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Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh: An unlikely and unwanted scenario

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The April shootouts in Nagorno-Karabakh that took dozens of lives from each side signaled to the world community that the conflict around the above-mentioned region is not frozen, as it was previously claimed.

Ethnic clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh , a mountainous province inside the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, arose in 1988 toward the end of Soviet rule. The conflict of a local scale developed into a full-fledged bloody war between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Azerbaijan tried to maintain its control over the region, while Armenia backed the separatist movement of the ethnic Armenians.

Although Azerbaijan was admitted to the United Nations with its Soviet-time territory that included Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian side managed to occupy both the province and the adjacent districts and proclaimed the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. As a result of the conflict, which cost the both sides more than 30,000 lives, nearly one million Azerbaijanis got expelled from their homes in the occupied territories and since then have dwelled as refugees in their own country.

The Russia-brokered negotiations secured a truce in 1994 and ceased the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan but failed to ensure sustainable progress. Controlled by the Armenian separatists, Nagorno-Karabakh has maintained de facto autonomy since the cease-fire, while the region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Official mediators of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia, the USA and France, initiated several proposals and organized direct meetings of Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Yet any attempts to finally resolve the conflict have failed: Baku has repeatedly offered a wide autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, while the Armenian side demands independence for the breakaway region.

The full-scale hostilities in April that involved almost all types of weaponry, have been defined as “the worst” since 1994. The sides, according to an unofficial estimation, lost around 90 troops each. However, the clashes labeled “four-day war” by the media have not fully ended as cross-border violence still continues to harm civilians and their estates.

The recent fight raised once again the issue of deploying Russian peacekeeping forces in the disputed area. Some hints and even open statements on this matter have been pronounced by pro-Russian media and several politicians several times over the past years although the idea was never implemented.

In April 2015, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Kremlin`s unofficial spokesperson, claimed that the war in Karabakh would be stopped by Russian peacekeepers. His statements, sometimes utterly unbelievable, should be considered seriously as he usually proclaims the Kremlin`s position or future plans.

In September 2015, Stratfor offered a scenario, according to which Russian peacekeepers would replace Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. In April 2015, by referring to a Russian daily Izvestia, Stratfor revealed Moscow’s plan to deploy Russian peacekeepers to the conflict zone.

During and in the aftermath of the clashes, the introduction of peacekeeping forces in the region emerged anew. Having received an unexpected blow by the Azerbaijani Army and lost several important positions along the frontline, Armenia`s president Serzh Sargsyan noted in one of his recent interviews that his country is not against peacekeeping forces in the region. However, it was not fully revealed in the context whether it could be Russian or international troops.

International media also recalled this issue, by referring to the aforementioned Stratfor`s report. A recent article on OSW, Poland`s Centre for Eastern Studies, also mentioned that the major political beneficiary of the four-day conflict is Russia, which has strengthened its position as the de factoprincipal conciliator and guarantor of the ceasefire. It cannot be ruled out that the current phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is part of a broader Russian plan aimed at changing the situation and at introducing Russian troops into the region as peacekeepers. This would strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position in the Caucasus, and would mean that the Western influence is being marginalized.

The introduction of Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh does not seem an acceptable idea, however, for a number of countries, including the both warring sides and the powers interested in the region.

First of all, such development would let Russia regain full military control over the South Caucasus and undermine the independence of the regional countries. Interestingly, Azerbaijan was among the first post-Soviet countries that managed to achieve the withdrawal of remaining Russian troops in 1992-1993. Despite Russia`s own economic difficulties to afford the withdrawal and accommodate Russian troops at that time, the relevant agreement is marked as one of the most important events in the history of independent Azerbaijan. To compare, the withdrawal of Russian troops from another South Caucasian country, Georgia, was quite painful and took longer. But Russia could still maintain its forces in Georgia`s breakaway areas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Meanwhile, Armenia, where a Russian military base is still stationed, is sometimes referred to as Russia`s outpost or its remote province.

With heavy anti-Russian sentiments, local societies both Azerbaijan and Armenia protest the deployment of Russian troops in the region, simply aspiring to keep it as a quarrel between the two and realizing Russia`s involvement would lead to loss of the territory for either warring party. A last year`s online survey by an Azerbaijani media outlet revealed that the majority of respondents believe Nagorno-Karabakh could be permanently lost for Azerbaijan in that case. Besides, for the current generation in Azerbaijan, the Russians are seen as direct and indirect perpetrators of the two most terrible events which have occurred in Azerbaijan’s contemporary history: Black January (when Soviet soldiers entered Baku to suppress the independence movement and killed over 100 people in 1990) and Khojali massacre (when a Russian regiment aided Armenian gangs to slaughter unarmed civilians in 1992 during the Karabakh War).

There are also calls on Armenian side against Russian peacekeepers as it also might lose the control over Nagorno-Karabakh: ‘The introduction of Russian troops will unleash a wave of hatred towards Russia’, says an Armenian political expert. Moscow`s sale of arms to Azerbaijan has ignited anti-Russian sentiments and led to big protests in Yerevan.

Furthermore, it is not guaranteed that Russian peacekeepers would bring the settlement for the conflict. The Russian troops currently stationed in similar breakaway regions, namely Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria have simply cemented the frozen status of the respective conflicts and keep prolonging the situation, which might eventually lead to the full independence and international recognition for the mentioned regions.

Big powers that have their own interests and vision in the region seem never to approve this scenario either. The United States, which has already allowed Russian engagement in the Middle East, a traditionally American sphere of interest, would not be happy about Putin`s another military involvement and further strengthening of the Russian positions in this neighborhood.

With recently severed confrontation with Russia, Turkey will not easily acquiesce to Russia`s military presence in Azerbaijan, which is Turkey`s natural ally through political and ethnocultural links. Establishing its military bases under the name of “peacekeeping forces” would enable the Russians to obtain control over important regional projects that Turkey, together with Azerbaijan, Georgia, the USA and the EU, has been effectively building and operating. Thanks to these combined efforts, South Caucasus has turned into an important energy and transport corridor. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, as well as Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum and TANAP gas pipelines have increased the significance of the region and contributed to the energy diversification of Europe. Thus, the latter would also be interested in having a stable alternative energy source/corridor in order to reduce its own dependence on Russia.

Furthermore, China`s recent attempts to revive Silk Road by circumventing Russia also promise to seal the status of Central Asia and Caucasus as a bridge between East and West. Therefore, Russian threats on the Silk Road project could harm the interests of China, the project`s initiator.

In this context, despite statements of several Russian politicians and experts on deploying Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, this development remains highly unlikely and quite unacceptable. Simply lobbying this scenario without intention to implement it might also provide several goals for Russia, including strengthening the Kremlin`s positions against its regional and global rivals, reminding authorities and societies in either belligerent country who is the boss in the region.

Rusif Huseynov is the co-founder of the Topchubashov Center. His main interest is peace and conflict studies, while his focus area covers mainly Eastern Europe, Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanians fight for silence

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The Ministry of Defence of Denmark has made an important decision supporting human rights of Danish citizens.

Thus, Denmark’s new fleet of F-35s, which are to replace the F-16s currently in use, will arrive at Skrydstrup air base in South Jutland starting in 2023. When the new air force is finally ready, far more neighbours will be bothered by the noise exceeding limit values, calculations by the Danish Defence Ministry show. The 100 worst-affected homes will have to suffer noise levels of over 100 decibels, which is comparable to a rock concert or a busy motorway.

The noise pollution from F-35s is projected to exceed that of the F-16s, though noise pollution from F-16 also bother locals. Discontent of citizens reduced their confidence not only in the Ministry of Defence but in their current government and NATO as well.

Thus decided to compensate the victims.This step has improved the image of the armed forces and showed the population the care that the Ministry of Defense shows to a residents of the country.

A similar situation has developed in Lithuania. Lithuanian citizens demand compensation from the Ministry of National Defense due to high noise level made by fighter flights from Šiauliai airbase as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.

Lithuania is a NATO member state and contribute to the collective defence of the Alliance. Thus, Šiauliai airbase hosts fighter jets that conduct missions of the NATO’s Baltic Air Policing.
Citizens also initiated on-line petitions in order to attract supporters and demonstrate their strong will to fight violation of human rights in Lithuania.

According to peticijos.lt, the petition was viewed more than 5 thousand times. This shows great interest of Lithuanian society in the subject.At the same time existing control over any political activity, as well as silence of current government and Ministry of National Defence don’t allow people openly support such idea. All websites with petitions demand the provision of personal data. Nobody wants to be punished and executed.

The lack of response is not a very good position of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence in case Lithuania wants to prove the existence of democracy. Denmark is a prime example of a democratic society caring for its people.

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Eastern Europe

Georgia Returns to the Old New Silk Road

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Georgia has historically been at the edge of empires. This has been both an asset and a hindrance to the development of the country. Hindrance because Georgia’s geography requires major investments to override its mountains, gorges and rivers. An asset because Georgia’s location allowed the country from time to time to position itself as a major transit territory between Europe and the Central Asia, and China further away.

This geographic paradigm has been well in play in shaping Georgia’s geopolitical position even since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the rise of modern technologies. Thereafter, Georgia has been playing a rebalancing game by turning to other regional powers to counter the resurgent Russia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran (partly) and bigger players such as the EU and the US are those which have their own interest in the South Caucasus. However, over the past several years yet another power, China, with its still evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been slowly emerging in the South Caucasus.

This how a new Silk Road concept gradually emerged at the borders of Georgia. In fact, a closer look at historical sources from the ancient, medieval or even 15th-19th cc. history of Georgia shows an unchanged pattern of major trade routes running to the south, west, east and north of Georgia. Those routes were usually connected to outer Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian hinterland.

Only rarely did the routes include parts of the Georgian land and, when it happened, it lasted for merely a short period of time as geography precluded transit through Georgia: the Caucasus Mountains and seas constrained movement, while general geographic knowledge for centuries remained limited.

It was only in the 11th-12th cc. that Georgian kings, David IV, Giorgi III and Queen Tamar, spent decades of their rule trying to gain control over neighboring territories with the goal to control the famous Silk Roads. Since, foreign invasions (Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, Russians) have largely prevented Georgia from playing a major transit role for transcontinental trade.

This lasted until the break-up of the Soviet Union. After 1991, Georgia has returned to its positioning between the Black and Caspian seas, between Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Major roads, pipelines and railway lines go through Georgian territory. Moreover, major works are being done to expand and build existing and new Georgian ports on the Black Sea with the potential to transform Georgia into a sea trade hub.

A good representation of Georgia’s rising position on the Silk Road was a major event held in Tbilisi on October 22-23 when up to 2000 politicians, potential investors from all over the world, visited the Georgian capital. The event was held for the third time since 2015 and attracted due attention. In total, 300 different meetings were held during the event.

The hosting of the event underscores how Georgia has recently upped its historical role as a regional hub connecting Europe and Asia. On the map, it is in fact the shortest route between China and Europe. There is a revitalization of the ancient Silk Road taking place in Georgia. This could in turn make the country an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment. Indeed, the regional context also helps Tbilisi to position itself, as Georgia has Free Trade Agreements with Turkey, the CIS countries, the EFTA and China and a DCFTA with the European Union, comprising a 2.3 billion consumer market.

Thus, from a historical perspective, the modern Silk Road concept emanating from China arguably represents the biggest opportunity Georgia has had since the dissolution of the unified Georgian monarchy in 1490 when major roads criss-crossed the Georgian territory. In the future, when/if successive Georgian governments continue to carry out large infrastructural projects (roads, railways, sea ports), Tbilisi will be able to use those modern ‘Silk Roads’ to its geopolitical benefit, namely, gain bigger security guarantees from various global and regional powers to uphold its territorial integrity.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

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Eastern Europe

Strategic Black Sea falls by the wayside in impeachment controversy

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Presidents Donald J. Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had a plateful of thorny issues on their agenda when they met in the White House this week.

None of the issues, including Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria, its acquisition of a Russian anti-missile system and its close ties to Russia and Iran, appear to have been resolved during the meeting between the two men in which five Republican senators critical of Turkey participated.

The failure to narrow differences didn’t stop Mr. Trump from declaring that “we’ve been friends for a long time, almost from day-one. We understand each other’s country. We understand where we are coming from.”

Mr. Trump’s display of empathy for an illiberal leader was however not the only tell-tale sign of the president’s instincts. So was what was not on the two men’s agenda: security in the Black Sea that lies at the crossroads of Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and NATO member Turkey.

The Black Sea is a flashpoint in multiple disputes involving Russia and its civilizationalist definition of a Russian world that stretches far beyond the country’s internationally recognized borders and justifies its interventions in Black Sea littoral states like Ukraine and Georgia.

The significance of the absence of the Black Sea on the White House agenda is magnified by the disclosure days earlier that Mr. Trump had initially cancelled a US freedom of navigation naval mission in the Black Sea after CNN had portrayed it as American pushback in the region.

The disclosure came in a transcript of closed-door testimony in the US House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump’s policy towards Ukraine by Christopher Anderson, a former advisor to Kurt Volker, the US special representative to Ukraine until he resigned in September.

Mr. Anderson testified that Mr. Trump phoned his then national security advisor, John Bolton, at home to complain about the CNN story. He said the story prompted the president to cancel the routine operation of which Turkey had already been notified.

The cancellation occurred at a moment that reports were circulating in the State Department about an effort to review US assistance to Ukraine.

“We met with Ambassador Bolton and discussed this, and he made it clear that the president had called him to complain about that news report… I can’t speculate as to why…but that…operation was cancelled, but then we were able to get a second one for later in February. And we had an Arleigh-class destroyer arrive in Odessa on the fifth anniversary of the Crimea invasion,” Mr. Anderson said.

The operation was cancelled weeks after the Russian coast guard fired on Ukrainian vessels transiting the Strait of Kerch that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov and separates Russian-annexed Crimea from Russian mainland. ‘This was a dramatic escalation,” Mr. Anderson said.

Mr. Trump at the time put a temporary hold on a condemnatory statement similar to ones that had been issued by America’s European allies. Ultimately, statements were issued by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley but not by the White House.

The Black Sea’s absence in Mr. Trump’s talks with the Turkish leader coupled with the initial cancellation of the freedom of navigation operation, the initially meek US response to the Strait of Kerch incident, and the fallout of the impeachment inquiry do little to inspire confidence in US policy in key Black Sea countries that include not only Turkey, Ukraine and Georgia, a strategic gateway to Central Asia, but also NATO members Bulgaria and Romania.

In Georgia, protesters gathered this week outside of parliament after lawmakers failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would have introduced a proportional election system in advance of elections scheduled for next year.

The amendment was one demand of protesters that have taken to the streets in Georgia since June in demonstrations that at times included anti-Russian slogans.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russia has since recognized the self-declared independence of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Some 1500 US troops participated in June in annual joint exercises with the Georgian military that were originally initiated to prepare Georgian units for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The absence of the Black Sea in Mr. Trump’s talks with Mr. Erdogan raises the spectre that the region could become a victim of the partisan divide in Washington and/or Mr. Trump’s political priorities.

The Republican-dominated US Senate has yet to consider a bipartisan Georgia Support Act that was last month passed by the House of Representatives. The act would significantly strengthen US defense, economic, and cyber security ties with Georgia.

A Chinese delegation that included representatives of several Chinese-led business associations as well as mobile operator China Unicom visited the breakaway republic of Abkhazia this week to discuss the creation of a special trade zone to manufacture cell phones as well as electric cars.

The Black Sea is one region where the United States cannot afford to sow doubt. The damage, however, may already have been done.

Warned Black Sea security scholar Iulia-Sabina Joja in a recent study: “The region is (already) inhospitable for Western countries as they struggle to provide security… The primary cause of this insecurity is the Russian Federation… Today, Russia uses its enhanced Black Sea capabilities not only to destabilize the region militarily, politically, and economically, but also to move borders, acquire territory, and project power into the Mediterranean.”

Ms. Joja went on to suggest that “a common threat assessment of NATO members and partners is the key to a stable Black Sea. Only by exploring common ground and working towards shared deterrence can they enhance regional security.”

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