Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Caucasus Peace Deal Is a Success for Putin, Failure for Trump

The grim lessons of the Armenia-Azerbaijan clash.
November 13, 2020
Featured Image
People attend a protest rally against the country's agreement to end fighting with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region outside the government headquarters in Yerevan on November 11, 2020. - More than 2,000 demonstrators protested in the Armenian capital as anger mounted over Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's decision to cede swathes of disputed territory to Azerbaijan under a controversial peace deal. (Photo by Karen MINASYAN / AFP) (Photo by KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images)

A deal has been announced bringing an apparent end (for now) to a long conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The deal, which involves the presence for five years of Russian peacekeepers, was orchestrated by Russia’s Vladimir Putin—and represents a clear failure of the Trump administration.

In a statement published on Monday, Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinian, described as “extremely painful” the decision to sign a formal cessation of war and accede to the majority of Azerbaijan’s demands. The two countries have clashed for decades over the region called Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh), about the size of Rhode Island with a population roughly that of Providence. The population is overwhelmingly Armenian. In the early days of Soviet rule, control of the region was briefly given to Armenia before Moscow—heeding complaints from Turkey—moved the borders. Since 1923, Nagorno-Karabakh has been an enclave inside Azerbaijan but granted considerable autonomy, and the Armenians have wanted it back or wanted it to have true independence. Once the Soviet Union fell, the Armenians and Azeris went to war over the region, but the conflict has mostly just simmered since 1994. Aside from a spurt of fighting in 2016, the most intense clash has been over the last seven weeks. Thousands of lives have been lost this time around, with thousands more displaced before the rapidly approaching winter.

The main reason the outcome has been so clearly in Azerbaijan’s favor this time around is the intervention of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose recent proxy wars and expansionist efforts have also included Libya and Syria. With his backing, Azerbaijan has heavily outspent, outmanned, and outgunned the Armenian resistance in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey even went so far as to deploy hundreds of Syrian fighters against the Armenians. (According to a report not yet confirmed by American journalists, these mercenaries were allegedly offered additional $100 for each Armenian they beheaded.)

There are four early lessons that can be drawn from this year’s Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and how it ended.

First, it is a reminder of how the international community can turn a blind eye even to apparent war crimes if self-interest gets in the way. Even with the indiscriminate shelling of civilian centers with cluster munitions, the intentional bombardment of both hospitals and historic churches, the deployment of white phosphorus bombs in surrounding forests, and the execution of captured Armenian combatants, Azerbaijan has managed to keep the international community at bay due to its lucrative exports of gas and oil.

Second, the conflict has highlighted how armed drones are now available not only to major powers but also to smaller countries (and presumably non-state actors), and can confer a decisive advantage.

Third, this year’s clash in the Caucasus shows how, when America fails to lead, its rivals swoop in. The Trump administration has proved feckless. The United States is a co-chair of the Minsk Group, a longstanding international effort to try to settle the conflict, but the sole cease-fire agreement overseen by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fell apart mere minutes after its initiation. (This has been especially frustrating to Armenian-Americans, who are still smarting from the Trump administration’s rejection last year of congressional resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide.)

While on the campaign trail, President-elect Joe Biden released a statement in mid-October condemning both the conflict and the Trump administration’s lack of mediation, saying that “rather than delegating the diplomacy to Moscow, the administration must get more involved, at the highest levels, by working with our European partners to de-escalate the fighting and return the two sides to negotiations.”

Unfortunately, this course of action wasn’t ultimately pursued, and the Trump administration’s failure to act effectively allowed Russia to intervene as the key regional powerhouse during the negotiations. That Trump would allow the Kremlin to walk away with the upper hand should come at no surprise at this point.

Despite having a defense agreement with Armenia and leasing a military base there, Russia is no real friend to the Armenians: It sells arms to both sides of the conflictfull price to Azerbaijan, and with special financing for Armenia.

Fourth, and finally, Turkey’s major role in the conflict suggests grim possibilities for Armenia. Held alongside Erdoğan’s promise that “[Turkey] will continue to fulfill the mission our grandfathers have carried out for centuries in the Caucasus,” the potential for a second Armenian genocide looms ever larger on the horizon.

Anyone who thinks the international community will intervene to stop such a crisis instead of turning a blind eye has failed to learn the lesson of this year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Jaxon Washburn

Jaxon Washburn is a writer in Tempe, Arizona.