It all began three months ago to the day, in the Chinese town of Xiamen. During a news conference following the BRICS Summit, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin proposed the use of international peacekeepers under auspices of the United Nations in the east of Ukraine.
The idea was not totally new either: it had been discussed, in a variety of formats, ever since the very first months of the military confrontation in Donbass. However, it was the first time that Russia had officially proposed a peacekeeping initiative at the highest level. The President of the Russian Federation suggested a fairly narrow mandate for potential peacekeepers, yet his initiative took all the parties in the conflict by surprise.
This is no surprise. On the eve of Putin’s statement, official Russian representatives had resolutely rejected the very idea of involving international peacekeepers in the Ukrainian conflict. Moscow’s usual argument was to cite the Minsk agreements, which do not envisage such a possibility. Kiev’s intermittent calls for involving the United Nations or the European Union in the settlement process effectively indicated the desire of the Ukrainian authorities to divest itself of any responsibility for the implementation of these agreements.
The proposal of the President of the Russian Federation gave rise to numerous conjectures as to the Kremlin’s possible motives and intentions.Was Putin’s statement merely a tactical ploy aimed at driving Kiev into a corner? Or had Russia’s position on the Ukrainian changed dramatically? Should the parameters of a possible UN peacekeeping mission outlined by Putin be taken as Moscow’s new red line? Or are they a bargaining chip for the future? Finally, who were Moscow’s proposals primarily addressed to: the Ukrainian leadership? The participants in the Normandy format? Or the Donald Trump administration?
Even now, three months on, the possible answers are being heatedly debated. All the more so as the public discussion of possible ways to resolve the conflict remains extremely emotional and not necessarily constructive. External observers who are not privy to the various informal consultations still know very little about them. Nevertheless, the statements, comments and interviews with the main actors that are available to us give us an approximate idea of the disagreements that have up to now stood in the way of implementing the peacekeeping discussion in practice, as well as an idea of what needs to be done by all stakeholders in order to overcome these differences.
Does Russia (and Ukraine) Want War?
The following arguments are based on the assumption that both Kiev and Moscow want to find a political solution to the Donbass problem. Any political solution would imply that the parties are willing to compromise. If at least one of the parties lacks the desire and readiness required, and is looking at a violent resolution instead, one that would result in the opponent’s unconditional surrender, then it would naturally be senseless to talk about the prospects for an international peacekeeping mission. At best, we might see certain tactical agreements designed to gain time, regroup, accumulate resources and resume political (if not military) pressure on the enemy at the appropriate moment. Another possibility is that the statements made by the parties to the effect that a political solution is the only viable solution are nothing more than propaganda. The presumption that the sides are prepared for a political compromise is certainly open to criticism, but if we do not allow for this possibility we are better off ending this discussion right here and now.
Other assumptions are that Kiev is not currently ready to let Donbass go, and that Moscow is not interested in absorbing the DPR and LPR or in securing the status of “unrecognized states” for them. As is known, many people in Russia doubt the validity of the former solution, and many people in Ukraine question the legitimacy of the latter. It is unlikely that anyone, with the possible exception of the leaders of the two countries, knows for sure what ideas the Russian and Ukrainian governments are currently considering. Nevertheless, official statements from both sides allow us to treat the aforementioned assumptions as being justified and lawful.
The third important assumption is that the four years of conflict have taught both Moscow and Kiev to assess the current situation, and its perception by the opposing side, in a realistic manner. Back in late 2014, some people in Russia thought that Ukraine could disintegrate at any moment, that the mounting economic difficulties would undermine the socio-political foundation of Ukrainian nationalism, and that the West would be either unable or unwilling to keep Kiev’s sinking “comprador” regime afloat. Now, in late 2017, no intelligent person can conceivably entertain such ideas any longer. On the other hand, a widespread idea in Ukraine was that the Russian economy would quickly collapse under the weight of the Western sanctions, that political support for Putin would crumble, and that Russia would soon be facing a new 1991. Today, such a scenario appears to be something taken from a parallel universe, completely unrelated to the actual state of affairs in Russia.
Looking back, we must admit that both Kiev and Moscow (or, rather, the Ukrainian and Russian people) have demonstrated the steadfastness, resilience and flexibility. And this has come as a surprise to many external observers. You can call this staunchness as stubbornness, or you can blame the insidious government propaganda. However, this does not change the essence of the matter: the Ukrainian and Russian people, with the exception of a handful of dissidents, are prepared to continue to bear the costs associated with the Donbass conflict.
This means that the hopes formerly held in Kiev and Moscow that the situation would resolve itself it quick time, that time was on “their side” and that victory was guaranteed because their cause was just, stood no chance of persisting on either side of the conflict. Neither side is likely to achieve a decisive victory in the foreseeable future. And a protracted crisis will mean the accumulation of long-term problems for both Ukraine and Russia. In this conflict, time is working against both Kiev and Moscow, even though the people of both countries have somehow adapted to living in a situation that would have seemed totally inconceivable only four years ago.
What are Kiev and the West Afraid of?
The three months that have passed since Putin made his proposal have been rich in commentaries, criticisms and counterproposals by the Ukrainian leadership, experts and analysts. The peacekeeping idea provoked an equally vivid reaction in the West. Parts of this reaction lacked a certain coherence and consistency, yet the response itself allows us to draw several conclusions as to what it is about the Russian proposal that does not suit Kiev and its Western partners.
Donbass as a frozen conflict. To begin with, the deployment of peacekeepers exclusively along the demarcation line between the opposing sides could turn Donbass into another “frozen conflict.”  This kind of deployment would recognize the status quo, which, as is illustrated by many conflict situations, including in the former USSR, often plays into the hands of separatists. Kiev cites the examples of Transnistria and Abkhazia, where delimiting the sides did nothing to resolve the respective conflicts but rather consolidated and accelerated the centrifugal processes. This means that a “dividing line” is capable of putting an end to the prospects of Donbass subsequently being integrated into the political, economic and social life of Ukraine.
Legitimizing Russia’s military presence. Kiev believes that if Russian troops are included in the peacekeeping contingent (a matter on which the DPR and LPR authorities insist), Moscow will be able to secure a legitimate military presence in the east of Ukraine under the auspices of the United Nations. In addition, Russian peacekeepers cannot be a politically neutral force, given the current state of relations between Moscow and Kiev. In fact, the UN peacekeeping traditions preclude the participation of countries that border the areas where peacekeeping operations are being carried out.
Recognition of the DPR and LPR authorities. Throughout the conflict in the east of Ukraine, Kiev has demonstrated a continuing reluctance to have anything to do with the leadership of the unrecognized DPR and LPR as the second party to the peacekeeping talks, something that Russia has always insisted on in its proposals. Ukraine believes that any direct interaction with the current Donbass leadership on peacekeeping issues would effectively mean the recognition of that leadership as the legitimate representatives of the DPR and LPR population. This is politically unacceptable to Kiev. Kiev believes, therefore, that any peacekeeping talks should be conducted exclusively with Moscow, and that it is for Moscow to make sure that its “stooges” implement the agreements reached.
Easing of Western pressure on Russia. The decision to launch a peacekeeping operation in the east of Ukraine, in any format, could lead to the activation of forces in the West that have always promoted the restoration of cooperation with Moscow, including the lifting or mitigation of the sanctions against Russia. Such a scenario understandably worries the current Ukrainian leadership. In Kiev’s opinion, the very fact that Russia has made proposals on a peacekeeping mission indicates that the Western sanctions are having the desired effect. Therefore, in order to make progress in the resolution of the conflict, the pressure on Moscow needs to be maintained, or perhaps even intensified.
What are Moscow and the DPR/LPR Afraid of?
The past three months have demonstrated Russia’s unwillingness to make any fundamental concessions to Kiev and its Western partners. Moscow objects to Ukraine’s version of international peacekeeping involvement (extending the peacekeeping area to cover all of the DPR and LPR and the state border with Russia; the refusal of Kiev to negotiate with the Donbass leadership; and the rejection of the idea of Russia’s direct involvement in the peacekeeping operation, etc.). The Kremlin’s objections grow even more resolute and uncompromising when transmitted via the leaders of the unrecognized Donetsk and Lugansk republics.
Donbass massacre scenario. At the heart of Russia’s objections lies the suspicion that an international peacekeeping contingent would not be able to provide sufficient security to the Donbass population, especially given the widespread radical nationalist and revanchist sentiments in Ukrainian society. Moscow points out that the Ukrainian leadership remains incapable of controlling the numerous autonomous armed groups and paramilitary radical political movements that might terrorize the DPR/LPR territories, threaten their political opponents and contribute to the spread of crime in the region. It is possible that this could be followed by new waves of refugees and internally displaced persons from Donbass towards Russia.
Peacekeepers as a pretext for revising the Minsk agreements. The Ukrainian version of a possible peacekeeping operation raises numerous questions in Moscow linked to the future of the Minsk agreements. Russia suspects Kiev of attempting to use the new settlement plan as a pretext for overhauling the Minsk agreements, or even abandoning them outright, particularly those provisions that concern political reform. In addition, should the Ukrainian version be implemented, Moscow would lose all its current influence on the situation, effectively becoming an outside witness to Ukrainian nationalists engaging in a “mopping-up” operation in Donbass. As far as Moscow is concerned, the commitment of Western countries to the Minsk agreements is by no means a sure-fire guarantee that the agreements will be observed by Kiev. 
Moscow’s flexibility resulting in greater pressure on Russia. Whereas the Ukrainian government fears the erosion of the West’s anti-Russian consensus and the weakening of pressure on Moscow, the Russian government has reasons to believe that, should Moscow make any significant concessions with regard to the peacekeepers in Donbass, Kiev and the West (the United States at least) would perceive this as a sign of weakness on the part of Russia and might try to apply greater pressure on Moscow.  If Russia decides to give up Donbass, then Crimea might become the West’s next target.
Wrong time for concessions. As far as we can tell, Moscow does not see Kiev’s latest proposals, which have been supported by the West, as a compromise. Should Russia adopt these proposals, it will be difficult to present this as another foreign political victory (even a formal victory) for the Kremlin to domestic and outside audiences. The presidential election campaign is under way in Russia, and the Kremlin is likely use the foreign policy victories it has earned in the past few years to bolster its chances of winning. This means that any “retreat” on the Ukrainian front would appear ill-timed, to say the least. It could even entail unnecessary political risks. On the other hand, the Kremlin points to the numerous uncertainties that remain in the West, including the domestic political crisis in the United States and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s inability to form a coalition government. As far as Moscow is concerned, it would be better to postpone serious discussions on the Ukrainian issue until next summer or autumn.
Where is a Compromise to be Found?
As is characteristic of any complex and multifaceted international crisis, the situation in the east of Ukraine represents a tangle of subjective and objective factors, external and internal circumstances, personal ambitions and long-term social trends, specific interests of individual political groups, and banal mistakes caused by the incompetence or incomplete awareness of the parties. This is why solutions to this problem – in the plural, as there is no single solution – should be sought at different levels and on different planes. Listed below are just the most obvious ingredients required for a successful peacekeeping mission in the east of Ukraine.
Agreeing on the current priorities. Even though the diverse tasks facing the peacekeeping mission are absolutely important, the most urgent and important objective is to put an end to the violence, stop the loss of life and ensure the implementation of the first three conditions of the Minsk agreements (a bilateral ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and the implementation of monitoring activities). This objective should inform priorities with regard to both the territory where the peacekeeping are forces initially deployed (the demarcation line) and to the initial mandate of these forces (preventing possible violations of the ceasefire agreement, regardless of which side commits the transgression). For Russia, it would be worthwhile to think about expanding the mandate it originally proposed to include not only the protection of Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers, but also the provision of a stable truce. This mandate needs to be consistent with the number of peacekeepers, the weapons in their possession, and their right to use such weapons against those who violate the truce. For its part, Ukraine should not insist on giving the blue helmets any additional functions at this stage. As things progress, the peacekeeping force might be provided with a new, broader mandate.
Overcoming phantom fears. Some of the concerns of the two parties seem to be far-fetched. And that is putting it mildly. It is, for example, fairly difficult to believe that, under the current circumstances, any NATO member – no matter how much Kiev pleads – would be prepared to commit significant military contingents for a peacekeeping operation in Donbass, certainly not before they have obtained sufficient security guarantees from the DNR and LNR. Furthermore, the existing UN procedures for setting up and managing peacekeeping forces exclude even the theoretical possibility of a single country (including Russia and the United States) or group of countries (including NATO) unilaterally controlling the progress of a peacekeeping operation. There appears to be nothing preventing the peacekeeping force from comprising representatives of countries trusted both by Kiev and Moscow; everything would depend on the political will of the two sides and their readiness to make balanced compromises.
Taking prior experience into account. Existing peacekeeping experience does not support the idea that negotiating with unrecognized entities within a given territory serves as the first step towards the international recognition of those entities. For example, the United Nations has been coordinating its peacekeeping activities in Cyprus with the government of Northern Cyprus for decades, ever since Turkey invaded the island in the summer of 1974, even though the territorial entity is not recognized by anyone except Turkey. A similar situation arose in the course of numerous attempts by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), and then the OSCE, to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh issue: the presence of Nagorno-Karabakh representatives at the negotiating table since 1992 has not, and will not, lead to the recognition of the territory as a legitimate subject of international law. There is no doubt that, should the sides agree on this and demonstrate a degree of flexibility and creativeness, a similar formula could be devised for Donbass.
Sharing the responsibility for the peacekeeping mission. Observing Ukraine’s demands to the letter – that Russia take no part in the peacekeeping operation and that negotiations with the Donbass authorities do not take place – would raise the logical question of who is to act as the guarantor of uninterrupted peacekeeping work in Donbass. Is Kiev prepared to bear sole responsibility for inevitable incidents, outbreaks of violence and attacks on the peacekeepers? It appears that at this point in time, Ukraine’s interests would best be served by the active involvement of both Moscow and the Donbass authorities in the settlement process. The particularities of such involvement, however, are quite a different matter. The existing experience of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine should be carefully studied again, as should the experience of practical interaction between the OSCE monitoring mission and the Donbass authorities. As for Russia, its strategic role should be to define the mandate of the peacekeeping operation within the framework of the UN Security Council, as well as planning and monitoring that operation. Speaking of Russian peacekeepers in Donbass, some form of presence, however symbolic, would be an additional guarantee that all the parties to the conflict will fulfil the terms of the peacekeeping agreement.
Considering the dynamic side to the agreement. Many of the disagreements between Moscow and Kiev would appear less fundamental if the mandate, area of deployment and the timeframe of the possible peacekeeping mission were viewed as dynamic, rather than static, values. In other words, the mission should be perceived as a set of successive stages, with the objectives of each subsequent stage defined by the preceding stage’s achievements. For example, it would be correct to expect the peacekeeping mission’s deployment area to expand gradually (all the way to the border between Russia and Ukraine), its potential to grow over time and its functions to gradually transition from the initial objectives (ensuring the cessation of hostilities) to more complex matters (including, for example, technical assistance with the organization of local elections). Both Kiev and the West fear that Moscow will retain the right to block the transition to the next stage if it is not satisfied with the current results of the peacekeeping mission. However, Russia would reserve such a right irrespective of how the UN peacekeepers are used. Also, peacekeeping missions eventually acquire their own dynamics and inertia; politically, it is always more difficult to block the continuation of a successful mission than prevent the launch of a new one.
Synchronizing the peacekeeping mission with the implementation of the Minsk agreements. There exists the opinion that, since the Normandy format has reached an impasse and the focus of the current Donbass settlement consultations has shifted to the “shuttle diplomacy” exercised by Kurt Volker’s successor as the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, the future UN peacekeeping mission should eventually replace the “outdated” mechanisms and procedures envisaged by the Minsk agreements. It appears that, rather than becoming an alternative to the Minsk agreements, the mission should represent an additional instrument for their implementation. Such an instrument is not provided for in the text of the Minsk agreements, but it does not contradict the spirit of the document in any way. Having assisted the parties to the conflict in the implementation of the first three clauses of the agreements, the peacekeeping mission could move on to deal with the other clauses, including the distribution of humanitarian assistance, the disarmament of illegal groups, the enforcement of law and order, etc. The timeline of the Minsk agreements would certainly need to be revised accordingly to reflect the progress of the peacekeeping mission.
Keeping the pan-European perspective in mind. There is undoubtedly a bilateral causal link between the current crisis involving Ukraine and the more general problems related to European (or Euro–Atlantic) security. For as long as the Ukrainian crisis remains unresolved, the European security system cannot become indivisible; nor will it be possible to overcome the new east division of the continent. At the same time, the Ukrainian crisis cannot be resolved completely all efforts are focused on it alone, outside the context of solving broader European problems. Restoring peace in Donbass, normalizing Russia–Ukraine relations and finding new approaches to European security in general need to be viewed as parallel objectives, not consecutive ones. It will take many years, if not decades, to solve these problems. However, the launch of a UN peacekeeping operation in Donbass could become a pivotal event in European politics, one that would result in a negative trend being replaced by a positive one. We are left to hope that this shift will take place in 2018. The longer the current crisis lasts, the harder it will be to emerge from it.
First published in our partner RIAC
[i] “First, I believe the presence of UN peacekeepers or, should I say, of those people who would ensure the security of the OSCE mission, to be fairly appropriate. I see nothing wrong in this; on the contrary, I believe this would help resolve the situation in the southeast of Ukraine. Of course, we are talking exclusively about ensuring the security of the OSCE officers. Second, these forces need to be stationed exclusively along the demarcation line and nowhere else. Third, the decision is to be made only after the sides have disengaged and withdrawn heavy equipment. No decision can be made without direct contact with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.” (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55535).
[ii] Ukraine’s first official detailed response to Putin was Petro Poroshenko’s address to the UN Security Council on September 20, 2017, which proposed a comprehensive UN peacekeeping operation across the entire territory of the DPR/LPR, including the stretch of the Ukraine–Russia border that is currently not controlled by Kiev (https://www.unian.net/politics/2145861-poroshenko-obratilsya-k-sovbezu-oon-o-razvertyivanii-mirotvortsev-na-donbasse-video.html).
[iii] We can cite, for instance, the following statement by Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin: “We have absolutely no use of a frozen conflict here, simply because this is something that Russia needs by definition. The entire logic of Russia’s actions boils down to attempting to influence us and destabilize use via the occupied Donbass, via this Russian colony in Donbass. This is why even this schizophrenic Russian proposal to protect the OSCE by means of peacekeepers (read: protect from Russia itself, because nobody else can influence them there) also contributes to nothing more than the freezing of the conflict. The same can be said of placing peacekeepers exclusively along the contact line, which is nothing more than the creation of a new frontier.” (https://www.ukrinform.ru/rubric-polytics/2312434-klimkin-nazvav-rosijsku-rezoluciu-po-mirotvorcam-sizofrenicnou.html).
[iv] Following his meeting with U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker in Belgrade on November 13, 2017, Russian Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov stated that, out of the 29 proposals made by the United States, Russia had only been able to concede to three, those which generally reiterated the inviolability of the Minsk agreements (https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2017/11/14_a_10985108.shtml).
[v] As Putin told the Valdai Club conference in October, “Closing the border between Russia and the unrecognized republics would result in a situation akin to Srebrenica. A massacre will follow there. We cannot, and never will, allow that.” (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55882).
[vi] There are grounds for such concerns. Consider, for example, the recent statement made by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov (https://rian.com.ua/politics/20171128/1029853624.html).
[vii] Moscow refers in particular to the events that took place in Kiev on February 21, 2014, when a number of European officials facilitated an agreement between President Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian political opposition on a transition period that was subsequently breached by the opposition at the West’s “connivance” (http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55882).[viii] When Jon Huntsman Jr., the new Ambassador of the United States to Russia, conditioned the lifting of the U.S. sanctions on progress in Donbass (https://topspb.tv/programs/stories/466132/), the general reaction from Russian politicians and experts was extremely sceptical. The overwhelming majority of commentators believed that the sanctions were there to stay and that, no matter what Moscow did, the decision of the United State Congress was irreversible, regardless of the Trump administration’s desires.
Azerbaijani civilians are under Armenian military attacks: Time to live up to ‘never again’
2020 marks with the global celebration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and entering into force of its Charter on 24 October 1945, which was adopted on the ruins of the Second World War.
The major supranational universal platform of international cooperation was created in response to the mass atrocities committed by Nazis during the War. The victorious powers initiated the creation of this international institution in order to maintain international peace and security, achieve international cooperation in solving international problems, and respect the human rights.
The international crimes of Nazi regime urged international community vowed ‘never again’ to allow horrors of the Second World War to be repeated in the history of a mankind.
Three years later in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly and inspired further legally binding international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted in 1966 and altogether representing the International Bill of Rights. These landmark international treaties inaugurating the respect for human dignity embody generally accepted standard of accomplishment for all.
The Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights famously proclaimed that ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…’. Undoubtedly, this provision is the result of the tragic experience of the Second World War with its barbarous acts which shocked the whole mankind.
Thus, it is not a coincidence that a year later in 1949 the Geneva Conventions were adopted in order to limit the barbarity of war. These Conventions and their Additional Protocols are the milestone international documents protecting people who do not take part in military actions (civilians, health and aid workers, as well as people who can no longer continue to fight).
Evidently, the international community learned the bitter lesson from the sad experience of the War and decided to unite its efforts to respond collectively to new threats to international peace and security.
However, the noble mission of the world nations crashes to smithereens with the barbarian terror acts committed by Armenia against Azerbaijani civil population.
Since the beginning of the recent escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, which was occupied along with the seven adjacent districts by the Armenian military forces, Armenian side intentionally targets civil population of Azerbaijan in rude violation of the norms and principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
Thus, the second largest city of Azerbaijan, Ganja had come under heavy rocket fires by the military forces of Armenia for the three times in the last two weeks that were resulted in killing of more than 25 and injuring more than 100 civilians. It is worth to mention the fact that the city of Ganja with the population of 500.000 people is located fully outside the battlefield. Armenian military forces used a SCUD / Elbrus ballistic missile and chose the night hours to attack the civil population in order to commit bloody atrocities against as many people as possible.
Armenia targeted civil population not only of the city of Ganja, but also Mingachevir, Goranboy, Tartar, Barda and Shamkir that are also situated outside of the war zone. These provocative and bloody acts were committed despite the announcement of humanitarian ceasefire, which was reached during the meeting of Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Ministers in Moscow with the mediation of the Russia.
Intentional killing of Azerbaijani civilians committed by Armenian political-military leadership is a war crime, representing the rude violation of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which along with the Geneva Conventions of 1949 address the issues of conduct of warfare and war crimes.
Furthermore, taking into account the fact that targeting civil population is the traditional tactic of Armenian side, the recent bloody attacks are also legally assessed as crimes against humanity.
Noteworthy, the war crimes and crimes against humanity were the corpus delicti for the commission of which German Nazis and Japanese militarists were convicted by the Nurnberg and Tokyo international military tribunals after the Second World War.
Today, 75years later when the world community celebrates the victory over fascism Azerbaijani civilians are under attacks of the Armenian military forces which occupied Azerbaijani internationally recognized territories and committed ethnic cleansing for the last 30 years. These atrocities are committed in front of the world community which promisingly proclaimed a belief in human dignity after the nightmares of the War.
The world community which successfully achieved in a comparatively resent history a revolutionary shift from impunity to international accountability for international crimes should live up to its vow of ‘never again’ today, when innocent Azerbaijani people are suffering from the barbarian acts of the Armenian fascist political-military regime. In fact, the cost of impunity is the threat to international peace and security, which humanity seeks to achieve through the consideration of the tragic experience of the Second World War.
War in the Caucasus: One more effort to shape a new world order
Fighting in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia is about much more than deep-seated ethnic divisions and territorial disputes. It’s the latest clash designed, at least in part, to shape a new world order.
The stakes for Azerbaijan, backed if not egged on by Turkey, are high as the Azeri capital’s Baku International Sea Trade Port seeks to solidify its head start in its competition with Russian, Iranian, Turkmen and Kazakh Caspian Sea harbours, to be a key node in competing Eurasian transport corridors. Baku is likely to emerge as the Caspian’s largest trading port.
An Azeri success in clawing back some Armenian-occupied areas of Azerbaijan, captured by Armenia in the early 1990s, would bolster Baku’s bid to be the Caspian’s premier port at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
The Caspian is at the intersection of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) from China to Europe via Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that aims to connect India via Iran and Russia to Europe.
An Azeri military success would also cement Turkey’s claim to be a player in former Soviet lands that Russia views as its sphere of influence and bolster nationalist sentiment among Iranians of ethnic Azeri descent that account for up to 25 percent of the Islamic republic’s population, many of whom have risen to prominence in the Iranian power structure.
In an indication of passions that the conflict in the Caucasus evokes, Iranians in areas bordering Azerbaijan often stand on hilltops to watch the fighting in the distance.
Iranian security forces have recently clashed with ethnic Azeri demonstrators in various cities chanting “Karabakh is ours. It will remain ours.”
The demonstrators were referring to Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan that is at the core of the conflict in the Caucasus.
The demonstrations serve as a reminder of environmental protests in the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan at the time of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that often turned into manifestations of Azeri nationalism.
Baku port’s competitive position was bolstered on the eve of the eruption of fighting in the Caucasus with the launch of new railway routes from China to Europe that transit Azerbaijan and Turkey.
China last month inaugurated a new railway route from Jinhua in eastern China to Baku, which would reduce transport time by a third.
In June, China dispatched its second train from the central Chinese city of Xi’an to Istanbul via Baku from where it connects to a rail line to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the eastern Turkish city of Kars and onwards to Istanbul.
Azeri analysts charge that Armenian occupation of Azeri territory and demands for independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, threaten Baku’s position as a key node in Eurasian transport corridors.
“By continuing its occupation Armenia poses (a) threat not only to Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity but also to the regional stability and cooperation,” said Orkhan Baghirov, a senior researcher at the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations, a think tank with close ties to the government.
Mr. Baghirov was referring to recent Russian, Iranian, Turkmen and Kazakh efforts to match Baku in upgrading their Caspian Sea ports in anticipation of the TITR and INSTC taking off.
Russia is redeveloping Lagan Port into the country’s first ice-free Caspian Sea harbour capable of handling transhipment of 12.5 million tonnes. The port is intended to boost trade with the Gulf as well as shipment from India via Iran.
Lagan would allow Russia to tap into the TITR that is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) via the Russian railway system as well as Kazakh, Turkmen, and Azeri ports.
It would also bolster Russian, Iranian and Indian efforts to get off the ground the INSTC that would hook up Caspian Sea ports to create a corridor from India to Russia via Iran, and in competition with the Suez Canal, to northern Europe.
The INSTC would initially link Jawaharlal Nehru Port, India’s largest container port east of Mumbai, through the Iranian deep-sea port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, funded by India to bypass Pakistan, and its Caspian Sea port of Bandar-e-Anzali to Russia’s Volga River harbour of Astrakhan and onwards by rail to Europe.
Iranian and Indian officials suggest the route would significantly cut shipping time and costs from India to Europe. Senior Indian Commerce Ministry official B B Swain said the hook up would reduce travel distance by 40 and cost by 30 percent.
Iran is further investing in increased capacity and connectivity at its Amirabad port while at the same time emphasizing its naval capabilities in the Caspian.
The fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia with Turkey and Israel supporting the Azeris; Russia struggling to achieve a sustainable ceasefire; Iran seeking to walk a fine line in fighting just across its border; and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates attempting to stymie Iranian advances wherever they can, threatens to overlay port competition in the Caspian with aspects of the Middle East’s myriad conflicts.
Said Iran scholar Shireen T Hunter: “Largely because of the Iran factor, the Caucasus has become linked with Middle East issues. Israel and Saudi Arabia have tried to squeeze Iran through Azerbaijan… Thus, how the conflict evolves and ends could affect Middle East power calculations…. An expanded conflict would pose policy challenges for major international players.”
Nagorno-Karabakh: A Frozen Conflict Rethawed
On the morning of September 27, 2020, along the Nagorno-Karabakh Line of Contact, the armed forces of Azerbaijan launched an attack on the Republic of Artsakh. The clashes, and with them military and civilian victims on both sides, are ongoing at the time of writing. Yet another escalation of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Republic of Artsakh and neighbouring Armenia have introduced martial law and total mobilization, while Azerbaijan introduced martial law and a curfew, with partial mobilization being declared on September 28. International entities such as the United Nations, the European Union, as well as countries including but not limited to the United States of America, Russia and Germany have strongly condemned the ongoing clash and called on both sides to deescalate tensions and immediately resume negotiations.
What are some of the root causes of the ongoing conflict? Is there any hope on an immediate ceasefire? What are the interests of outside parties?
Frozen 3: Conflict
“The end of history” did bring about an end to the Cold War between the world’s superpowers, but it didn’t ensure an end to history in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some conflicts that arose in the 90s had already been there, suppressed by the Soviet behemoth, and went from “cold” to “superhot” and then to “frozen,” as in unresolved. From the Mediterranean to the Balkans to Central Asia, these frozen conflicts remain, with the habit of resurging violence every now and then.
The increasing tension between Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, served as a heads-up to what is now happening in the South Caucasus. The ongoing tension between Georgia and Russia also stems from the frozen conflict unsolved in the last decade of the last millennia. Heading to the neighbours in the region brings us to Nagorno-Karabakh, and the ongoing armed conflict with Azerbaijan. Since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, the political issue surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh has remained. The territory itself is mostly controlled by the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. While de jure a part of Azerbaijan, de facto it is independent, as Azerbaijan hasn’t exerted control over the region since 1991. After the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, there have been peace talks in place headed by the OSCE Minsk Group. To no avail, a compromise hasn’t been reached until today, and with the resurging attacks from both sides, a peaceful solution has moved far into the distance.
Divide et Impera: Soviet Edition
Moscow, as the third Rome, understood how to apply the old rules of ancient Empires. To practice control over a region, one should create smaller groups within, the interests (and treatment) of whom run diametral to one another. The Soviet Union continued this tradition of the Russian Empire, so that in the early stages of sovietization of the entire South Caucasus, the final status of the disputed areas between Armenians and Azerbaijanis was settled by Moscow. Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan became parts of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (AzSSR). The Caucasian Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party took it upon itself to resolve the dispute for (or against) the local populace. Nagorno-Karabakh was to be given extensive autonomy rights within the AzSSR.
The Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Nakhichevan ASSR), the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and, for a limited time only, the Kurdistan Uyezd (aka “Red Kurdistan,” 1923-1929) were incorporated into the AzSSR. Splitting up the Armenian populace amongst different administrative units was thus in lieu with Stalin’s nationality policy, which advocated the concept of dovetailing the non-Russian nationalities into the same republics. This would force them to cooperate across their ethnic boundaries and overcome ethnic rivalries. From a historical viewpoint, the way Soviet leadership handled the Karabakh issue marks a prime example of “divide et impera.”
Propaganda, Propaganda Everywhere
Internet trolls are not a new invention. What is notable, however, is how strongly both sides appear to be using all rosters of information warfare, ranging from trolls spamming social media with false information (or just involving users in pointless rants), posting gore or even state authorities posting information that is, from their perspective, truthful and correct. Mainstream media from all countries are playing along, picking a side they support and willfully spreading fake news narratives. The utilization of the internet, to gain favour for either side can take place in the form of appeals to the public audience by affected (or affectionate) users, appealing to emotion to take action. It can also result in strife and uncivil behaviour, even amongst social media groups for academic scholars. Celebrities are also engaging in #activism by sharing and posting their opinions and viewpoints. Surely, it appears neither side has a strategic approach to control the story, yet by pushing certain narratives (“Another genocide” vs “it’s our rightful clay”), both sides are pushing for an acceleration neither side could desire.
He who controls the flow of information controls the conflict. Multiple reports have indicated that Azerbaijan has severely restricted access to social media following the deadly clashes with Armenia since the end of September 2020. The Ministry of Transport, Communications and Technology announced these restrictions as “security measures” against Armenian digital aggression. As both countries have mobilized their ground forces, so too have they mobilized their “digital” forces, if one will. Only Twitter seems to work in Azerbaijan. Government-loyal accounts and bots run large-scale propaganda campaigns, dehumanizing the other side.
The hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the digital battlefield will, just like in real life, only increase as a viable solution to the conflict is not found. Already in the past have partisan groups hacked each other governments websites. Ongoing cyber-attacks of this nature are a fundamental part of any modern-day battle plan. However, they are liable to be just as damaging as conventional weapons.
What Can EU Do For You?
It is clear that a solution in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is inconceivable without Russia. With Turkey deliberately instigating the Azerbaijan government, Russia sees itself as a mediator to both, Armenia and Azerbaijan. While there is a Russian military base located in Armenia, and is considered Armenia’s protector, Russian neutrality goes so far that Moscow supplies weapons to both sides of the conflict. While Russia’s military strength is enough to keep the conflict from escalating severely, without Russian intervention, there will be no de-escalation and no ceasefire. Turkey, on the other hand, is very eager to extend its sphere of influence deeper into the Caucasus.
What can the European Union do to ameliorate the situation and promote the pursuit of open-ended, peaceful negotiations? French President Macron, as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, is taking the lead, and pushing for a ceasefire together with President Trump and President Putin. German Chancellor Merkel has reached out to both the Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev and the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Paschinjan. So, while there are attempts at mediating and heartfelt appeals, the EU has little else but to communicate on a diplomatic level. The toothless tiger plays no decisive role in the region and therefore only as an extremely limited means of applying (diplomatic) pressure. Azerbaijan is fed up with unfruitful negotiations in the framework of the Minsk group. Armenia doesn’t feel its interests appreciated by the EU. The United States is more occupied with the impact of an excessive, elephantine and paternalistic government and a radically self-absorbed, nearly anarchic private market (based on Benjamin Barber), or the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic and the upcoming 2020 Presidential election on November 3.
From an international law standpoint, the EU stands on Baku’s side, as they recognize Nagorno-Karabach as an integral part of Azerbaijan and haven’t recognized the past elections in Nagorno-Karabach. On the other hand, the idea of Armenian-Karabachian self-determination finds widespread approval in European Capitals, albeit without any meaningful impact. Even the mainstream media is having a hard time rallying for either side, most media mention the ongoing conflict as a side note in their reporting.
The outcome of this clash, and therefore the entire conflict, will shape the regional power structure for the next century and affect global interactions as well. Maintaining the status quo, just like in Ukraine, benefits no one and leads only to resentment and further strife. The EU can’t fix this, and with the United States disinterested, the task of creating long-lasting peace in the region falls upon Russia.
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