Power Play and Tragedy in the Caucasus: Analysing the Outcomes of the Karabakh Conflict, by Dieter Boden

Azerbaijan pounded Nagorno-Karabakh with artillery on September 20, 2023. [EPA]

Azerbaijan pounded Nagorno-Karabakh with artillery on September 20, 2023. [EPA]

Dieter Boden | Special to Abkhaz World

20 September 2023 will enter into the decade-long history of the Karabakh conflict as a major watershed. It is the day which saw the de facto capitulation of the Armenian community resident for centuries as a compact minority on territory generally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan to its Azerbaijani conquerers. The Azerbaijani military attack lasted for just one day before the Karabakh Armenians gave up a hopeless fight.  

So those augurs who have predicted an end by the use of force have been proved right. The prelude was the 44 days war of 2020 between Azerbaijanis and Karabakh Armenians which resulted in Armenian defeat and a cease-fire agreement (10 November). Karabakh, or “Artsakh“ as the self-declared state named itself, lost more than one third of its territory and shrunk to the size of a rump-state with weak defensive lines, encircled by its enemies and with its capital Stepanakert within easy reach by Azerbaijani artillery. The Lachin land corridor, Karabakh‘s lifeline with the Motherland, was under the full control of the Azerbaijani military from December 2021. Efforts for a peace-treaty, which were undertaken with substantial EU mediation, had remained fruitless. When Azerbaijani troops started their attack on 19 September, Karabakh was virtually defenseless. No help could be expected from Armenia, whose President Pashinyan realising the inferiority of his forces decided not to interfere. In this situation the Karabakh Armenians had little other choice but to surrender.  

They were well aware that they were facing a powerful alliance with Türkiye in the lead. President Erdoğan had left no doubt in recent statements that his country would spare no effort to support Azerbaijan on the Karabakh issue. No wonder that Turkish weaponry played a dominant role. Russia, Armenia‘s traditional ally and partner in the defence-alliance Collective Security Treaty Organisation, decided not to intervene. Its peacekeepers deployed in Karabakh in accordance with the ceasefire-agreement of 2020 refrained from any military action. In Western Europe and the US there was strong language to condemn the Azerbaijani military operation, but no sign of physical support. This particularly applies to the EU, whose position was not without ambiguity. It was only a year ago that the EU Commission President had struck a deal on strategic partnership with Baku based on Azerbaijan‘s rich oil- and gas-reserves . Great Britain , cooperating closely with Azerbaijan through its BP company, took a similar approach.  

Whilst the 20 September operation may well put an end to the military side of the Karabakh conflict, it would be wrong to assume that we have reached the end of the road. What is missing is a valid political resolution, and Armenia‘s President Pashinyan underlined this in his first comment after the tragedy when he said that peace must not be confused with truce or ceasefire. In clear terms: any negotiation apart from preventing further military action must focus on how to safeguard the rights of the 120,000 Karabakh Armenians who have lived up to now on their Artsakh territory. Reconciling the deeply rooted feelings of hatred and mistrust prevailing among Armenians and Azerbaijanis to this day will require a titanic and time-consuming effort of confidence-building on both sides. But it must be undertaken.  

In his first address to his people on the evening of 20 September President Aliev used overall conciliatory language. Regarding the Karabakh Armenians, he offered a concept of “re-integration“, but gave assurances that nobody will suffer discrimination. At the same time, he rejected any demands for a particular minority status; Armenians should accept the constututional order in Azerbaijan and be ready to live with it, as every other Azerbaijani citizen.  

+ Some lessons to be learnt from the Karabakh war, by Dieter Boden
+ Lachin Corridor Blockade and Looming Humanitarian Disaster in Nagorno Karabakh, by Vicken Cheterian
+ Karabakh: a reasonable compromise, by Stephen D. Shenfield

What, then, can be understood by the term “re-integration“? Is it forceful assimilation without respecting basic minority rights in the area of religion, language, culture, customs? This would immediately conjure up Armenian apprehensions reaching back to their tragic genocide-experience of 1915. But there may be other, seemingly more peaceful ways to achieve the goal: repression that leads up to an exodus of the Karabakh Armenians, a process which is starting these days. So we need clarity on what is intended by “re-integration“. And this clarity must come very soon to prevent any further appearance of an operation which may have ethnic cleansing as its final objective.  

Reactions from abroad show that the international community is well aware of the challenge.  

Official statements, among others from Brussels and Washington, have expressed dismay about events in Karabakh and reminded Azerbaijan to observe minimum standards of human rights in the treatment of Armenians. Among the first to come out with a commentary to this effect was Russia‘s President Putin. But the matter should not be left to Russia, which may well pursue political aims of her own. The challenge must certainly also go to the EU, which has played a major role in the peace-effort launched after the 2020 Karabakh war. Brussels should not hesitate to take up this matter in high level contacts with the Azerbaijani leadership in Baku.  

These latest events in Karabakh have certainly confirmed the reputation of the Caucasus as being a hotbed of conflict in a strategic region which is generally perceived as the gateway between Europe and Asia. There is every reason to believe that this situation, fraught with an ample potential for further conflict, will continue. Regrettably, it was again military force, not negotiation, that prevailed in the settlement of a conflict in the South Caucasus. This follows an example set by the Russian/Georgian war of August 2008. And it bodes ill for any future conflict-settlement effort that may be undertaken in the region, particularly regarding Georgia.

What remains after the Karabakh drama is to register some remarkable changes on the political chessboard of the South Caucasus. Visibly, the “great game“ among big powers for supremacy in the region goes on. Very obviously Azerbaijan, with Türkiye as its partner, is on the winning side for the time-being. Türkiye has made one further important step on its way to establish itself as a significant regional power in the South Caucasus, a position it held for centuries during the Ottoman Empire. In the background is Iran, not interfering in the current stand-off on Karabakh but watching closely and ready to come to the fore, were any Azerbajani action against Armenian Eastern provinces bordering with Iran to follow  

As for Russia: in sum it has lost influence and credibility, but due to its ongoing military physical presence, it is still a power to be taken seriously. Armenia may be lost as an alliance-partner for the future. This is what Pashinyan indicated when he spoke out publicly on Russia being a “useless“ ally, that Armenia had made a mistake by choosing such a partner and that he would now look out for more reliable partners in the West. It sounded like a complete reversal of Armenia‘s foreign policy. Its logic would include a policy of further rapprochement with the EU.  

And the EU? It is certainly on the losers’ side, considering that it was unable to help produce in due time a peace-agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan that could have prevented the current conflict. But this may not have been the last page in the history of EU activity in the South Caucasus. With the perspective of Georgia‘s possible membership the EU has signalled its readiness to stay in the game as an active player.  

For Armenia the events in Karabakh will possibly open up one more chapter in its dire history of persecution, repression, and genocide. There is still some hope that the Karabakh chapter will after all be less disastrous. But, for the time being, Armenia will remain under a threat: Azerbaijan‘s President has publicly declared that he has claims concerning Armenia‘s Eastern provinces with a view to establishing links with Azerbaijan‘s land-locked province of Nakhchivan, a project which would prioritise the construction of a road with exterritorial status through Armenian territory. This is bound to trigger further military confrontation. The South Caucasus deserves a better future, and forthcoming talks about a peaceful settlement on Karabakh, which must focus on the human rights’ issue, will hopefully remove any such spectre of war.  

Dieter Boden 
Former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for the settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict.




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