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Karabakh conflict: How the status-quo changed after a quarter of a century

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Karabakh

This piece mainly argues that the fact that with respect to the Karabakh conflict, the economic, military, and geopolitical balance of power has changed in a quarter of a century or so in favor of Azerbaijan and Turkey but at the expense of Armenia produced a victory for Azerbaijan in the war over Karabakh in September-November 2020. Thanks to its hydrocarbon resources, over the years, Azerbaijan has invested in the armed forces massively. In the meantime, both Azerbaijan and Turkey have cultivated closer ties with Russia. Armenia’s over-reliance on Russia along with its weak economic and military capabilities, on the other hand, has put it in a disadvantaged position against Azerbaijan and in the region. The color revolution, which swept pro-European Union Nikol Pashinyan into power as prime minister in Armenia in 2018 helped distance Moscow from Yerevan. Unlike in the past, the United States was disengaged from the region, mainly because of its partial withdrawal from the international stage. The European Union has been traditionally relatively uninvolved in the conflict and France preferred to remain neutral in the dispute not to jeopardize its impartiality towards the warring parties. Squeezed between the geopolitical interests in the region and its ethnic Azeris’ sympathy with Azerbaijan, Iran was unable to play a key role in the conflict. The confluence of these factors changed the hitherto prevailing balance of power and produced a victory for Azerbaijan, overturning the 26-year old status-quo in the region.

The Origins of the Karabakh Conflict

Inhabited to a large extent by the Armenians, Karabakh was granted to Soviet Azerbaijan by the Soviet Union in 1921. Towards the end of the Cold War, Karabakh wanted to split from Azerbaijan, leading to the first clashes between the parties. The first Karabakh War started in 1992 and ended in 1994, leaving 25,000 dead and 724,000 Azeris and 300,000 – 500,000 Armenians displaced. At the end of the war, Armenians seized Karabakh and all of five as well as a large part of two other districts (rayons) of Azerbaijan, surrounding Karabakh, representing thirteen percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. Following the May 1994 ceasefire brokered by Russia, the Minsk Group under OSCE led the peace negotiations, albeit with no success. Given that Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s demands were highly irreconcilable – respect for territorial integrity (Azerbaijan) and the right of self-determination (Armenia), it proved difficult to find a common ground despite years of negotiations.  Ending this protracted conflict through a peace agreement was not possible also due to the fact that both sides believed that time would enhance their respective positions. Armenians in Karabakh thought that over time their self-declared de-facto independent republic will gradually gain international recognition while Azerbaijan believed that their military build-up would strengthen its leverage over the Armenians. 

The Flare-up of the Conflict and the Peace Deal

Violence flared up in Karabakh on 27 September 2020 after a tense year between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Following the 44-day fighting, with the loss of the strategically important town of Shusha in Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Armenia decided to lay down its arms. The conflict left 2,425 Armenians and 2,783 Azeris dead. After the fighting ended with a Russia-brokered ceasefire, 1,960 Russian peacekeepers were deployed in the region to monitor the ceasefire. The peace deal signed on 9 November 2020 ensured the transfer of all the seven Armenia-occupied districts, adjacent to Karabakh to Azerbaijan, division of Karabakh into two parts, controlled by Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively, the right of return of internally displaced people and refugees in the 1990s to the region, opening of a corridor from Azerbaijan to its autonomous republic of Nakhchivan, bordering Turkey, connection of Karabakh to Armenia through Lachin corridor. The deal did not determine the core issue of the final status of Karabakh, which will be decided through negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan later.

Cultivation of Close Ties between Azerbaijan and Russia

An important factor that contributed to Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the 44-day long war was Azerbaijan’s cultivation of close ties with Russia. Striving for the expansion of its influence in its “near abroad” after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Russia did not want to push Azerbaijan, a geostrategically important and energy exporting country to the embrace of the West. As for Azerbaijan, even if it did not join the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), it did not turn Russia into an enemy unlike Georgia or Ukraine did. Unlike Georgia, Azerbaijan has never vocally expressed its desire to join NATO. So, even though Armenia was not an official ally of Russia, there was no reason for Moscow to punish Baku.

Aware of the role that Russia could play in the resolution of the frozen Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan courted with Moscow although it, at the same time, viewed Russia as a threat. Azerbaijan cooperated with Russia at the expense of its relations with the West, which was another factor gaining the sympathy of Russia for Azerbaijan. A watershed event in Azerbaijan’s growing cooperation with Russia was the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war that demonstrated that Russia is the dominant actor in the region and the West was not willing to counter Russia. This led Azerbaijan to increase economic cooperation with the border region North Caucasus in the Russian Federation and led to expansion of Russian soft power, including an increase in education provided in Russian language, and proliferation pro-Russia media outlets and politically engaged initiatives in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan expected that these steps as well as its multi-billion dollar acquisition of arms and military equipment from Russia would neutralize Moscow in case of flare-up of a war with Armenia as was the case in the April 2016 conflict, which Moscow did not interfere promptly.

Growing Military Disparity between Azerbaijan and Armenia

Azerbaijan has used hydrocarbon-revenues for the expansion of its weapons and military equipment massively, creating a major disparity between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces over the years. Azerbaijani military budget has started to grow dramatically in 2006 when Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline became operational. By 2010, Azerbaijan’s defense expenditure alone surpassed Armenia state’s whole budget. After the first Karabakh conflict ended, Azerbaijan’s military expenditure totalled $70 million in 1995. Over the years, however, there was a dramatic jump in its military expenditure, rising to $1.7 billion in 2018. Armenia’s military spending was, on the other hand, $50 million in 1995 while it totalled $610 million in 2018. That is, Azerbaijan’s military spending was three times higher than that of Armenia. As a result of this wide imbalance in military spending, Armenia acquired only Russian weapons at subsidized prices or second-hand arms free of charge, Azerbaijan purchased high-tech arms not only from Russia but also from other suppliers such as Israel and Turkey. Apparently, Azerbaijan military’s intensive use of unmanned drones also played a decisive role in its victory.

Shifting Armenian Position

Armenia’s shifting position was another determinant in the fate of the Karabakh war. Armenia’s asymmetrical relationship with its ally Russia has deteriorated at Erivan’s expense in that it became heavily dependent on Russia in terms of economy, security and energy supply. Its closed borders, a weak manufacturing sector, its inability to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), and its channelling of limited economic resources to military expenditure put the brakes on the economic growth of Armenia. The country did not benefit economically either from joining the EAEU since its rationale is geopolitical. By implication, Armenia did not possess sufficient military arsenal at par with that of Azerbaijan. Nor did it turn into an economic success story that could attract the attention of major powers.

Change of hands at the helm of the Armenian state after the Velvet Revolution in 2018 was another development that changed the balance of power at the expense of Armenia. Considering the new Armenian leader Pashinyan, who overthrew the old guard close to the Kremlin, as “the man of Soros”, Russia wanted to replace him with a more loyal politician.  Besides, realizing that the balance in the conflict has shifted in favour of Azerbaijan in 26 years, Russia expected Armenia to be more flexible at the peace negotiations before the flare-up of the conflict in September 2020. Since Armenia did not agree to change its position, Russia did not want to assume the geopolitical cost of Armenia’s intransigence by interfering in the conflict that broke out in September 2020 in an untimely manner. That is why, Russia dragged its feet to involve in the conflict.

Turkey’s Rapprochement with Russia and Alliance with Azerbaijan

Turkish-Russian rapprochement was another factor that tilted the balance of power in the region in favour of Azerbaijan. Strained relations with the West pushed Moscow and Ankara to forge a close partnership with each other. Having competed with Russia in the first half of the 1990s in Eurasia, Turkey opted to cooperate with it after the second half of the 1990s, developing a multi-dimensional relationship with this country. The volume of bilateral trade reached $26.3 billion in 2019. Although they have some differences in geostrategic issues like in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, they both benefit from this partnership that encompasses trade, energy, investment, pipeline politics, tourism, arms supply and regional issues. In short, when the conflict broke out in September, Turkey was a partner for Russia more than a rival. That is why Russia remained silent to Turkey’s vocal support to Azerbaijan in the conflict in September unlike in the first Karabakh war at the beginning of the 1990s.

Moreover, Turkey’s unconditional support to Azerbaijan, above all its military support, including its supply of unmanned drones was instrumental in determining the fate of the conflict. They concluded a Strategic Partnership and Mutual Assistance Agreement in 2010 that foresaw mutual aid in case of an attack by a third party. Turkey’s growing support to Azerbaijan stems above all not only from its growing integration with Azerbaijan, especially, in the field of energy, including the launch of Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) in 2019, shipping more Azeri gas to Turkey and the massive investment of the Azerbaijani state energy giant SOCAR in Turkey but also from its increasing assertiveness in its neighbourhood. That is, its fierce backing to Baku in the conflict is, at the same time, a corollary of its assertive foreign policy in Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. Thanks to a dramatic growth in its economy after 2000 as a result of economic policies turning it into a “trading state” and a concomitant rise in its military capabilities, Turkey transformed into a major actor in its region.

Actors that Played a Lesser Role in the Conflict

As for the Western role in the conflict, although Armenians associate themselves with the Western civilization, Armenia does not have much strategic importance for the West. It is the smallest post-Soviet republic, does not have energy resources nor does it have energy transit routes. Given the authoritarian regime that dominated in the country in the post-Cold War period, the West has lost its interest in Armenia. Overall, the EU has been traditionally relatively disengaged from the Karabakh conflict mainly because of the dominating role of Russia in the issue as well as the risk of impartiality of the EU for Azerbaijan after most of the EU countries recognized the independence of Kosovo after 2008. Drawing a similarity between their status, Azerbaijan was concerned that EU countries could also recognize the self-proclaimed Karabakh Republic like Kosovo.

As for France, despite the pressure applied by 600,000 Armenian diaspora in the country to intervene in the conflict on behalf of Armenia, it remained impartial in the conflict, justifying this attitude with its role as co-chairman in the OSCE Minsk Group. Another reason for the inactive posture of France in the issue is that the South Caucasus is not a traditional area of influence for France unlike Africa.

Likewise, the USA remained aloof from the conflict with the exception of a few statements from the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and hosting talks with Azeri and Armenian ministers of foreign affairs. The lack of US interest in the conflict largely stems from the partial US disengagement from international politics as a result of “America First” approach under Donald Trump Administration. Washington’s preoccupation with the presidential elections as well as the fight against COVID-19 pandemic also distracted Washington’s attention from the region.

Like the EU and the USA, another actor that played a little role in the conflict, if any, is Iran. Iran is divided between geopolitical interests in the South Caucasus and the sociological realities inside the country.On the one hand, Iran strives to counterbalance the sway of the Azerbaijan-Turkish alliance in the region, supporting the Armenia-Russia axis. Besides, Azerbaijan’s close relationship with Israel disturbs Iran. On the other hand, it is home to about seventeen million ethnic Azeris, who called for the Iranian state to support Azerbaijan against Armenia in the conflict. As a result, Iran remained largely impartial in the conflict apart from proposing a not-so effective peace plan.

In Lieu of Conclusion

The 44-day war overturned the 26-year status-quo in Karabakh. Now that the final status of Karabakh is to be determined following the negotiations to be held in the next weeks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the next step should be to establish a permanent peace in the region. Now, it will be much easier for Turkey and Azerbaijan to open their closed borders with Armenia. To be sure, this will boost economic integration of Armenia with Azerbaijan and Turkey, bolstering its economic development. Involvement of regional powers like Russia and Iran in this kind of initiatives is also a sine qua non for the achievement of a sustainable peace in the region.

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Eastern Europe

The Stewards of Hate

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A big bear is rattling the open door of his cage.  He cannot abide a NATO spear in his belly.  Hence Valdimir Putin’s demand for Ukraine to remain out of it, and for the military alliance to stop its advance into eastern Europe.

For 72 years until 1991, Ukraine was a republic of the Soviet Union, and before that for centuries an oblast of the Imperial Russian empire.  In 1939, parts belonging to Poland were annexed.

It was during the breakup of Russia following an independence referendum that Ukraine opted to separate.  But NATO is another story.  After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact (NATO’s eastern counterpart), Russia had expected the West to do the same.  Instead, NATO became a US fig leaf for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Apparently, everyone in the world saw through this — except the US — as it embroiled itself in both countries, and the bill for the misadventures rocketed from $80 billion to an estimated $5 trillion.

The EU, a path to riches for East Europeans, is a Ukrainian dream, and Russian troops the reality when they wake up.  Such are the facts, no matter how much the Ukrainians are trying to ignore them. 

If the powerful Russian bear is the Ukrainian bete noire, its polar opposite is the case in India.  A powerful Hindutva movement abhors the Muslim minority.  It blames them for India’s problems, very much akin to the situation for Jews in pre-WW2 Germany.  Not unsurprisingly given the roots of the RSS, which modeled itself after the Nazis, instituting uniforms and drills.  A former member assassinated Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims.  Post independence, the RSS was banned by India’s first government which was led by Jawaharlal Nehru, a secular socialist.

The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a former RSS pracharak —  that is an active member who devotes himself full time to promoting RSS doctrine and, like a missionary, in seeking new members.  As an ambitious politician, he shed RSS ties when he entered politics and as leader expresses the wish for unity — sentiments not shared by his BHP colleagues.

There is the yogi elected chief minister of India’s largest state, and his undisguised derogatory opinions of Muslims.  Worse, at a political event at the end of December, leaders called openly for the killing of Muslims, and India’s leaders kept silent.  After general social media outrage at the speeches, the police  finally registered a case against some of the speakers for ‘promoting hatred between religious groups.’

Videos show many of the speakers are prominent religious leaders often present with senior ministers in the BJP government.  Imagine, calling for genocide in 2021.  The world reacted to the effort to eliminate Tutsis in Rwanda where it also began with reviling and dehumanization.  Genocide and even incitement to genocide is a crime.  Hence the prosecutions.  Incitement to genocide is recognized as a separate crime under international law and an inchoate crime which does not require genocide to have taken place to be prosecutable.

The founders of post-independence India, Gandhi and Nehru who took pride in being secular, must be in agony over international outlaws wanting to become the stewards of their child.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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