Event Summary: The Conflict in the Caucasus: Geopolitical Implications
On Monday, November 9, 2020, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘The Conflict in the Caucasus: Geopolitical Implications.’ The discussion featured Luke Coffey, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, and Thomas de Waal, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at SETA DC.
At the outset, de Waal highlighted the fact that the fall of the city of Shusha in Karabakh could have humanitarian implications for Armenians. This development makes it clear that the conflict will not return to the status quo and is entering a new phase where Azerbaijan secured a victory. Throughout history, this conflict has remained of maximalist nature. Third parties have never enjoyed input unless they were an imperial party imposing order. In the 90s, this position played out favorably for the Armenian side. In the aftermath, the conflict remained frozen but was disputed by Azerbaijan and international law. Despite this frozen conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan never saw a comprehensive peace process; there was a constant risk that it would be settled on the battlefield. Unfortunately, this is the reality the world has seen since September. Protecting civilians and disengaging the armies will require an enormous diplomatic and political effort. At this point, Azerbaijan has the upperhand but the conflict remains toxic. This toxicity comes from the fact that Armenians have no trust in Azerbaijanis and what they have in mind for a solution. A security mechanism is required to protect Armenians in Karabakh and hopefully stronger diplomatic efforts will come to the fore to deal with new realities. In terms of the Russian presence, Moscow continues to want an equilibrium in the conflict and has had one for 30 years. The country has played a skillful game with Turkey in blocking Western partners out.
Coffey drew attention to the fact that the war has entered a new phase with the capture of Shusha. Its liberation means that certain considerations will be taken by Baku going forward. The main focus on the Azeri side should be to consolidate military gains while keeping a humanitarian corridor open into Armenia. The more civilians can get out of the area and be ensured a safe passage out of the conflict zone, the better. Azerbaijan should plan for the humanitarian consequences of the approaching winter as well. With factors like changing weather, the kinetic fighting will start to die out but the risk to civilians will become greater. In light of this, if there is no meaningful overture of diplomacy from Armenia’s side, Azerbaijan will not intentionally slow down. The only outcome that could prevent further loss of life is a negotiated settlement. Given Azerbaijan’s advantages, Armenia has no choice but to come to the table. This would create the most ideal situation for both troops on the ground and innocent civilians. At this point, Coffey believes that only Ankara and Moscow have the authority and influence over Armenia and Azerbaijan to force them into a meaningful and enduring peace arrangement. The Minsk Group still exists but is a failure; it requires a more contemporary and creative framework to achieve a negotiated settlement. Because of Turkey’s cultural and historical connection with Azerbaijan, Ankara has always supported its partners in Baku. Russia, on the other hand, is reluctant to get too involved in the conflict because it is preoccupied domestically and abroad.