This month marks the first anniversary of the ceasefire in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the second between the two countries over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the southern Caucasus.
The first war ended in 1994, also with a ceasefire. Then the two sides agreed that the United States, France and Russia would co-chair a negotiation process for a lasting solution.
In 2012, I was asked to be the representative of the United States in this process. Although the official mandate of the post sets out the basic principles of any solution – among other things, that any peacekeeping force would be multilateral – I found that there were unwritten agreements as well. One of them was that Moscow and Washington had agreed that the peacekeeping force would not include the two superpowers. The belligerents have also accepted this. I discovered this before one of my first negotiation meetings, when a senior Azerbaijani official pulled me aside and told me that allowing Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh would be a “red line” for them too, because, as he put it, “once the Russians the peacekeepers arrive, they never leave.” (No doubt Georgia and Moldova, where Russian peacekeepers became occupiers, would agree.)
And yet last year’s ceasefire was only negotiated by Russia, and the resulting peacekeeping force includes only Russian troops.
How did this complete marginalization of Washington and Paris come about? One of the reasons is the Kremlin’s constant desire to reaffirm Russian hegemony over what it sees as its historic lands and to downplay Western involvement in the region.
But there is another reason: the reluctance of the White House and the Elysee to engage in the mediation process. Before the most recent conflict erupted, American and French diplomats had tried for years to involve their own leaders in getting the presidents of the two warring parties to make peace, but successive American and French administrations refused to do it. President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump were unwilling to engage in the kind of cajoling necessary to reach a deal. They each apparently believed that the US president should only participate in a final signing ceremony.
The third of the three initial co-chairs, however, was ready to jump into negotiations. Over the past decade, Putin has hosted Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents virtually every year.
So when war broke out in 2020, Only Putin was ready to put all his weight to stop the fighting. (Turkey notably supplied revolutionary high-tech weapons to Azerbaijan during the war, and now has officers in an observation post.) Paris and Washington, having mostly outsourced conflict resolution to Moscow, could only express relief at the end of the fighting and the resulting Russian peacekeeping force, even though Putin had excluded them from the process.
Russia is now in the driver’s seat like never before. It has troops on the ground in the three Caucasian countries, two with the consent of the host (Armenia and Azerbaijan) and one without (Georgia). Moscow is also pushing for a new multilateral mechanism for the region, called “3 + 3Which would include the Caucasian states plus three illiberal (and former imperial) powers, Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Azerbaijan is ready to participate in this new mechanism, designed primarily to establish new north-south trade routes across the region. Georgia, with 20 percent of its land under Russian occupation, and Armenia, with its border disputes with Azerbaijan, have not said they will participate, although both have expressed openness to considering new economic initiatives for the region. Trade has long been blocked in the region by embargoes due to conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia.
Why should the West care? First, there are the realities of hard power: Azerbaijan and Georgia have been strong supporters of a southern Caspian Basin energy corridor, avoiding other major Central Asian oil and gas exits. , via Russia and Iran. Giving these countries more opportunities to access Western trade and investment would weaken the economic power of Moscow and Tehran, and therefore their ability to finance misdeeds abroad. Security guarantees are also needed to deter the Russian military: in 2011 then-President Dmitry Medvedev admitted that Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 to prevent it, along with other former states. Soviets, to join NATO.
These are not the only reasons. Although the three Caucasian countries, all former members of the Soviet Union, are states in their own right, they are not completely outside of Moscow’s orbit, still subject to Russia’s use of threats. and embargoes to limit their sovereignty. The United States and the European Union support the trio’s desire for independence. Two of them, Armenia and Georgia, have Western orientations, having concluded free trade agreements with the EU (Georgia also wants to join the EU and NATO).
Moscow’s efforts could shift the Caucasus from an east-west to a north-south axis, and once new trade routes are established, Russia will have the kind of influence over the Caucasus that it still has. shown that it is ready to use in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and elsewhere. Time and time again, the Kremlin has exploited its straddling position on pipelines and land routes to punish countries that dare to reorient themselves towards the West.
Yet, aside from the bleak prospects of NATO and EU membership, the West has not offered many alternatives to 3 + 3. A sub-regional group that connects the countries of the Baltic, the Adriatic and the Black Sea, called the Three Seas Initiative, only includes EU members. Ukraine and Georgia, both aspiring to join the EU and NATO, are left out of these closed geopolitical communities and therefore are easy choices for Russia.
NATO, which has three members bordering the Black Sea, has started to pay more attention to the security of the Black Sea. He must do more. Although it has considerably improved the security of the Baltic by devoting defensive means to the region, there is a major security breach around the Black Sea. Russia regularly threatens NATO’s maritime and air rights with impunity and illegally claims international waters, or internationally recognized Ukrainian waters, as Russian.
However, they are small and narrow groupings, and present little economic, cultural or political support. By failing to offer realistic alternatives to Russia-centric economic and security mechanisms, the West has left another region at the mercy of a predatory power and has helped create another area of instability. The West must step up its diplomatic game before the region slips further under the waves of Russia’s illiberal hegemony.