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Nagorno-Karabakh: A Frozen Conflict Rethawed

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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.

From our partner RIAC

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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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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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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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