenia had change into much less handy for Russia. Seen from this attitude, what would seem like Armenia’s definitive lack of Nagorno-Karabakh is definitely a part of an even bigger geopolitical realignment. It may be defined not simply by the distraction of Russia, but additionally by a brand new US curiosity in Armenia and Turkey’s rising assertiveness as a regional energy.
A shift from Armenia and in direction of Turkey actually fits Russia. Turkey has been if not an ally then actually a helpful interlocutor for Putin over Ukraine. Erdogan has helped save him from the worldwide isolation the US and EU tried to impose. In a extremely symbolic transfer, and one other blow to Armenia, Erdogan marked the takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh by visiting Nakhchivan – an enclave recognised as belonging to Azerbaijan, however claimed by Armenia. ‘Palms off’ might need been the message right here.
What’s now enjoying out, nevertheless, might not be only a regional realignment. It may be the product of an extended historic pattern, courting again to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and past. It’s typically noticed that the collapse of the USSR was surprisingly peaceable. There was no repeat of the civil struggle that adopted the Bolshevik Revolution, no nice refugee disaster and no famine – regardless that all of those had been feared and, to an extent, deliberate for within the West. The comparatively few armed conflicts that broke out had been in components of the Caucasus and Central Asia, the place there had been long-standing territorial and ethnic disputes. Nagorno-Karabakh was one in every of these.
The violent finish of this battle greater than 30 years on will be seen each as the most recent spasm of the Soviet collapse and because the subsequent stage of Russia shrinking into its post-Soviet, post-imperial border. The struggle in Ukraine is the largest and most important by far of those post-imperial wars and it’s a part of the identical phenomenon. Regardless of the short-term consequence in Ukraine, Moscow’s attain is destined to say no.
This doesn’t imply that Russia itself will collapse. It does imply, nevertheless, that Russia’s energy will shrink to match the state borders as they’ve stood since 1991.
These borders took time to solidify. And among the newly established or reestablished states wanted time to say their sovereignty, too. That is basically what Azerbaijan has now performed in seizing Nagorno-Karabakh. Certainly, it known as its navy takeover an operation to ‘restore the constitutional order’.
The context of Nagorno-Karabakh shouldn’t be solely the Ukraine struggle, neither is it solely the rising affect of Turkey. It’s also the top of each the Soviet and Russian empires – the reverberations of which aren’t but over.
Mary Dejevsky is a author and broadcaster. She was Moscow correspondent for The Instances between 1988 and 1992. She has additionally been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.