Opinion | Great Power Politics Is Back

After weeks of brutal and bloody fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in and around the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a halt has been called. Facing defeat, the Armenian side has more or less capitulated. Russian peacekeepers are already arriving to enforce a new peace deal.

It is a pivotal moment. The military and political map of the South Caucasus region has changed fundamentally. Lives have been saved. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees, displaced by the conflict in the late 1980s and early ’90s, can celebrate at the possibility of going home. But Armenians are shattered and fearful.

And the geopolitical picture is not so pretty: This is a deal brokered by two big autocratic neighbors, Russia and Turkey, that can now use it to pursue their own self-aggrandizing agendas. For them this is about troops and transport corridors, not people. The United States, despite being an official mediator, along with European countries, is being kept at bay, paying the price for years of not engaging with the conflict.

The conflict, which dates back to 1988 in its modern form, can lay claim to being Europe’s most intractable dispute. It pits the aspirations of the Armenian-majority region of Nagorno-Karabakh for self-determination against Azerbaijan’s right to the territory under international law. Almost incapable of dialogue, both sides have sought to settle their dispute by force of arms. In the ’90s, the Armenian side prevailed at great cost; on Sept. 27, Azerbaijan took military action to reverse that defeat and recover lost lands.

The big change came on the night of Nov. 9-10. After six weeks of fighting in which Azerbaijan recaptured huge sections of lost territory, the Armenian leadership, facing a military collapse on all fronts, agreed in desperation to a nine-point peace agreement announced in Moscow. The announcement sparked unrest in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia may not survive the crisis, which he badly mishandled by giving patriotic speeches but failing to engage seriously in diplomacy. But any successor will have little option but to accept this deal.

The human cost of the new conflict has been immense. The final military death toll is expected to exceed 5,000. More than 100 civilians have died.

Azerbaijan is the big winner. More than 26 years ago, it suffered a humiliating defeat on the battlefield, ceding both the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and all the surrounding regions to Armenian forces. Now, having prevailed in the new fight, it is poised to recover those lands, allowing more than half a million displaced people the right of return. What’s more, Azerbaijan gets to keep Shusha, the historic hilltop town in the heart of the enclave, called Shushi by the Armenians, which is of great cultural importance, and which previously had a majority Azerbaijani population.

Russia, which crafted the deal, is also a winner. Unlike in other conflict zones in the former Soviet Union, it never managed to secure “boots on the ground” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. Now it has done just that: 1,960 peacekeepers are being deployed. That suddenly gives Russia a greatly enhanced military presence in a region where it was losing influence.

Turkey gains, too. Having given its ally Azerbaijan decisive military support, it has secured the promise of a transport corridor that dramatically expands its eastern horizons, running from eastern Turkey to the Caspian Sea via the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan — effectively a new trade route all the way to Central Asia.

Armenians are the traumatized losers. They pay a very heavy price for a poor military performance and years of inflexibility over the Azerbaijani lands they occupied in the early 1990s. All that they could salvage from the deal was to keep a large part of the disputed Armenian-majority enclave, including the main city of Stepanakert, and to secure the protection of Russian peacekeepers. But they have lost parts of Nagorno-Karabakh itself to Azerbaijani forces. The final status of the region is still in doubt.

Russia’s agreement is one page long and contains many unanswered questions and potential traps. The abruptness with which it was done harks back to the ruthless great power politics of the turn of the 20th century.

For the first time in exactly 100 years — since the fall of 1920 — Russian and Turkish troops will both be on the ground in the region. Back then, just as many czars and sultans had done before them, Vladimir Lenin and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dictated terms to draw new borders and spheres of influence. Then as now, Russia and Turkey shut Western nations out of the decision-making process.

Many “peace agreements” brokered by big powers across the world have festered or foundered because the grievances underlying them were never resolved and embittered parties to the conflict acted as spoilers. If this deal is not robust enough, in particular to make the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh feel safe and protected, it could fall apart in the same way and set off new conflict.

So to craft a sustainable Armenian-Azerbaijani peace, serious work is needed on a host of issues. These include: facilitating the safe return of refugees, reconstruction, demining, humanitarian support, addressing human rights abuses and opening the isolated region of Nagorno-Karabakh itself to access by international and United Nations agencies. Looming above them all is an angry clash of historical and national narratives that makes Nagorno-Karabakh one of the most toxic conflicts in the world.

These are issues in which the politicians in Moscow or Ankara have little expertise or interest. They are ones in which Western countries and international organizations can offer a lot. That requires some humility about how little they have engaged with this conflict over the years and also what is bound to be an awkward cooperation with Russia. But a broader international contribution is crucial. What was signed on the night of Nov. 9, was only a deal for Nagorno-Karabakh. Much more is required if it is to become a peace.

Thomas de Waal (@Tom_deWaal) is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe and the author of “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War”

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