Imagine if Russia withdrew from all occupied Ukrainian territory, and Russian-speakers in the Donbas region and Crimea gave up separatism in return for autonomy and civic rights. Given Vladimir Putin’s thirst to annex much of Ukraine and his assault on Ukrainian national identity, such an outcome is at present far out of reach. But to much of the world it would seem a reasonable solution.
In the 35-year-long conflict between the south Caucasus states of Armenia and Azerbaijan, a settlement along these lines is starting to appear possible. On May 22, Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, stated that he was ready to recognise Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan. His chief condition was that the government in Baku should protect the rights and security of the roughly 120,000 Karabakh Armenians.
For his part, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, said last week that he saw “a possibility of coming to a peace agreement, considering that Armenia has formally recognised Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan”.
A deal would send four messages to the world. First, it would end the oldest unresolved territorial dispute in the former Soviet Union, a sometimes ferociously fought conflict that began in 1988. Second, it would contribute stability to the south Caucasus, a fragile meeting point of civilisations where the EU, US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and China brush up uneasily against each other. Third, a deal would suggest that, despite the war in Ukraine and notwithstanding that their diplomatic efforts in the south Caucasus are not exactly co-ordinated, western governments and Russia may find it in their separate interests to settle a notoriously intractable conflict.
The fourth lesson is more revealing about the harsh realities of geopolitics. For one reason why a settlement is within sight is that Azerbaijan has gained the upper hand in its military struggle with Armenia. Doubtless this lesson will not be lost on Ukrainians.
During a war in 1991-1994, in which some 30,000 people were killed, Armenia seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh and, partly or completely, seven regions around it. It held about 13.6 per cent of the internationally recognised territory of Azerbaijan. In a six-week war in 2020 that cost another 8,000 lives, Azerbaijani forces recaptured almost all the lost land. Since then, Baku has pressed home its advantage, inducing Pashinyan’s concession on Nagorno-Karabakh.
A peace settlement is by no means certain. At a meeting in Moscow on May 25, chaired by Putin, Pashinyan and Aliyev exchanged angry words over Baku’s decision to set up a checkpoint on the Lachin corridor. This is a highway that runs through Azerbaijan and is the only road connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. For the hard-pressed people of Nagorno-Karabakh, the checkpoint awakens old fears that Azerbaijan’s long-term objective is to ethnically cleanse the enclave of Armenians.
This points to another obstacle. Pashinyan’s concession has sparked outrage in Nagorno-Karabakh and across much of Armenian society, where the dream of a single political space uniting the enclave with Armenia appears to be falling apart. But the options of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are limited. Yerevan’s relations with Moscow are poor because of the refusal of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military bloc, to take Armenia’s side in recent clashes with Azerbaijan. The US and EU support the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity — with guarantees for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Still, if the west and Russia can keep their antagonism over Ukraine from spilling into the south Caucasus, and if Azerbaijan calms the fears of the Karabakh Armenians, peace may be possible. It would be quite an achievement in a troubled world.