By Erica Marat and Johan Engvall
May 12, 2022
For many of Russia’s neighbors, the war in Ukraine has accelerated the process of breaking out of Moscow’s orbit and abandoning loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. While governments from Moldova and Georgia to Kazakhstan are distancing themselves from Putin’s offensive in Ukraine, the war is also prompting a deeper reexamination of the meaning of the past in former Soviet territories. The idea of “brotherly nations” promoted by the Soviets is now overshadowed by the notion that Soviet Russia may have never pursued true equality with its neighbors—not now, nor a century ago when the Soviet empire was established through mass violence.
Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is becoming just another neighbor in the eyes of Kazakhs, Georgians, Moldovans, and others.
Several governments have shown greater independence from Moscow than expected. Last month, Kazakhstan declared it wouldn’t hold a military parade to celebrate the Soviet interpretation of its World War II victory. Earlier, Kazakhstan reportedly also refused Russia’s request to supply troops in Ukraine. Both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan expanded cooperation in rerouting energy supplies to Europe bypassing Russia. As explained by the Kazakh deputy foreign minister, “If there is a new Iron Curtain, we do not want to be behind it.”
The more a country is politically free and allows space for the critical reappraisal of its past, the less its public is likely to support Russia’s regional dominance.
Long-serving Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov spoke out in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. Perhaps due to political pressure from Russia, he was later removed from his position and appointed to another post. Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister was sacked as well—likely because of insufficient public support of Russia’s war.
In Moldova, which depends on Russian energy supplies and hosts hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, President Maia Sandu said her government is following Russia’s actions in Transnistria with “caution and vigilance.” A few days after the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Moldova applied for European Union membership, along with Georgia and Ukraine. Both Moldova and Georgia face Russian occupation of parts of their territories (Transnistria as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, respectively), which they don’t recognize as legitimate.
Acts of everyday resistance to Russia’s war in Ukraine in Central Asia and the South Caucasus vary from small businesses posting “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine!) next to their products and civil society groups collecting humanitarian aid for Ukraine to members of the public wearing yellow and blue: the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The Russian war symbols Z and V are rare or banned by the state.
Seeing the Soviet regime as a colonialist government both unites nations around a joint history of trauma and builds resistance to Russian attempts to subjugate them. Russian modern imperial ambitions in Ukraine or Georgia look offensive in these countries. The more a country is politically free and allows space for the critical reappraisal of its past, the less its public is likely to support Russia’s regional dominance.
In Kazakhstan, a critical look at its history of mass starvation that killed millions of people have now spilled from academic discussions into the public. In Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, historians and activists now openly blame the Soviet regime for purging national elites. In Ukraine, a sharp turn against alignment with Russia in 2014 came as Moscow annexed Crimea and the occupied Donbas.
Reexamining the Soviet past is taking place despite the fact that most international scholarship still sees the Soviet empire as a modernizing power of a backward people, especially in Central Asia. The seeming equality among nations of the empire and its anti-capitalist stance earned a large following among the anticolonial left in both the West and especially in formerly colonized countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The war in Ukraine is revealing the human costs of the empire’s expansion today even in the face of grassroots resistance. Like Putin’s increasing control of Russia today, the Soviet system was totalitarian, controlling the everyday lives of its people and superimposing Russian culture on all ethnic groups.Distancing themselves from a romanticized view of their Soviet pasts, these societies are now generating pressure for political change at home—challenging the type of post-Soviet authoritarian leadership model that has been common across the region and has its roots in totalitarian rule. In the past several years, protesters in Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Ukraine demanded reforms to post-Soviet state institutions, such as police and intelligence services that are designed to serve the political elite and not citizens.
Anti-regime collective mobilization is a sign of a more politically engaged society that expects participation in decision-making and free elections. Ukraine’s resistance to Russian occupation is the ultimate example of how domestic pro-democracy mobilization rejects authoritarian rule.
In the face of this tide of new expectations, incumbent autocratic leaders are increasingly in peril. For example, in Russia’s closest ally, Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko only managed to survive a prolonged popular uprising in the fall of 2020 once he received support from Putin. Lukashenko was able to suppress the protests, but the collective grievances of Belarus’s society have not been solved. In the early days of the invasion, Belarusian railway workers sabotaged Russia’s supply of equipment to Ukraine. The brave act damaged Russian logistics, preventing the Kremlin from moving troops and materiel forward.
Kazakhstan’s political setup is similar to Russia’s—a president sits at the top of a pyramid of power, doling out posts and assets to allies in return for loyalty and a cut of the spoils. But following Kazakhstan’s nationwide uprising in January, the country faces the test of transforming into a more representative political system. Despite decades of authoritarianism, citizens mobilized in historic protests to demand better economic opportunities and the end of the president’s unlimited political power. Many in Kazakhstan’s uprising were young people of the same age as the independent state itself. They now see themselves as agents of change, willing to risk more than their parents could stomach.
Moscow’s ability to influence national decision-making processes in former Soviet territories appears to be waning. Despite Moscow’s objections, Russian only remains a state language in Belarus, although it retains the status of an official language in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet in the early 1990s while Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are at different stages of the same transition.
Only four countries have joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, and the intergovernmental military alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has six members, Russia included. Both of these Russian-led organizations are likely to become ever more unpopular among political incumbents and the public. Even after the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan in January, which helped President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev secure his hold on power, the Kazakh government has shown greater opposition to Moscow’s war than expected.
Russian political influence is also declining because Russian culture is losing its dominant position and has to compete with other worldviews for the hearts and minds of younger generations. These more diverse generations are formed by domestic as well as foreign influences, whether from Turkey, the Persian Gulf, or Europe. Traditional and nationalist-oriented values tend to resonate in more rural areas while liberal ideas and values are usually concentrated in urban centers. Large pro-Ukraine protests were held in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova. Even in countries like Kyrgyzstan, where the government banned antiwar protests, a few brave activists still filled the streets.
Rather than be pawns that are moved around on the Kremlin’s chessboard, Russia’s neighbors are increasingly turning into active players in the international arena.
Separation from Russia does not necessarily mean these countries will seek a closer alignment with the West. Political incumbents in Central Asia and the South Caucasus may be more inclined to seek closer ties with China and Turkey. Countries that depend on Russia’s political and military support—notably Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—may still show careful support of close ties with Moscow. But even there, political leaders shied away from publicly siding with Putin’s rhetoric of “denazification” in Ukraine. The unpredictable consequences of Russia’s war might leave these states no other choice but to diversify their diplomatic relations.
Rather than be pawns that are moved around on the Kremlin’s chessboard, Russia’s neighbors are increasingly turning into active players in the international arena—and have not hesitated to play external powers against one another to extract maximum benefits. They prefer to maintain ties with many regional powers; Russia is becoming just another neighbor, along with the EU, China, Turkey, and Iran.
In that way, Central Asian countries are becoming more like other countries in Asia and Africa—searching for multilateralism rather than solely attaching themselves to one actor: Russia. The ability of these states to resist Moscow’s pressure to support the invasion of Ukraine would not have been possible without their long-standing efforts to preserve their sovereignty and identity themselves by diversifying their diplomatic alliances.
To understand the effectiveness of Russian power in the former Soviet space, it is no longer sufficient just to know the Kremlin’s intent. Former Soviet colonies are on the verge of breaking away from the last remaining legacies of Soviet rule. The war in Ukraine points at the need to consider countries formerly occupied by the Soviet regime as entities with their own complex domestic processes despite Russia’s efforts to direct and dominate them.
Many citizens of former Soviet states in Central Asia and the South Caucasus now see Russia as a belligerent neighbor engaging in genocidal violence rather than as an historic ally. Time is thus not on the side of Putin’s imperialistic and nationalist crusade to reassert Russia’s exclusive control over its neighboring countries—because Moscow’s neighborhood is no longer a collection of its former colonial subjects.
Meet the talented speakers for each of our Forum panels below!
We are honored to have 30 distinguished panelists and moderators joining us next week from across the CAMCA region and beyond. Our panels are comprised of CEOs, CFOs, Chairmen, Directors, Senior Fellows, Acting Presidents, Deputy Ministers, Director Generals, Founders and more. We look forward to hearing their important insights surrounding this year's theme: "Economic Prospects of the CAMCA Region."
(All times EST)
MONDAY, JUNE 21st
“New Opportunities Across CAMCA” - Welcome & Remarks by Dr. Svante Cornell Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, American Foreign Policy Council
Panel Discussion - “New Regionalism in Central Asia and Its Challenges”
Dr. S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, AFPC
Dennis de Tray, Board Member and Adviser to the President, Nazarbayev University
Dr. Subir Lall, Deputy Director, Middle East and Central Asia Department, IMF
Dr. Eldor Aripov, Director, Institute for Strategic and Regional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan
Dr. Taleh Ziyadov, Director General, Baku International Sea Trade Port, Azerbaijan
Aziza Umarova, Co-Founder, SmartGov Consulting; CAMCA Network Member, Uzbekistan
TUESDAY, JUNE 22nd
Keynote Interview with Dr. Sergei Guriev, Professor of Economics & Scientific Director of the Master and PhD programmes in Economics, Sciences Po
Rakhim Oshakbayev, Director, Center of Applied Research “TALAP”; CAMCA Network Member, Kazakhstan
Panel Discussion - “U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan: What Does it Mean for Political and Economic Alignments in the Region?”
Michael Doran, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
Dr. Omar Sharifi, Country Director, American Institute of Afghanistan Studies; Assistant Professor of Social Sciences, American University of Afghanistan; CAMCA Network Member
Ikram Sehgal, Chairman, Pathfinder Group; Chairman, Karachi Council on Foreign Relations
Amb. Gautam Mukhopadhaya, Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi; former Ambassador of India to Afghanistan (2010-2013)
Alex Vatanka, Director of Iran Program and Senior Fellow, Frontier Europe Initiative, Middle East Institute
Iskander Akylbayev, Executive Director, Kazakhstan Council on International Relations; CAMCA Network Member
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 23rd
Keynote Interview with Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Chairman & CEO, EmPath; Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce
Samiullah Mahdi, Award-winning journalist and lecturer at Kabul University; CAMCA Network Member, Afghanistan
Panel Discussion - “Impediments to Foreign Investments in CAMCA: Real or Imaginary?”
Gaukhar Nurgalieva, Senior Advisor, FMA; CAMCA Network Member, Kazakhstan
Yernar Zharkeshov, Principal and Head of Eurasia, Whiteshield Partners; CAMCA Network Member, Kazakhstan
Yusif Abdullayev, Acting President of Azerbaijan Export and Investment Promotion Foundation (AZPROMO)
Dulguun Baasandavaa, Deputy Chairman, National Development Agency of Mongolia; CAMCA Network Member
Baurzhan Kankin, Chairman, Social Entrepreneurship Corporation “Shymkent”
THURSDAY, JUNE 24th
Keynote Interview with Saad Mohseni, Chairman & CEO, MOBY Group, Afghanistan
Ali Aslan, International TV Presenter & Journalist Zoom
Panel Discussion - “Will a New Entrepreneurial Class Drive CAMCA Economies?”
Zabihullah Ziarmal, Director General, Afghanistan National Standard Authority; Chairman, World Trade Centre Kabul Afghanistan; CAMCA Network Member
Valeri Chekheria, Serial entrepreneur and hotelier; Founder and CEO of Hospitality Projects; Adviser to the Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia
Abdullo Kurbanov, Co-founder and CEO, Alif Bank; CAMCA Network Member, Tajikistan
Khulan Davaadorj, Founder, Director and Chief Technologist, LHAMOUR LLC; CAMCA Network Member, Mongolia
Aziz Soltobaev, Founder, KG Labs Public Foundation; CAMCA Network Member, Kyrgyzstan
Abdulahad Badghisi, General Manager, Samarkand Bukhara Silk Carpet JV
FRIDAY, JUNE 25th
Keynote Interview with Douglas Becker, Founder & Chairman, CINTANA Education; Board Chair, International Youth Foundation
Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli, Senior Fellow, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, AFPC
Panel Discussion - “Can Education Systems of CAMCA Countries Adjust to New Labor Market Demands?”
Yernar Zharkeshov, Principal and Head of Eurasia, Whiteshield Partners; CAMCA Network Member, Kazakhstan
Dr. Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, University of Central Asia
Fariz Ismailzade, Executive Vice Rector, ADA University, Azerbaijan
Hikmat Abdurahmanov, Co-founder and CEO, TEAM University; Co-founder, HMPARTNERS; CAMCA Network Member, Uzbekistan
Talant Sultanov, Co-founder and Chair, Kyrgyz Chapter of the Internet Society; CAMCA Network Member, Kyrgyzstan
Dr. Irakli Laitadze, Chief Financial Officer, GMT Mtatsminda; Lecturer at Ilya State University in Tbilisi; CAMCA Network Member, Georgia
The Armenian-Azerbaijani Crisis
(Svante E. Cornell, October 30, 2020)
Transcript available below
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. His main areas of expertise are security issues, state-building, and transnational crime in Southwest and Central Asia, with a specific focus on the Caucasus and Turkey. He is the Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, the Joint Center’s bi-weekly publication, and of the Joint Center’s Silk Road Papers series of occasional papers.
Dr. Cornell is the author of four books, including Small Nations and Great Powers, the first comprehensive study of the post-Soviet conflicts in the Caucasus. His articles have appeared in numerous leading academic and journals such as World Politics, the Washington Quarterly, Current History, Journal of Democracy, Europe-Asia Studies, etc. His commentaries and op-eds appear occasionally in the U.S., European, and regional press.
Cornell is Associate Professor (Docent) in Government at Uppsala University and Associate Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Dr. Cornell holds a Ph.D. in Peace and Conflict Studies from Uppsala University, a B.Sc. with High Honor in International Relations from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, and an honorary doctoral degree from the Behmenyar Institute of Law and Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan. He is a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Military Science.
Listen to the podcast of Dr. Svante Cornell’s Westminster lecture on Apple iTunes.
Hello, I am Bob Reilly, the director of the Westminster Institute. Thank you for joining us for another one of our Zoom lectures during this curious time to which we are all living. We are particularly pleased to have a scholar speaking to us from Sweden today on the subject of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. He is Dr. Svante Cornell, who joined the American Foreign Policy Council as Senior Fellow for Eurasia in January 2017. He also serves as director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies program and he is a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy Stockholm. His main areas of expertise are security issues, state building, and transnational crime in Southwest and Central Asia with a specific focus on the Caucasus and Turkey.
He is the editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, the Joint Center’s bi-weekly publication and of the Joint Center’s Silk Road Papers, a series of occasional papers. Dr. Cornell is the author of four books, including Small Nations and Great Powers, the first comprehensive study of the post-Soviet conflicts in the Caucasus and Azerbaijan since independence.
Dr. Cornell is an associate research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He was educated at the Middle East Technical University. He received his Ph.D. in Peace and Conflict Studies from Uppsala University. He is a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Military Science and a Research Associate with the W. Martens Center for European Studies in Brussels. Formerly, Dr. Cornell served as Associate Professor of Government at Uppsala University, so I thank you so much, Dr. Cornell, for joining us to discuss this very difficult subject of what seems to be an intractable conflict. Thank you.
Well, thank you very much for having me. It is a pleasure. This is an issue that I have worked on for over twenty years and I will begin by saying that the fact that this conflict is now again in a phase of very hot military confrontation is really not very surprising. It is something that I wish to say I was the lone person predicting, unfortunately there were many more who predicted that this was a conflict that would eventually rekindle the way it has, and I think in order to understand this, I will just quickly go through a little bit of the background of this conflict and what what the issues are that are really at stake, how this conflict has evolved in the past three decades, especially focusing on what changed in the very recent past to get us to the point where we are today. We can also then, of course, talk about the implications of this current episode.
I guess I would start by saying that this is a conflict that really existed on several different levels and that is one of the reasons it has been very difficult to resolve. It started, of course, as a conflict that really was between the Azerbaijani Soviet government and the autonomous province of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was majority Armenian-populated and therefore also run by ethnic Armenians. Very soon it acquired a second level, which was that of a level between the two republics, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and obviously as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, it became an interstate war between these two republics, newly independent states, with an Armenian military in intervention inside Azerbaijan’s territory in support of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The third level of this conflict is the global or rather international geopolitical level I would like to call it because it started off very quickly with the Russian leadership in the Soviet era, manipulating this conflict to its own advantages, which meant in the beginning, during the Soviet era, supporting the Azerbaijani side because they were status quo-oriented, but then as soon as independence hit, Armenia flipped and became pro-Russian whereas Azerbaijan had a nationalist president and therefore the Russian side started supporting Armenia instead. And what we have seen since is that it has attracted the interest of great powers from Turkey to Iran, to western powers, Pakistan, Israel. Many powers have one way or another been involved in this conflict because of the strategic location of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
And particularly the strategic location of Azerbaijan, I would say, because if you look at a map, you will find that this is the only country that borders both Russia and Iran, and therefore is the key Western conduit to Central Asia as the United States found out after September 11 when the airspace of Georgia and Azerbaijan became the air corridor that connected NATO territory to the military operations in Afghanistan and the U.S bases that were located in Uzbekistan and in Kyrgyzstan. So again, it is a conflict of three levels, which means it is increasingly hard to resolve because you have the ability for external powers to, so to speak sabotage any effort at resolving the conflict that is very significant.
And obviously, as we talk of external powers, until very recently the main power that we had in mind was always Russia, which played both sides as I will get into in a minute, and with the sole purpose of maximizing the Russian influence over the south Caucasus and preventing an expansion of Western influence in this region. Now, in talking more about the background of the conflict I think one very important aspect of this conflict is the imbalance if you will between the two parties.
Now, as I already mentioned, Azerbaijan is a country with a very geostrategic location. It also has large natural resources, primarily oil and gas, as well as a population that is three times larger than Armenia’s. In spite of all this, Azerbaijan lost the war in the early 1990s, which it really did because of two main reasons. One was the one I already mentioned, namely the Russian support for the Armenian side as soon as independence happened, and the second one was that the Azerbaijani side was basically in the first couple of years of independence busy bickering among each other for power in Baku, and that meant that there was a demoralized Azerbaijani military.
And the Armenians, who were very well organized with Russian support, were able basically not only to gain control over Nagorno-Karabakh, but also over seven adjoining districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to the south on the Iranian border as well as to the west and east of this enclave, which was really an enclave because it was an Armenian territory separated from the rest of Armenia by Azerbaijani territory. And then when I say ‘Armenian enclave’, I mean, of course, it was an autonomous region, it had an autonomous status in the Soviet hierarchy of federalism.
Now, this imbalance is important because as the years went by from especially the late 1990s onward, I would say two things happened. The first was because of the amount of territory the Armenians had seized, they also ended up in a position where first, the Azerbaijanis could never accept this situation. Azerbaijan was for a while the country in the world with the highest percentage of internally displaced people, one in ten people in the country were internally displaced refugees, basically from this conflict zone that had been ethnically cleansed by the Armenian advancing armies.
At the same time, Azerbaijan was getting gradually richer because of the investments in oil and gas extraction in the Caspian Sea and the U.S supported construction of pipelines to carry this oil and gas to Western markets without transiting either Russian or Iranian territory, which was a (I would argue) a very major achievement of U.S. policy in this part of the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s. So this became like if you will the ‘rubber band’ that if you pull it too much, eventually it breaks, and I think that is exactly what we have seen over the past month, is that the imbalance between the countries I think it is best illustrated by the fact that for a while, when oil prices were at their highest, Azerbaijan was spending as much on defense as Armenia’s entire state budget, which meant that the imbalance between the two countries became untenable, and this is not something that Armenians, some Armenians, did not see.
In fact, the first President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, already three years after the military victory of Armenia in 1997, decided to accept a peace plan developed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which basically foresaw that Nagorno-Karabakh would have a high level of autonomy within Azerbaijan with very important security guarantees, and returned the occupied territories back to Azerbaijan. And he did so very much with the argument that, ‘Look, this is the best deal we are going to get because the year before in 1996 as well as previously, both the United Nations and the OSCE had passed resolutions that essentially made it clear that the international community had not accepted Armenia’s territorial grab.’
There was a consensus within the international community that these territories were Azerbaijani territories, that yes, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh may have some level of self-determination, but that the fact that this was an Armenian-populated territory would not amount to a right to secession, a right to create an independent state, so the Armenian leadership in the late 1990s understood this.
Unfortunately, this led to a palace coup in which the leadership of essentially people from Nagorno-Karabakh took over the state of Armenia. President Robert Kocharyan, who succeeded Ter-Petrosyan, as well as his successor, Serzh Sargsyan, who was in power until two years ago, were all from Karabakh. Their inner circle if you will was very much dominated by people who were either from Nagorno-Karabakh or had made their careers through the war in the 1990s, which meant that there was if you will the ‘Karabakh clan’ as they were called sometimes. They were in charge in Armenia and they were quite skilled statesmen.
They also knew very well how to maintain their relationship with Russia, but they were not very much interested in making concessions that would lead to a peace deal. In fact, I think it is very clear that on the Armenian side there was for a very long time (and continued to be until last month basically) a sense that, ‘We can just ride this out. We can maintain control over these territories and if we cannot get international, judicial acceptance for the situation, we can at least get the world to accept that this is a reality and not do much about it.’
And I think they very much believed that the relationship Armenia has with Russia would end up being sufficient in order to deter any Azerbaijani effort to restore integrity by military means. As we know now, this was not the case. And I think that gets us to to the question, which is what changed and what really brought us to a position where we have a new war.
And I think there are at least four or five factors that have changed, and as we all know, this is a world that is rather unsettled. The Eurasian continent particularly is rather unsettled. There are rapid changes in geopolitical alignments. There are deeper changes in the global structure of the international system as well as within the two countries, and all of these have combined. That goes back to what I mentioned earlier about a conflict that existed on several different levels.
Now, if you go from from the global to the local if you will, I think one main shift over the past several years that affected this conflict has been the weakening of the international institutions in the law and norms-based international order if you will. We see this, of course, mainly by Russia’s actions; the war in Georgia, the invasion of of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea. We see it in Iran, of course, with the Iranian building of a sphere of influence, ranging from Lebanon to Yemen by the use of paramilitary forces, totally ignoring state boundaries and the sovereignty of the various countries be it Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and so on. We see it in Turkish actions in Syria and in Libya. We see it by the way the Chinese behave. We see it in many countries. You could say that there is an evolution of at least on the Eurasian continent of a situation where great powers do what they are able to do, not necessarily being restrained as they perhaps were ten to fifteen years ago by certain norms of behavior.
Now, I think what is interesting in this that the two powers interpreted as very differently in the two countries that we are talking about. Armenia interpreted this as a positive sign that would enable them to maintain their territorial occupation of Azerbaijani territory and extended into the future, and I think they were particularly buried by two factors. The first was Kosovo and the second was Crimea.
Kosovo was important because Kosovo was an anomaly if you will in the sense that you had two Albanian states created in the Balkans. Traditionally, the principle of self-determination has always held that a people has a right to a state, not that a certain people may have a right to several different states, which is why a national minority was not traditionally accorded the right to self-determination reaching up to the level of independent statehood.
The international recognition of Kosovo did create in fact a certain precedent that you could not have only one, but you could have two Albanian states, and the Armenians felt that, ‘Hey, this is very good. This is a precedent for us. We can have two Armenian states in the Caucasus’, because the Armenians always very nicely played the niceties of international law by never recognizing the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Now, there are Armenian parliamentary resolutions, dating back to the Soviet era, which incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. There are Armenian soldiers in Karabakh and there are Karabakh parliamentarians in the Armenian parliament, but Armenia always said that this is not annexation. ‘This is a separate state and we just support them morally. We support them politically, but this is not annexation.’ And I think they figured that there would be a precedent for creating a second Armenian state.
I think there was a big miscalculation on the side of Armenia, and this is going to be a recurrent theme in my in my comments here, that I think they miscalculated many things, but a very important one was the implications of the weakening of international norms and institutions because what it really meant was also that Azerbaijan was held back from applying a military solution to the conflict precisely because of these international institutions and norms. And the moment they weakened, it also meant that the deterrence on Azerbaijan of applying a military solution also weakened. So that is on the global level.
On the second level, on the regional level, I think there were several mistakes made by, again, the Armenian side, and I am saying mistakes because as we can see on the ground, they are losing territory and they have lost most of the territories they conquered back in the ‘90s, and the military losses on both sides (but particularly the Armenian side) are fairly significant. And I think this relates to both the rule of Turkey and Russia.
The most obvious mistake, miscalculation, was the misunderstanding of Turkey’s position. Now, Turkey has always been pro-Azerbaijan, partly for ethnic and cultural reasons. Azerbaijani is a very closely related language. I was educated in Turkey as you mentioned, which enables me to understand Azerbaijani without even having studied the language. With a little bit of study, you can have very easy access to the language. This cultural linguistic proximity always made the Turkish public very pro-Azerbaijan. Mr. Erdoğan, the Turkish president, his government back ten years ago tried to develop a rapprochement with Armenia. The protocols as they were called would have opened the border and created diplomatic relations, which they have not had, and pro-Azerbaijani public opinion essentially killed that deal about ten years ago.
What changed is that Turkey now is much more unchained from the NATO alliance and the restrictions they might have put on Turkey by that. [Turkey] decided to very overtly take the Azerbaijani side and provide very significant military support to Azerbaijan. And I think there are elements of this that Armenia unwittingly contributed to. Anybody who is familiar with Turkish history will be familiar with the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, which ended the First World War. It was the corollary of the Treaty of Versailles with Germany. The Ottoman Empire had the Treaty of Sèvres in Paris in 1920, which would divide present-day Turkey into various sectors, including an Armenian state. And therefore, the Treaty of Sèvres has always been a red flag for Turkish nationalists. It is something that gets Turks animated if you will. If you want to start a dinner conversation and create a ruckus in Turkey, start talking about the Treaty of Sèvres.
Now, I mentioned this because this is the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Sèvres and it happened in August. And in August the Armenian leadership, both the president and the prime minister, made very important proclamations about the Treaty of Sèvres, saying that this treaty was never ratified. It was never implemented, but it remains on paper. Essentially, as the first Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s National Security Advisor, Gerard Libaridian, wrote in an article at the time, this amounts to a declaration of diplomatic war on Turkey. And I think this was a very important factor in leading Turkey to transition from a from a support to Azerbaijan to an active military support of an Azerbaijani effort to restore territorial integrity.
And I think it to a certain point boils down to a misunderstanding of Turkish domestic politics. This is an issue I could go into in great detail, but I will not. I will just mention that in the past five years Mr. Erdoğan has been increasingly dependent on the nationalist forces within the Turkish state as well as on the nationalist party in Turkey to remain in power as his own domestic standing has weakened, and that has meant that whereas he was previously as an Islamist not particularly interested in the post-Soviet Muslims, which a real Islamist in Turkey consider the post-Soviet Muslims as rather iffy Muslims if you will. They drink vodka. They might even eat pork. You cannot really trust them. The traditional, Turkish, Islamist position has been much more interested in the Arabs of the Middle East, which they feel are real Muslims compared to those Soviet people, whereas the Turkish nationalists put much more priority on the Turkic, linguistic, ethnic element and therefore are much more pro-Azerbaijani.
So there are some of us who have been identifying for a while that Turkey has been shifting from an Islamist to a more nationalist position, but I think the Armenian side clearly did not see this coming and did not understand the implications of trying to raise issues that were very important to the Turkish nationalist forces.
Then there is a Russia factor and the Russia factor is very important because of the role Russia has played in this conflict, especially because the Armenian side has for at least twenty-eight years built their position on a very simple Faustian bargain you could say, and the bargain really has to do with the bargain between independence and control over Karabakh. And the Russians have basically put it to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis: you cannot really have both. You can have Karabakh, but then you will be under Russian tutelage and follow Russian foreign policy priorities or you can be independent and not have Karabakh.
And because the Armenians won the war it was easy for them to choose to remain, to retain control over Karabakh and compromise on the issue of their independence, which we can see, for example, through the positions they have taken on international affairs, voting with Russia in the most controversial U.N. Security Council and U.N. General Assembly resolutions, where only countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela, North Korea, maybe Belarus vote with Russia.
Armenia usually does because that has been part of their foreign policy bargain. Now, part of the reason for that is that Armenia, of course, has a very, very difficult history to say the least. And if you talk to Armenians, they view the victory in the 1990s as the first military victory in a thousand years. This is a theme that will keep coming up, which makes it very difficult for them to so to speak back down on it.
Azerbaijan, because they lost the war it was also easier in a way to conceptualize it differently and to say independence is more important. We will focus on maintaining our independence, and even though the Russians sometimes come to them and say, what if you join the Eurasian Economic Union? If you change your foreign policy, we may make sure to resolve the Karabakh conflict in a way that would be acceptable to you. These are the type of things that Russian high-level politicians come to Baku and say, and the Azerbaijanis have always said well, that sounds very nice, but why don’t we resolve the conflict first and then we might talk about all these wonderful initiatives that you are mentioning, like the Eurasian Union and so on?
And I would say that what has changed (and this was a situation for a very long time) what really changed is I think the Russian perspective on the two countries, where it seems to me that they began to take the Armenian side for granted because of the level of economic control over Armenia, Russian ownership of the gas transmission lines in Armenia, ownership of the nuclear power plant, and so on and so forth, and the fact that Armenia is rather isolated. Russians felt increasingly that, you know what, we can broaden out and, again, coming back to the point I made earlier about looking at a map and which country is the most significant geo-strategically, it is clearly Azerbaijan. It is larger, it has resources, it is the only one that controls the east-west corridor across from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and it has been very clear that Mr. Putin has felt that he can also begin to draw Azerbaijan into Russian institutions.
Particularly because of its rather authoritarian political system, Azerbaijan has had problems in its relationship with the United States and Europe because of allegations over its human rights situation and so on. This was particularly a problem during the Obama administration and this meant that Russia actually started selling weapons to Azerbaijan as well as Armenia. This should have I think been an alarm bell started ringing in for the Armenians.
Now, the Armenians mainly got their weapons for more or less for free and the Azerbaijanis had to pay world market prices, which they did because they had oil and they they could get basically the same type of armaments the Armenians had, plus they could acquire high-level technologically sophisticated weaponry from Israel and from Turkey.
And in 2016, we had a brief episode of a flare-up of this conflict, which was the first time that Azerbaijan actually retook some of the occupied territories, and Russia really did not do much about it. Russians looked at it and said, ‘Okay, this is interesting,’ and within five days they basically sent a signal to both parties, saying, ‘Okay, it is enough, stop it,’ and the Azerbaijans obliged. There was a renewed ceasefire, but to me this also showed that, again, alarm bells should have started ringing in Armenia very loudly, that this reliance on Russia for their security, and actually not just for their security, but for their military conquest, was no longer a tenable proposition.
But instead, and this is when we go back down to the local level, the real thing that changed in this conflict – and what I mean to say by this (I forgot to mention) is that we see perhaps the most surprising element of what has happened in recent weeks is how Russia has really not reacted. Vladimir Putin has been very clear that as long as the fighting is going on on territory that is internationally-recognized as Azerbaijani territory, Russia will not intervene. Only if the [fighting] spreads into the officially-recognized territory of Armenia does Russia have a treaty obligation by the Collective Security Treaty to intervene in the conflict ,which basically means telling the Armenians, ‘You have bet on us for twenty-eight years and we are going to leave you to hang out to dry.’ And that is essentially what happened.
And my personal opinion, understanding of this is that Russia is a retreating power, and a retreating power in a territory where there are some states that remain weak states, like Armenia, like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, that are in need of outside support. Meanwhile there are several countries that are beginning to become real states, that have influence on their own. You can call them regional middle-sized powers.
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan fall into this category of states that have resources, that have an ability to build international opinion. Azerbaijan has done this very effectively through membership in the Non-Aligned Movement, which we all thought was dead but apparently is not, and this has meant that I think the Russians really understand that if they want to maintain influence over Azerbaijan, they cannot just use sticks, they have to use carrots as well, which means that they cannot just play the Armenian card in the Caucasus, it is not enough.
So that gets us to the final level of analysis if you will, which is the local level, which is the two countries, and I think this is where two major things happen. The Azerbaijani situation is that of a president that, as many of you would know, took power in an election after his father had been president. Heydar Aliyev was, of course, a Soviet Azerbaijani leader. He was then out of grace in the Gorbachev era. He came back to power after the military defeats in the early 1990s and rebuilt the modern state of Azerbaijan.
Ilham Aliyev came to power if you will close to oligarchs and a coterie of his father’s former allies, and it took him ten to fifteen years to basically come into his own, purge all of these oligarchs and take control over the country. And as he did this I think this also freed him from the restraints that these oligarchs had placed on him, and made him much more willing and able to use the military option in Karabakh.
More importantly than that is what changed on the Armenian side. As is well known, in 2018 there was a Velvet Revolution in Armenia, which brought Mr. Pashinyan, Nikol Pashinyan, into power, who is the current leader of Armenia. And what I find interesting and cannot fully explain is a shift that Mr. Pashinyan went through when he first came to power.
It is interesting that Azerbaijan could have taken advantage of the internal turmoil in Armenia to make a military push. After all it was just two years after the 2016 ‘Four Day-War’ as it is called. The Azerbaijanis decided not to do this and thought that, ‘This is the first time that a non-Karabakhi person is taking power in Armenia in twenty years, and we should try to build a relationship,’ and I think there was initially an an appreciation of this on the Armenian side.
And then there was a summit in Dushanbe, I think of the Commonwealth of Independent States, where the two leaders met. They had a fruitful interaction. There seemed to be a road towards peace, What happened then I cannot fully explain, but I can say what happened, not why, and by 2019, the Armenian leadership went in a very assertive, even an aggressive direction rather than try to sue for peace if you will.
The Armenian side took a number of steps that I think brought us to where we are today. And the first of these was to reject the Madrid Principles of negotiations that had been in force since 2011 if not before, to demand that the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians be represented separately from Armenia at the peace talks. And simultaneously, Mr. Pashinyan went to Karabakh and uttered his now famous words, “Karabakh is Armenia, period.” And now, on the one hand he is saying Karabakh is Armenia, on the other hand he is saying they should be separately represented ar the peace talks. Nobody really understood what he meant by all this, but what is clear is that they raised the stakes in the conflict.
Armenia’s defense minister, Mr Tonoyan, in a speech to Armenian expatriates in New York also in 2019, stated that Armenia had given up the defense, the previous strategy of which was essentially a land for peace strategy whereby Armenia would surrender the occupied territories around Karabakh in exchange for some form of agreement on what status Nagorno-Karabakh would have. He said that the new formula would be new wars for new territories.
There were many other things, like Mr. Pashinyan sending his son to volunteer as a fighter in the occupied territories. His wife, who in 2018 had started a movement called Women for Peace, suddenly this year dressed up in military fatigues, wearing Kalashnikov or carrying a Kalashnikov, and participating in military training for women. The Karabakh Armenians decided to move their parliament to the city of Shusha, which is the historically-Azerbaijani city in Nagorno-Karabakh. All these things were major provocations that led the Azeri side to understand that or to conclude that negotiations were fruitless, the Armenians were not interested in negotiations, and the only way that they could change the situation on the ground was by military force.
And unfortunately, here is where we get to the U.S side of the problem, which is twofold. Number one that the U.S. government did not pay attention to this. And now our institute and myself we have written quite significantly about the Trump administration’s Central Asia strategy. There is a wonderful and very, very well developed new U.S. strategy for Central Asia that the National Security Council has put out. The problem is that how do you get to Central Asia? The way for the United States to have a presence in Central Asia depends on the Caucasus character. Otherwise this territory is surrounded by the likes of China, Russia, and Pakistan and Iran, which makes it not a very accessible route for the US to have influence.
The influence for the U.S. has always been from the West in from the Black Sea, from NATO territory through the Caucasus, and mysteriously there has been almost no attention to this region by this administration. When Mr. Bolton was National Security Adviser, that was an exception. He traveled to the region. He tried to develop policy, but of course, he did not stay long enough to make it happen.
And the other part of this is that I think passively if you know there is a strong Armenian lobby in the United States, but it is almost exclusively influential within the Democratic Party, and I think this had an effect on the timing of this war because I think when the flare-ups happened this summer, and we can discuss the length, but I do not think we can even conclude who started it. It does not really matter who started it, but the Azerbaijanis at some point I think drew the conclusion that either we act now or there might be an eight-year Biden administration in which the Armenian lobby will be very strong and then we will have to wait another decade, not 30 years but 40 years before we can do something about this conflict because the implications of making a military move during a Biden administration would have been stronger.
Now, this is just pure speculation on my part, but knowing how the Azerbaijanis are aware of the role of the Armenian lobby in the United States, I think this must have played a role. So all taken together I think in my final analysis I have said for a long time that this conflict resembles the Israeli-Arab conflict or the Indian-Pakistani conflict in the sense of a conflict that just does not get resolved. It goes on for decade after decade. There are periods of cold peace. There are periods of hot war. They get interspersed. You have smaller episodes. What happened in 2016 I compared with the Kargil operation on the Indian-Pakistani border in Kashmir in 1998, a smaller military operation. Then you have major wars, like the 1965 war in India-Pakistan, the 1971 war, or in the case of Israel and the Arabs, 1967 or ‘73.
So I think what we have right now is a major war. This is comparable to the 1967 or ‘73 wars for Israel and the Arabs. and I think the real question now is will this episode of warfare lead to a final solution of the conflict or will we just have a refreeze that will lead to it again being rekindled at some point in the future, and that is obviously dependent on the way the U.S. and the European Union react. And I think at this point the odds that there will be a strong effort to bring about a lasting peace I would say is relatively remote given the fact that it is still a relatively contained conflict.
If you do not do anything about it, it might not be a disaster. We have enough to deal with at home with our polarization and election in the United States, the pandemic in europe, and so forth, so I would I would submit that it is very likely that we are going to see a refreeze at some point with a major advance on the part of Azerbaijan, but it will not finally resolve the conflict. I think I should probably stop here. I think I probably talked for too long, but I will be glad to entertain any questions you might have.
No, not at all, Dr. Cornell, thank you very much. That background was very illuminating. You closed by saying that this might lead to a final solution, which is a rather chilling phrase that the Armenian Karabakh side would interpret as their elimination. I know you did not mean that, I am just thinking of how the Armenians in either Armenia or Karabakh understand the Azerbaijani objectives. How do they understand those objectives and might it include the very dangers about which the Armenians would worry with the terrible history of a genocide that has affected them, particularly if I might just add, recent statements, saying that Turkey and Azerbaijan are two states but one nation?
Right, well, that statement, by the way, has an interesting history. It goes back to 1995, but you are absolutely right and I think interestingly, about five days before this conflict re-erupted (obviously, there had been skirmishes back in July) we had we organized a virtual round-table like we are talking now, but a round table where we had an Armenian and Azerbaijani speakers. We endeavored to try to find sensible people on both sides, which we did and I think the major takeaway was how the rhetoric on the two sides was being misunderstood by the other side, which is, of course, a classic issue in this type of conflict.
But to your to your point I think this entire conflict cannot be dissociated from the tragic history of the Armenian nation and, in fact, of course, of the genocide back over 100 years ago, which if you think about it for the Armenians, it is in a way understandable that they view the conflict with Azerbaijan in lenses colored by the experience of genocide, but at the same time the fact is that the genocide had nothing to do with the Caucasus. It all happened in present-day Turkey, and for Azerbaijan the answer is wait a minute, we were not involved in that. Why am I being punished and my people ethnically cleansed because you had a problem somewhere else? So there is a cognitive dissonance if you will by the way the Azerbaijanis perceive history and the way the Armenians perceive history.
But to your question about how the Armenians perceive history, I think you are absolutely correct. The Armenians are now painting this first of all in a civilizational light, and they are also talking about it in directly referring to the history of genocide. Now, the civilizational issue I very much think to some extent they believe it, to some extent this is a diplomatic ploy because they know it is one of the arguments that works in the West, but I think it is very clear that this conflict has very little if anything to do with with with religion. I wrote an article I think back in 1998 or something like that about religion and and the conflicts in the Caucasus, where I basically argued that this is the big, you could call it a refutation or you could call it the exception, to the Huntingtonian thesis of a clash of civilizations.
If you look at how different powers align, you find, for example, that Iran has always supported Armenia. This is a country that is supposed to support Muslims abroad, and this is even written in its constitution, but because there are more Azerbaijanis living in Iran than in the republic of Azerbaijan, the Iranians have always wanted to keep down Azerbaijan and have therefore supported Armenia. Israel has supported Azerbaijan on the other hand because it is a secular, Shia-majority state right on the Iranian doorstep, and also for the Israelis it is an access point to Central Asia, and it has been an important role.
All these former Soviet Muslim countries have been important in the Israeli ambition to establish functioning relations with non-Arab states, which has always been an important part of Israeli foreign policy and the fact that there is this trio of countries that always supported Azerbaijan from day one, which are Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel. This is a very unlikely combination of countries that for their own reasons have done this, so whereas obviously, on the Armenian side you have the Syrian government, Bashar al-Assad, who has been one of Armenia’s strongest supporters throughout the past thirty years, so you cannot really read this conflict in a civilizational way.
Now, that might be the opinion of an outside observer, it might even be true, but from the Armenian position, I can sit here and analyze this as I have done, as essentially an Armenian overreach over the past twenty years over alliance and Russia misunderstanding of their counterparts, misunderstanding of the geopolitics and so forth, but from the Armenian position, very much they are seeing this as them being wiped out again in a historical land that they feel they are entitled to.
And we can go back and look at the size of Armenia, and the traditional size of the Armenian settlements does not add up. And I think the sad history of the past hundred years is that the way settlement patterns were in this part of the world was extremely poorly developed in order to create functioning nation states it is like a micro Bosnia, where Serbs and Croats and Bosnians were living all over the place, and you could not really develop three different states very easily without ethnic cleansing.
Similarly, if you look at eastern Anatolia all the way over to to the Caspian Sea, you see this broad settlement patterns where Armenians and Azerbaijanis are intermixed, and where if you look at the year 1900, probably the largest concentrations of Armenians were in places like Tbilisi and Baku. Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, had an Armenian majority in 1800, actually not in 1900, but still it shows how the Armenian nation was one of the more unlucky ones to live in a world where suddenly the world was divided into coherent geographic nation states because that is not the way Armenians lived. They lived spread out over a large territory, but for them this is very real and I take your point that from the Armenian perspective this is viewed in existential terms.
If I just might interact with with one note or at least historical claim because you mentioned a large Armenian population in Baku in the early part of the 20th century, there are allegations that 20,000 of them were massacred in 1918.
There were massacres on both sides, actually. I do not know about the numbers. I would have to go back and look, but essentially there at every point of weakening of Russian power in the twentieth century, there has been an upsurge in Armenian-Azerbaijani violence; 1905, 1918, 1989, all three, and in 1918 there was first an attempt by the so-called Baku Commune, which was the sequel to the Paris Commune in which the Bolsheviks with a very strong Armenian ethnic presence basically ethnically cleansed part of Baku, and set up this idealist, communist government. Then the Ottoman forces moved in a couple of months later and that led to a revenge ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Baku, so those things went both ways, absolutely.
What really changed I think happened in the 1950s. Actually, just like Istanbul was not traditionally a very Turkish city, it had Greeks, it had Armenians, it had Kurds, it had Turks. It was not a homogeneous Turkish city. [In the] same way Baku, if you go back in history, was was not very much an Azerbaijani city. It was a Russian colonial city in many ways with large Russian and Armenian and also immigrant Iranian populations that fed the oil boom of the 1870s. And it was really only in the middle of the twentieth century that ,just as happened in Turkey also in Azerbaijan, there was this migration from the rural areas outside in the provinces into the capital and that really turned Baku into a very heavily Azerbaijani city.
Now, it is interesting, I have met some Baku Armenians, and Baku Armenians largely were forced to flee back in 1989. And they fled to Russia rather than to Armenia, predominantly, some to the United States just as Azerbaijanis were forced to flee their settlements in mainly southern and eastern Armenia back also at the same period, so there was this mutual expulsion of peoples very much like the Greeks and the Turks back in the 1920s and ‘30s.
Among the Baku Armenians there is this unstated or understated anger at the Karabakh Armenians because if you imagine that there had not been a conflict, who would have been the people who would have benefited most from the oil boom in Baku? And whatever we said in the past twenty years, it would likely have been the most educated, the Armenians, who were the most educated. They held the professional positions. They spoke languages and so on. They did not get to experience that, unfortunately, and they were removed, and they now live elsewhere, but so this is a tragic history, of course, in so many ways.
As we know there have been three ceasefires arranged, two by Vladimir Putin and one brokered by the United States, all of them broken within hours of of their supposedly going into effect. You mentioned that this looks like an intractable conflict. Now it seems though that Azerbaijan has the military wherewithal through its expenditure of large amounts of its oil and gas revenue on updating its military, the supply of state-of-the-art drones from Turkey and Israel that they may go go for broke because there is nothing inhibiting them other than Russia, which is saying if you go into Armenia, that might present a problem for us.
There are allegations that a a good number of Turkish troops that were in Azerbaijan for summer training did not leave, including drone operators. One observes the highly sophisticated coordination between military, intelligence, drones, artillery fire, etc. on the Azeri side against the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, which has led to the substantial losses. You have mentioned that the Turkish military presence, according to your sources. Do you also see that at the present moment?
There are really no inhibiting factors other than the Armenian military forces in Karabakh keeping the Azeris from rolling this thing up. Very good questions. I think on the first one the Turkish-Azerbaijani military relationship has always been extremely opaque. You can see signs of it everywhere. You can look, for example, at where senior Azerbaijani officials have trained and so forth. Beyond that it is really a black box. I think it is safe to assume that there is a strong Turkish advisory element in this. How far it goes, if it goes to the extent of operating drones or just having trained the people who operate drones, I do not know, but I think what is clear is that the Turkish Vice President just last week made a statement that, ‘Well, we have not received any request from Azerbaijan for having our forces step in, but if that request came, we would be glad just to to do so,’ and that is completely different from what we have had in the past.
You allude to the F-16s. What I mentioned earlier about the Armenian enthusiasm for the commemoration of the Sèvres Treaty in August or in July led to a Turkish send off of planes and troops for military exercises in Azerbaijan. I think President Aliyev, I just watched him talk about this in a France TV interview just last week where he very clearly mentioned that, ‘Yes, we have these troops, these F-16s here in Ganja, and they are on the ground. They are not in the air,’ but I think it is a form of insurance policy that Azerbaijan has acquired, which is directed, of course, both at Armenia and against Russia in many ways.
And I think the Russians have to a certain extent been taken by surprise here. I do not think they foresaw this level of Turkish intervention, and I think nobody really has so far, but we saw it in Libya earlier this year, how the Turkish drones are apparently in terms of technology sophisticated to such an extent that they can they can hit the Russian air defense systems in a way that we did not expect. I am sure there are military analysts who expected this, but we have seen this now in several places, so that is part of the answer regarding whether there is anything that inhibits Azerbaijan.
I think there still is and I think there still are many things and you can even hear it today in the Azerbaijani rhetoric of President Aliyev. Obviously, in the first couple of weeks of the conflict he was talking a lot, he was venting a lot. I think his very real frustration for having been hemmed in for the past twenty-five years and now finally being able to restore territorial integrity, and here is where you get to the question even in the Azerbaijani mind of what the difference is between the occupied territories on one hand and Nagorno-Karabakh on the other. And the Azerbaijani official position has always been that they are willing to give the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh a high level of autonomy.
Now, your question if I understand you correctly raises the question, well, why shouldn’t they just go for broke and just take the whole territory and let the Armenians that live there go wherever they want? And I think there are several factors that inhibit this, and I could be wrong, but I think that speak against this. And that is number one that we know that there is an official Russian red line on territory, on going into Armenian territory. There may be a Russian red line that has to do with Nagorno-Karabakh itself.
And we have seen in the past how Russia has really also wanted to play Nagorno-Karabakh both against Armenia and Azerbaijan. Just last year a gentleman by the name of Modest Kolerov, who is head of the Regnum News Agency and a former advisor to Vladimir Putin, went down to Karabakh and offered to the Karabakh, he said, ‘You know you have a right to a dignified state existence,’ [that] is the term he used. ‘You should not really be with either Azerbaijan or with Armenia, but you could have a dignified state existence under Russian control,’ basically the Abkhazia model if you will.
And I think that was a very shrewd play by the Russians at a time when, of course, the Karabakh leadership is very much supporting the former Armenian leadership of Mr. Kocharyan and Mr. Sarkissian and not at all in very good terms with Mr. Pashinyan because after all the Karabakhs were controlling Armenia until two years ago and now they are not. And I think the Russians have played this so I think the Russians looking forward are still looking to play. I mean they might ditch Armenia, to put it very bluntly, but that does not mean they will ditch Karabakh. They might actually see this as an opportunity to strengthen Russian influence over Karabakh itself as this little enclave in the middle of the Caucasus through which they can influence both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
So that is one factor. The other factor, frankly, is international respectability, and this is something that the Azerbaijanis still care about. A total ethnic cleansing of the Armenians of Karabakh I think would be very bad. It would look very bad and I know that there are definitely people in Azerbaijan who would love to do it, do not get me wrong, because there is this feeling of revenge, that the Armenians did this to us thirty years ago, now it is time for us to do it. At the very top level of the leadership I still think that there are inhibitions against this. Azerbaijan has always wanted to be an accepted and, well, an appreciated member of the international community. I do not think that global geopolitics have deteriorated to such an extent that they do not care about this anymore.
And here we come to the third very real factor, which is if you look very closely at a map, you will see that Azerbaijan is divided in two. There is a little part of territory which is called Nakhchivan, which is locked in between Armenia and Iran with this five-mile border with Turkey. A part of all peace negotiations in this conflict has been that with whatever status Azerbaijan is willing to grant to Nagorno-Karabakh, they want the same type of access to Nakhchivan and that access would be over Armenian territory. Actually, Karabakh is separated from Armenia on the maps and the territory between them by the Lachin corridor, which by the way, apparently, the Azerbaijanis are threatening at this very moment. Whatever status Karabakh gets, Armenia would depend on transit through that territory in order to have its linkage between Armenia and Karabakh.
The Azerbaijanis if they just take over Karabakh, they would lose their their chance at the linkage through Armenia in some form or another, which matters very much to them, especially because the ruling elite itself is from Nakhchivan, so I think there are several factors here that mean that there are inhibiting factors on the Azerbaijani government. This could play out in very many ways. but if you were an American mediator, there is definitely a lot you could work with in order to arrive at some form of a solution.
And I think to me for many many years the tragic irony of this has been that the solution to this conflict is very much on the table. It has been negotiated. It has been discussed year after year after year and it really has to do with some form of interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh, but at some point it has to start with the return of the occupied territories. I mean I think the biggest earlier mistake of the Armenian side, which is understandable from a purely military strategic point of view, was that when Azerbaijan was weak in 1993, they went in and took over all these territories and it is like biting off more than you could chew. They never this changed the whole international perspective on Armenia from being the victim to being the perpetrator in this conflict, and they have never even ever been able to recover from it.
And I think the Armenians in many ways have argued or have convinced themselves that they have a right to do this because they have a right to guarantee the security of the Armenians of Karabakh, but here we are and the Azerbaijanis can point to chapter and verse here every country you have signed this you have signed these documents that said that these are Azerbaijani territories.
And what the Azerbaijani argument is right now is there are four UN Security Council resolutions that say that Armenian troops have to vacate these territories immediately and unconditionally. We are just fulfilling the terms of the UN Security Council because nobody has been able to do it for us and then you see that, well, Europeans and Americans are grumbling and are thinking, well, this is not very nice, but at the end of the day nobody is willing to do anything because, again, for thirty years the Azerbaijanis were collecting all these documents that guaranteed their rights to this territory.
And I think that is where the Armenians made a mistake. I think this episode has made it clear if it was not before that more than anything it is in Armenia’s interest to sue for peace and to get a a serious peace deal that salvages some type of status for Nagorno-Karabakh in exchange for the return of these occupied territories. The big problem is security guarantees. The Armenians for twenty-eight years trusted the Russians. Turns out that was a bad bet. Who are you going to trust? Who are you going to trust to guarantee your security? Is it going to be the West? Is it going to be the EU or the United States?
At this point if I was in Armenia I would look around and I said there is nobody that I really would be willing to place my trust in and I think that is the problem right now. How do you achieve a deal and who guarantees that the Russians will be happy to step in and guarantee a deal? But neither the Azerbaijanis nor the Armenians trust them and I do not think anybody else is willing to step in. That is the problem.
Do you think there is potential for this conflict to get bigger? It certainly does not seem in Russia’s interest for it to grow larger other than in the ways in which you describe because it would increase its influence in say Nagorno-Karabakh, but President Erdoğan has exhibited a kind of recklessness, his behavior in Libya, his claims in the Mediterranean for expansive gas and drilling rights, his pressure on Greece, and the claim that President Macron of France made, that Turkey has sent Syrian jihadists into this conflict. First of all, it has either Syrian fighters there, mercenaries or jihadists provided by Turkey, which seems to be a big concern to President Macron and to others, and second of all, if Turkey is indeed doing these things, might its recklessness lead to that larger conflict about which people are warning?
Well, there are two parts of your question. The question on the Syrian fighters is a very interesting one. This is one that I have tried to look into, We are going to try to do it in a more systematic way. I see the same reports that you have. I just do not make any sense of it for several reasons. The first is that Azerbaijan is a Shia-majority country. Now, if you are a Shia-majority country, bringing in a couple of hundred Syrian jihadis is not a very smart thing to do because the moment they realize that they are in a Shia country you are going to have a problem on your hands. It also goes completely against the Azerbaijani claim for twenty-five years of being this secular Muslim nation on Iran’s doorstep. It would actually also create unnecessary problems in their relations with the Iranians and it would destroy their international reputation.
Now, on the one hand I think so far what is clear is that there are Syrian jihadis who have left Syria and it appears that there are reports that they were heading towards Azerbaijan. They were sighted in Gaziantep. Now, for many of these reports the credibility of the report is questionable. There are very sophisticated information warfare aspects to this as well that I do not even begin to understand. So far as far as I can see there have been no confirmed sightings of them by either video or photographic evidence in the conflict zone. They apparently left Syria but did not get to Azerbaijan is what I can tell. I may be wrong. They may be there. The only way that I see them being there is if the Turkish role in this conflict involves some of the Turkish private military corporations like Sadat, which may have used them in a way that the Azerbaijani government may have not appreciated. but grudgingly was forced to accept.
On the other hand, I do not either see what military use they could be for the Azerbaijani side because this is a war that has mainly being fought with drones and high technology. Yes, of course, you send an infantry, but how could you use Syrian troops that do not speak the same languages as you and that you are not coordinated with? So this is truly a mystery to me. I am not saying they are not there, I just do not see them there. I do not see the logic by which they would be there.
And now do not get me wrong, I think for Erdoğan it makes perfect sense. He has done it in Libya. He has this expendable column of forces that he feels he can use wherever he likes. I think he would be glad to use them in Azerbaijan. I could actually foresee a scenario in which the Turks started moving these troops out of Syria and the Azerbaijanis suddenly said, ‘Stop, we do not want them,’ which means that they might be somewhere else right now. I do not know. It just does not make any sense to me. I hope that eventually we will understand what this was all about.
Now, the other part of your question was whether this could get out of hand in a bigger, regional conflagration. Yes, of course, this is a conflict that in many ways resembles the situation that led to the First World War with somebody getting shot in Sarajevo, and then one power gets involved, the other power gets involved, and at this point you could already go back to what happened in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter over the Syrian-Turkish border. It led to a very sharp deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations.
This could easily happen again. A Turkish drone could target something in Armenia that includes Russian soldiers because there are joint Russian military units with Armenia. You could see the fighting down on the Iranian border spilling into Iranian territory, getting the Iranians to move in, which could get both the Russians and Turks involved. At this point it seems to me that this would be unlikely, but again, I think there are many ways in which this could happen.
Now, the broader question I think going on here if you move a little west also is that there is a broader and much more serious Turkish-Russian confrontation happening, that started in Syria, that expanded in Libya, that is now developing in Nagorno-Karabakh, but especially I think right now surrounding Ukraine because of the way Erdoğan has moved and not only expressed great the greatest level of support for Ukraine, but also talked about supplying Ukraine with drones and even manufacturing Turkish drones in Ukraine.
I think there are suppliers of naval ships from Turkey to Ukraine as well, which totally shifts the balance of forces in the Black Sea. This was completely unforeseen and it puts American planners in a very difficult situation because on the one hand, as you alluded to you have Erdoğan behaving in completely unconstructive ways in the eastern Mediterranean, in the Middle East, his anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic policies, frankly, on one hand, and then on the other hand, totally uncoordinated with the West, you have Erdoğan and Turkey, stepping up as the main supporters of Ukraine against Russia in the region, which really is completely congruent with Western interests. And how do you deal with this country? I think this is a very big problem for any administration that we will see emerging on Tuesday. If we do, hopefully we do well.
Dr. Cornell, speaking of drones, Canada has announced that it is going to embargo its drone technology to Turkey because of Turkish drones being used in this conflict. As you said, Israel is a military supplier to Azerbaijan. Very sophisticated drones are being used there as well as cluster munitions. Do you think Israel will have any second thoughts? I mean Israel in reaction to this has said that its military supplies to Azerbaijan were purely defensive. What do you think Israel is going to do as a response to this?
So that depends on your definition of defensive. In many ways Azerbaijan is fighting on Azerbaijani territory and I think you could easily get away with calling that defensive. No, I think on the Israeli side the Israelis have been very pragmatic. They have understood from the beginning that if they are selling drones to the Azerbaijanis, these drones are going to be used one day. I do not think that there is any surprise on the Israeli side about this.
I think the Israelis have taken their position. They took a position on this conflict over 25 years ago and that is unlikely to change now. I will say that there is and there has always been in Israel a faction that sees more of a commonality because of historical experiences with the Armenian side, but overall Israel has a real political perspective to this.
They view Azerbaijan as one of their most important allies in the Muslim world. I would say we are all making a lot out of Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain having diplomatic relations now with Israel. Azerbaijan has had it for from the beginning. I think one of the biggest Israelis embassies in any Muslim country is in Baku. The intelligence sharing that they are having on issues with regard to Iran is probably much more significant than than we can imagine. This is a relationship that is very deep and very strategic for the Israeli side.
Yes, there will be people in Israel who will raise questions about this, but overall I think we can see also during this conflict if you look at the statements of the Israeli ambassador in Baku, if you look at the role played by Israelis in sending emergency supplies and help to Azerbaijan, in terms of getting support for people who are in the civilian areas in Azerbaijan that have been bombed by the Armenian side, this has strengthened and not weakened the relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan.
I would say furthermore that for the Israeli side, President Aliyev is a very useful and very important vehicle for them to try to manage and possibly restore their relationship with Turkey at some point in the future. In many ways the Israeli-Azerbaijani relationship was born out of the trilateral Turkish, Israeli, and then Azerbaijani relationship of the late 1990s when Turkey and Israel were the best of friends. And I think there are many people in the United States, particularly in the pro-Israeli forces which I work with very frequently, that view Turkey as basically being lost.
And I think the difference is that in Israel they have not drawn that conclusion. They are still holding out hope that there is a way to restore some form of relationship with Turkey either because there are other forces than Erdoğan in Turkey or either just holding out for the post-Erdoğan period in Turkey, and for any kind of effort to reach out to Turkey because it is such an important country, such a key country in the region.
I think that is also something that makes Azerbaijan so important to Turkey, because of the influence Azerbaijan has in Turkey, so I think for all of these reasons there will be grumblings, there will be people who question the strategy that has been put in place, but overall I really do not see the absence of major shifts in developments on the ground, I do not see any serious change in the Israeli position.
I think at least if as is claimed, it is their cluster munitions that are being used on civilian areas in Nagorno-Karabakh, that is going to, well, that at least is a public relations problem for them. I think that is true and I think that is we have seen that on both sides, cluster munitions.
That for me is reminiscent of the war in Georgia in 2008, which I covered very closely, where we had exactly the same purportedly Israeli-supported cluster munitions used by the Georgians. The Russians also used them, and we are seeing in this conflict both the Armenian and Azerbaijani side allegedly using these munitions, so I think you are right, this is going to be a public relations issue.
But again, this is a world in which we are living that has gotten harsher. And I think the Israeli leadership is very much an extremely pragmatic one that sees the world in very existential and very difficult terms and that now feels that they are building a significant group of allies of Israel in the Muslim world that include a bunch of Arab states, very influential ones as well as non-Arab states, where Azerbaijan plays a key role. And at the end of the day, it seems to me that that is going to carry the day in Israel. I could be wrong, but I really think that that is likely to be the case.
Well, if we can close with this question, what about the United States? Where does it leave the United States and its relationship with Azerbaijan, particularly the military? Well, no, partnership is too strong in term, but there are military aid training programs and so forth, so if history is any guide, there has always been this dichotomy in the U.S. government where Congress has always been pro-Armenian and the executive has always been leaning in the Azerbaijani direction, and that has been irrespective. I mean the gap has been shorter or smaller, depending on times, but it has always been more or less that type of divide.
I think it really depends on what type of administration we get. Obviously, a Democratic administration will have a much stronger Armenian influence. The Republican administration will not. That said, even Secretary of State Pompeo’s comments indicate a certain sympathy towards the Armenian side. I think overall the U.S. reaction unfortunately to this conflict has been one of absence. It is the absence of a U.S. response to this situation that has been the most significant and that is in a certain way understandable. And that was probably by design if you will on the part of the belligerents or at least one of the belligerents, that this was done when it was done, in the middle of a very polarized U.S. election campaign in the times of a pandemic.
I frankly do not see overall the U.S. policy changing very much because the bigger story in all of this is the national defense strategy and the national security strategy laid out two years ago, which is the issue of strategic competition being the new leitmotif if you will of U.S. foreign defense policies. And what is the strategic competition, the great powers that we are talking about, Eurasian powers we are talking about? Russia. We are talking about China. We are talking about Iran, and that is also what brought us such a sophisticated Central Asia strategy because all these states in Central Asia are in the middle between all of these great powers. And by this virtue they are important to the broader U.S. foreign security and defense strategies.
And I think although it has not been an outspoken addition because the strategy did not include the Caucasus, the same logic applies here. The logic is the heart of Eurasia, the land that is encircled by all of these great powers that is involved in strategic competition will be important to U.S. policy, and smaller mid-sized states. Rather, not the smallest one, but the mid-sized states that have an independent ability to choose their own foreign policy will remain important to U.S. strategy in this region. And these are mainly three states. It is Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan. I think there will be the continued appreciation for the role that these countries can play in the broader U.S. strategic objectives in regards to Iran, in regards to Russia, in regards to Turkey, in regards to China, and I think that will is going very likely to carry the day.
Now, there might be grumblings. There might be congressional resolutions, and there is very definitely going to be a lot of think tank and civil society outrage on the whole. I go back to this point, I am probably making it too often, but if the Armenians had stayed at taking Nagorno-Karabakh, they would not have had this problem, but because they took all these occupied territories, now if Azerbaijan does not try to retake the whole of Karabakh, if they just stay at having taken back the occupied territories that everybody in the world considers to be Azerbaijani, from which 700,000 Azerbaijanis were ethnically cleansed twenty-five, thirty years ago, I think, frankly, the world and American opinion will recover very quickly. If there is a major disaster in Karabakh itself or if the war spreads to Armenian territory, then the situation would be different. But the way I understand the Azerbaijani war aims, I would be surprised if it goes that far.
The issue for the United States will be how to to maintain relevance. I think everybody now in the region, the Azerbaijanis, the Armenians, the Georgians nearby, I have looked at this and said, well, all of this is going on and where is the United States of America? That to me is the most worrying situation right now because it means that people will care about what Erdoğan says, what Putin says, maybe what the Iranians say, what the Israelis say, but if America is missing in action, what will be America’s leverage in order to obtain national security objectives in this region in the future if the United States is basically absent when this is happening. I think that is that is one of the big big issues going forward as far as I can see.
Dr. Cornell, thank you very much for that illuminating lecture. I greatly appreciate it and I would like to invite our Westminster audience not only to share this video, but to visit our YouTube channel and see what else we have on offer, recent talks on Russia and China. Thank you very much for joining us, hope to see you again soon. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Recent events signify profound changes in the Caucasus. Georgia has held a contested election; meanwhile, on November 10th, a cease-fire agreement ended weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan that claimed over a thousand lives and saw Azerbaijan restore control over vast swaths of land. A new status quo has been reached, Russian peacekeepers are now deployed in the area and Turkey has emerged as a force in the Caucasus. Where does the region go from here? What are the implications for U.S. and European policy?
Prominent regional and international speakers joined CACI experts in a discussion on the implications of a Nagorno-Karabakh peace treaty and how the conflict has already reshaped the security situation for the countries of the Southern Caucasus and the wider region.
- Svante E. Cornell, Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
- Glen Howard, President, Jamestown Foundation
- Ambassador Tedo Japaridze, Former Ambassador of Georgia to the United States, Canada, and Mexico
- Suat Kiniklioglu, Former Turkish Parliamentarian and Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Security and Developmental Policy
- Sergey Markedonov, Leading Researcher at the Institute of International Studies at MGIMO-University