Overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the South Caucasus is witnessing huge developments which could potentially decrease tensions between Armenia on the one hand and Turkey and Azerbaijan on the other. The process might also critically affect Russia’s position in the region and may even give some momentum to the West’s ambivalent policy.
Historical rivals, Armenia and Azerbaijan, are edging closer to a comprehensive agreement on solving fundamental issues which have hampered rapprochement for at least three decades.
The process now revolves around major Azeris’ proposals for a peace deal, including the recognition of each other’s territorial integrity. This would require Armenian acceptance that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan, the cause of wars in 1992-94 and in 2020. If signed, this would amount to a revolutionary change from the traditional Armenian position.
The Armenian leadership’s overall response was positive, though it will seek additional stipulations. Among these will be acceptance by Azerbaijan of a wide range of cultural rights for Armenians, perhaps including officially recognized autonomy. Though the Azeris are unlikely to agree to this, lesser demands on cultural rights are indeed possible.
This Armenian position builds on earlier, somewhat ambivalent statements and bilateral meetings with Azerbaijani leaders carefully indicating that the country might be willing to change its traditional policy. This amounts to a profound, though deeply painful realization by the Armenian leadership, that the balance of power has irrevocably shifted, and not in Armenia’s favor.
The alternative to a deal is a policy of open, long-term revanchism. But there are significant gains to be had from a deal. Establishing positive ties with Azerbaijan could end Armenia’s economic isolation and would likely feed similar positive developments in Turkey ties. After 30 years of hostility, an improvement with its large western neighbor would lead to the eventual re-establishment of diplomatic to the allure of improved economic ties. The pay-off could be significant — Armenian goods would have a better and shorter route to European markets, and vice versa.
The changes could pave the way for the region-wide changes. In the longer-term Armenia’s northward dependence on Russia would gradually be diluted. The east-west economic ties would be at least as powerful as those on its current north-south trade axis.
This would not mean an end to Russian influence and importance, but it would create a more even redistribution of power, whereby the Kremlin would lose its preponderant position. Turkey could become as influential as Russia – a notable shift from the era of exclusivity.
The geopolitics of the South Caucasus are shifting. There is greater competition for influence, with powers contesting if not for primacy, then for a more even distribution of influence. Turkey and to a lesser degree, Iran see the region as a natural historical hinterland. And historical legacies continue to shape the policies of these former imperial powers.
Furthermore, trade and transport patterns are also likely to change. The routes through Georgia will no longer serve as the only solution. For Turkey, options to reach the Caspian Sea will multiply, and possibly open the way to securing critical energy sources for its economy from gas producers around the sea.
These developments are not in any way a dagger aimed at Russia, but they should feel uncomfortable. Its position in the region is increasingly reliant on the military element, through garrisons in all the three South Caucasus countries. Distracted they may be by the so-far unsuccessful war in Ukraine, but President Putin and his aides still possess some tools to derail peace prospects.
But Russia may nonetheless reap what it has sowed in the South Caucasus. If it is no longer the security guarantor for Armenia (it did precious little to help in the 2020 war) and it is no longer the best outlet for trade, then why have Russian troops in Armenia at all? And why would Azerbaijan continue to accept Russian peacekeepers on its territory?
This is an unenviable situation for the Kremlin. It is waging a major war to secure the illusion of a “near abroad” beholden to its wishes, and while its back is turned, other borderland countries are thinking about how to ease its grip over their futures. If anything was needed to show the futility of Russia’s approach to its immediate neighborhood, the South Caucasus would be the prime example.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
Zelenskyy Could and Does Make Mistakes Too
The war in Ukraine has transformed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from a rather weak leader to a world-renowned one who has become a household name. Now a celebrity president, Zelenskyy has been delivering war aid and inspiring speeches on social media, while condemning Russia.
Although Zelenskyy has successfully created a positive image and has countless fans, he is not a god and might make mistakes.
Mariupol has been a hotspot of the war in Ukraine, a city trapped in Russian military territory and embattled on all sides. At the same time, an isolated Ukrainian garrison, which includes part of the Azov fighters that Russia calls “Nazis” and wants to eliminate.
The challenge is that the geopolitically savvy Russian President Vladimir Putin knows very well how to manipulate Mariupol’s garrison to create geopolitical opportunities. Therefore, he ordered not to attack the Azov steel plant in Mariupol but to use them as a bargaining chip. Shortly thereafter, then came the decisive moment. After more than 80 days of unexpectedly heroic fighting, the Ukrainian garrison finally ran out of ammunition and food. At the last minute, even their wives begged the Pope to intervene, hoping to save their lives.
If Putin agrees in good faith to stop the attacks on the Ukrainian garrison, further peace talks are possible. The world will take note of this, and Turkey is willing to provide ships and security to pick up the Ukrainian garrison of the steel plant, ensuring that they would not return to the front until the war is over.
At noon on May 16, the last chance came. The Azov regiment commander Denis Prokopenko, who is often engaged in media coverage, said that the Ukrainian garrison in the Azovstal factory had completed their task and successfully distracted the Russian army for 82 days and attracted a large number of Russian forces. His statement appeared to announce the end of the siege of the steel plant. On the same day, Russian media also mentioned that Russia and Ukraine had reached an agreement to evacuate seriously wounded soldiers from Azovstal to the Russian-occupied city of Novoazovsk. Reuters reported that about a dozen buses carrying the Ukrainian garrison had left the factory.
The world believes that negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to withdraw the garrison from the Azov steel plant appear to have achieved some kind of result.
On May 17, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces first issued a statement saying that the Mariupol garrison “has completed its combat mission”. The commander of the Ukrainian army unit defending the Azovstal steel plant received an order from the highest military command “to save the lives of personnel”, the statement stated. The Ukrainian General Staff stated that 53 seriously wounded soldiers have been taken to medical facilities in Novoazovsk. Another 211 defenders have been sent to Olenivka through humanitarian channels and will be returned to government-controlled territory through a prisoner-of-war exchange process, and measures are currently being taken to rescue the other defenders who are still at the Azovstal steel plant.
Somewhat subtly, Azov regiment commander Denis Prokopenko said in a video statement that his soldiers succeeded in distracting the overwhelming enemy force, which allows the rest of the Ukrainian forces to restructure. He however also pointed out that, “the main thing is to realize whether all the risks have been calculated, whether Plan B has been worked out, whether you have fully dedicated yourself to this plan, which should combine fulfilling the task and ultimately preserve lives and health of personnel”.
Prokopenko also emphasized that, “war is art, not science”. “This is the highest level of command and control of troops, especially when your decision is approved by the top military leadership”.
Later on May 17, Zelenskyy said that “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive”. He also mentioned “thanks to the actions of the Ukrainian military – the Armed Forces of Ukraine, intelligence, the negotiating team, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations, we hope that we will be able to save the lives of our guys,” Zelenskyy said further, recalling that among them were seriously wounded soldiers, to whom medical assistance is now being provided. He also stressed this point, “I want to emphasize: Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive. This is our principle. I think that every adequate person will understand these words”.
Up until this point, I believe most people still think that the Ukraine-Russia talks are going well and executed.
Inexplicably, the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister states that Russia would not implement the agreed agreements. Then, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko revealed “negotiations between Russia and Ukraine are not going on anymore,” accusing Ukraine of not agreeing to Russia’s conditions. Since then, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian President’s Office, confirmed that the talks have been suspended. The risks that what Prokopenko, the commander of the Ukrainian Azov regiment, feared most have fully emerged.
Negotiations between Ukraine and the Russia are currently on hold. Mikhail Podolyak, adviser to the Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian President, mentioned on Ukrainian TV. “Russia does not understand that the war is no longer waged according to the rules, schedule or plans of Russia in any sense, while the professional resistance of Ukraine only ramps up”. He firmly stressed that none of Russia’s goals can be achieved, and Ukraine will not trade territory for peace with Russia. “It is ideologically unacceptable for us to give something to the Russian Federation and pretend that it was some kind of easy war,” Podolyak said further. “We cannot afford any Minsk agreements. Therefore, we must de-occupy all our territories”. He said that a new Minsk agreement could be signed by another president, but not President, as it would only worsen the conflict in the next one or two years.
His remarks seemed to imply that President Zelenskyy rejected Russia’s negotiating terms and insisted on fighting to the end. The challenge is that the successive surrender of the Azovstal’s regiment has become unmanageable.
The Ukrainian garrison that was originally besieged by the Russians at the Azovstal steel plant has surrendered. Instead of being exchanged back to Ukraine, they were evacuated to areas controlled by Russian forces and pro-Russian armed forces. A Russian negotiator even called for the Ukrainians to be sentenced to death because “they do not deserve to live”. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Ukrainian soldiers and the regiment surrounded by the Azov steel plant in Mariupol are still coming out to surrender. On May 18, 694 people surrendered, 29 of whom were wounded. Since May 16, the total number of surrendered Ukrainian garrison has reached 959, including 80 wounded.
As it stands, information on the entire negotiation over Azov steel plant is not transparent and deliberately fabricated or modified.
For example, who rejected Turkey’s participation? Was it Russia or Ukraine? Turkey has provided security, so is there no security in the negotiations now? Did the Ukrainian garrison want to surrender and Zelenskyy had to agree to surrender, or did the negotiations go wrong? Did the Ukrainian negotiators advocate for a deal with Russia, or did Russia later tear up the deal and frame the Ukrainian military presence? Did Russia tear up the deal because Zelenskyy refused to continue the negotiations?
None of these questions have clear answers. The only certainty is that Russia and Ukraine did negotiate, but no agreement is reached. However, the Azov steel plant militants had begun to surrender in large numbers.
Amidst such confusion, Zelenskyy is now having a hard time explaining that he had nothing to do with it. The Modern War Institute took note of the confusion in this diplomatic negotiation and can only assert that a diplomatic agreement has been reached.
So far, Zelenskyy has provided no further explanation for the negotiations, and this is unfair to the Mariupol garrison. Zelenskyy should instead make use of existing resources to achieve better conditions. From the negotiation process, he did not do so. Whatever his decision might be, there will certainly be negative impacts on Ukrainian society and even the morale of the garrison. Part of the reason apparently has to do with his overly optimistic view of the war in Ukraine.
All the chaos came at a price, the Russians continue to bomb the Azov steel plant simply because the Azovstal regiment is still fighting there.
A Weapon of War: Rapes in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict
Warfare has always involved violent activity. It is the state-sanctioned, societally accepted form of murder determining which nation-state or non-state actor has power over an enemy. Like any area of society, however, warfare is governed by a series of laws and regulations (commonly known as the Law of Land Warfare) being codified in international law in 1899, 1907, and 1929 and by individual nation-states afterward. While these rules are often followed by at least one entity in a military conflict, there usually is a violation of the Law of Land Warfare in any military action.
While every violation is incredibly serious and important, one that often stands out in military conflicts is sexual assault or rape.
While it is one of (if not the) most abhorrent criminal actions known to man, rape has and always will be a commonality in warfare and violent conflicts. It is practically as old as warfare itself. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “… [wartime] rape was long considered an unfortunate but inevitable accompaniment of war—the result of the prolonged sexual deprivation of troops and insufficient military discipline” with the Second World War being a prime example of wartime rape on both sides of the conflict. Until the prevalence of international law in the late 20th century, wartime rape was “mischaracterized and dismissed by military and political leaders—in other words, those in a position to stop it—as a private crime, a sexual act, the ignoble conduct of one occasional soldier, or, worse still, it has been accepted precisely because it is so commonplace”, according to academics writing in Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS Review of International Affairs.
Partly due to an increase in unconventional conflicts involving non-state actors, “the international community began to recognize rape as a weapon and strategy of war, and efforts were made to prosecute such acts under existing international law” including Article 27 of the Geneva Convention and multiple declarations by the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights, the Fourth World Conference on Women, the International Criminal Court, and the UN Security Council. These declarations and codifications further allowed for the protection of men, women, and children in combat zones from rape in addition to making crimes of sexual assault eligible to be considered as crimes against humanity or war crimes.
While international law is clear and the penalties for such actions heavy, nation-states and non-state actors can choose to disregard such laws. This is best exemplified in the current era with the Ukraine-Russia Conflict.
While most persons first heard of the rape of Ukrainians by Russian troops in mid to late April of 2022, roughly two months into the invasion, reports and developments on wartime rape by Russian troops was circulating heavily. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), looking at information received and vetted between the 22nd of February and 26th of March, reported there were “heightened risks of conflict related sexual violence (CRSV)” in addition to “a high number of women and girls [who are feeling Ukraine] face high risk of human trafficking and sexual exploitation”. While these reports were based on secondary sources or “made by alleged witnesses”, it is worth noting that Ukrainian law enforcement and the Prosecutor General of Ukraine all began investigating multiple reports of sexual assault of Ukrainians by Russian troops and that, generally, victims of rape may not report for a variety of reasons.
Other international entities, including Human Rights Watch, the New York Times, and BBC News, all reported further allegations of rape by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, yet these were relatively overshadowed by the news of active combat.
One of the first major outlets to report on this was The Guardian on 4 April 2022 which documented reports from victims and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on rape in Ukraine. Interviewing Kateryna Cherepakha, the president of sexual assault charity La Strada Ukraine, “We have had several calls to our emergency hotline from women and girls seeking assistance, but in most cases it’s been impossible to help them physically. We haven’t been able to reach them because of the fighting … Rape is an underreported crime and stigmatised issue even in peaceful times. I am worried that what we learn about is just going to be the tip of the iceberg”.
Throughout April and into May, rapes in Ukraine were reported on more heavily as victims, Ukrainian officials, and every day Ukrainians were speaking up. This drew the attention of many international entities including the International Criminal Court which launched “a war crimes investigation”, citing the rapes as being a key piece of evidence, and the European Parliament which condemned the use of rape as a weapon. The UN’s special representative on sexual violence in war also received “reports, not yet verified” concerning the sexual assault of men and boys throughout Ukraine stating “It’s hard for women and girls to report [rape] because of stigma amongst other reasons, but it’s often even harder for men and boys to report … we have to create that safe space for all victims to report cases of sexual violence”. The UN as a whole has demanded the allegations “be independently investigated to ensure justice and accountability”.
Throughout this military endeavor, Russia has denied allowing the rape of civilians (or any such war crimes) to occur, these denials being bolstered by various American and Western podcasters and questionable news sites. While Russia and other Putin apologists can try to deny such war crimes or illegal violations of the law of land warfare is taking place, others experienced in the field of sexual assault and human rights have contested this. Hugh Williamson with Human Rights Watch (HRW), speaking to CBC Radio, said HRW was “being very cautious … It’s taken us some time to piece it together, to make sure we are absolutely sure it is true and verifiable. We’re not saying this is very widespread, but we worry that it could be”.
While it is still quite difficult to ascertain what exactly is occurring in Ukraine, given the fact that a full on war is being exercised, it is likely to believe that some manner of war crimes, including sexual assault, is occurring. The fact that Russia has historically engaged in misinformation campaigns, knowingly spread false information in regards to the Ukraine crisis, and in the past engaged in war crimes throughout Eastern Europe in the post-Cold War era all indicate strongly that Russia can and will do whatever possible to try and conceal any negative news or obscure any real actions occurring.
Looking at this from a legal perspective, the case for Russian culpability in regards to war crimes and particularly sexual assaults in Ukraine is already being made. With the UN’s special representative on sexual violence in war accurately asserting “Today’s documentation is tomorrow’s prosecution”, proving such crimes will be difficult. Speaking to Dara Kay Cohen, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, NPR reported, “It is very rare to ever have smoking gun evidence that rape was ordered from the top down … There is some degree of accountability, but it is rare. But I think that that does not imply, however, that we shouldn’t be doing our best to collect all of the documentation that we possibly can in order to potentially hold perpetrators accountable”.
Proving or disproving sexual assault in wartime is a difficult task, even more so given the fact that the armed conflict is still occurring. It is without question that there is animosity between the Western world and Russia, which makes there a certain degree of speculation about how prevalent these assaults are. However, at this point, one must look at the facts on the ground.
It is very well documented that multiple Ukrainians are reporting assaults from a wide variety of locations and their stories all follow a similar tone common in military conflicts. The forensic information already collected by independent Ukrainian doctors, prosecutors, and the UN who examine the bodies of those deceased indicates multiple assaults by Russian troops. Intercepted telephone calls from the family of Russian soldiers to the soldiers currently taking part in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also indicate a condoning of such illegal and brutal activities.
At this point, it is undeniable that these reports are impossible to ignore with the forensic, eyewitness, technical, and historical evidence all painting a sinister picture of rape in Ukraine.
The Media Fog of War: Propaganda in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict
The current conflict between Russia and Ukraine has once again opened up the old wounds of east vs. west, continuing the long-established tradition of distrust and sometimes even open hatred from these two centers of power. This can be seen across the spectrum of media outlets in the west along with their counterparts in the east, as both sides push forth propaganda and favorable coverage so as to always show their side in a favorable light. With western media outlets, their coverage of the war has been very positive for the Ukrainians while showing the exact opposite when considering Russians. Western media quickly picks up Ukrainian propaganda pieces and repeats them for their audiences at home, who then take to social media to gloat over Russian losses and embarrassments.
Stories like the “Ghost of Kyiv,” the Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island, and others which have later proven to be inaccurate or not based in truth spread like wildfire across media outlets (Thompson, New York Times, Washington Post, etc). Certainly, a story about a Ukrainian fighter pilot shooting down several Russian jets is noteworthy and a country facing assaults from a greater power needs to boost morale every chance it gets. However, the willingness to circulate the Ghost of Kyiv tale across western media outlets displayed a clear bias for the Ukrainian side of the war in the west and, even though many have poked holes in the myth of this mysterious fighter pilot, people still disregard its “fake newsiness.” Thompson pointed out that some users on social media shared a willingness to believe in the propaganda, even knowing that it was made up: “if the Russians believe it, it brings fear. If the Ukrainians believe it, it gives them hope,” remarked one user on Twitter. This set a dangerous precedent as truth became a casualty in the war in favor of people wanting to simply find stories that would support their favored narrative and consequently ignore more accurate reporting.
Propaganda can be a useful tool for any country fighting to protect itself, but it can also lead to the spreading of falsehoods abroad and even lead some westerners to become inspired to take up arms in a conflict they probably should not get embedded within. Over 20,000 foreign fighters have signed up to fight for Ukraine in an International Brigade after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a call for help. Many of these people have little to no combat experience but were persuaded to fight for Ukraine so that they could be on “the right side of history” or combat injustice in a conflict that has been lauded as a brave underdog battle between the aggressor state Russia – longtime enemy of the west – and the small “noble” nation of Ukraine (Llana, Christian Science Monitor). Propaganda tales amplified by the media are largely responsible for bringing these foreign soldiers into a complex situation that they are not prepared for, ultimately risking an exacerbation of the war rather than a resolution of the conflict.
Stories like these have fortified in the minds of western audiences a strong dislike for Russia, its citizens, and its military. On social media channels, people were quick to put up symbols associated with Ukraine, most commonly, the Ukrainian flag, to show their support for its struggle as many, especially those in America, seemed to instinctively root for any underdog in a war. Support for Ukraine, though, naturally leads to discrimination toward Russians. Disregard for the suffering of Russian soldiers, a willingness to ignore the reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the ostracizing of Russian citizens from the rest of the world – whether physically via travel or economically via sanctions – will have negative repercussions for the international community for years to come. Many celebrate every victory that Ukraine scores against Russia, heedless of the human cost of the war in general. This may very well deepen the divide between east and west before the war ends and force many average Russian citizens into a retributive hatred for those in Europe and North America who treated their country so harshly when they themselves were powerless to stop or prevent the Ukraine-Russia war.
Russian businesses have also been subject to discrimination in the west. Companies like Starbucks, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Electric and McDonald’s all announced that they were temporarily suspending their operations in Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine (Williams, Fox10 Phoenix). Sanctions laid down on Russia in an effort to stagnate its economy also extend to banks, legislators, and even oligarchs but will leave a much more powerful and profound effect on the general populace. This punishment will trickle down to Russian citizenry who have played no part in the conflict at all but will suffer the most from these economic sanctions, simply because they live in the aggressor country.
This negativity against Russia and its people already existed prior to the Ukrainian-Russian war, but was reignited by the conflict. Many people in the west find it easy to fall into the camp of attacking the long-standing “enemy” due to the history left behind by the Cold War, by the psychologically-imprinted suspicion of those across the sea who threatened us with nuclear weapons for so long. In places like the U.S., there almost seems to exist a willingness to not hear the other side’s point of view, a refusal to acknowledge the sufferings of very human foes who are not so different from their adversaries. The question of why many Americans would even feel the need to take a position in a conflict that has little bearing on their everyday lives could have more than one answer. The need to cheer on an underdog in a pitched struggle, the old hatred left over by the Cold War, or possibly a need to satisfy the age-old good guy vs. bad guy complex which has been hardwired into many people’s minds through television, movies, literature, and other parts of our pop culture. For many, there exists a need to satisfy one’s own moral superiority, a need to establish good from evil. The recent conflict between Ukraine and Russia has given many the outlet they seek for this vindication.
The question of whether this treatment of Russia is justified or not lies primarily with an individual’s perception of the country as a belligerent at the international level or a nation trying to clearly define where its sphere of influence begins and ends. Russia invading Ukraine and starting a war rife with human tragedy on both sides was not done simply because Russia as a state is a villain or it gets its kicks by starting wars randomly. A deeper examination of the “whys” surrounding Russia’s invasion is desperately needed, where the proffered reasons are given legitimate analytical consideration. So far, this type of analysis has not been done. Ultimately, why it matters is because reaching into that understanding may help prevent a country like Russia in the future from feeling the need to invade at all.
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