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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

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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