The demise of diplomacy: Azerbaijan’s military offensive

For the past several years, the outlook for diplomacy in Russia’s self-proclaimed “near abroad” or sphere of influence has been particularly daunting. Ranging from Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 to its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and continuing aggression in eastern Ukraine, Western diplomacy has been largely stalled and stalemated. More recently, it was Belarus that emerged as the obvious focal point for European engagement and diplomatic efforts, with a new challenge for security and stability along the European Union’s “eastern neighborhood”.

But with a sudden and sweeping military offensive by Azerbaijan early on Sunday morning, the unresolved Nagorno Karabakh conflict has now surfaced as the more pressing and most urgent crisis for European diplomacy.

For many experienced European diplomats, and for much of the EU External Action Service, the stability and security of the Armenian-backed enclave Nagorno Karabakh has been illusive and imaginary. Fueled by pronounced frustration from the lack of any demonstrable progress to date from the mediation of the Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan has been close to walking away from the peace talks with Armenia for some time.

But Azerbaijan’s disdain for diplomacy now threatens to become the demise of diplomatic engagement, as Baku has opted for the force of arms. More specifically, its most recent renewal of military hostilities marks a dangerous turning point in the escalation and intensity of this conflict, with little room and even less likelihood for de-escalation or disengagement.

And within the broader context, this fresh round of fighting raises the stakes for European diplomacy, clearly moving swiftly from concern to crisis. For its part, EU leaders have joined calls for a ceasefire, backing similar statements by the U.S. State Department and bolstering an identical demand by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.  Yet given the localized limits of this rather unique conflict, neither the West, nor Russia for that matter, has much leverage and even less presence or pressure to exert in this case.

For diplomacy in Europe’s east, the timing could not have been worse. Despite the shared threat from the global public health crisis over the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic, Azerbaijan chose this especially vulnerable time to attack.  This is not an isolated incident, however, as this new offensive follows a similar attack in July, now seen as part of a more pronounced pattern of using the military force of arms to attempt to impose a “resolution” to the Karabakh conflict by force rather than through diplomatic negotiations.  And in this context, Azerbaijan has only revealed that it now stands apart as the primary threat to regional security and stability in the wider South Caucasus.

Moreover, the coordination and logistical preparation necessary to conduct this latest offensive by Azerbaijan only demonstrates that this latest round of fighting was a calculated and planned act of aggression.  Beyond the surprise nature of the attack, Azerbaijan’s willingness to target civilian areas and population centers in Karabakh also demonstrates a new disregard for the security of non-combatants.

Although Nagorno Karabakh is a rare conflict with no Russian military presence, there is a real risk of conflict contagion, or spillover, as nearby “proximity powers” may feel compelled to commit to intervening or at least interfering if the fighting continues. Among these regional powers, Russia, Turkey and even Iran may pose even greater challenges for a concerted diplomatic effort at de-escalation.

Clearly, in terms of Russian interests, the Karabakh conflict serves as an effective element for sustaining power and position, cementing Moscow’s influence over both Armenia and Azerbaijan.  In recent years, this has only expanded, as Russia has replaced Turkey as the primary arms supplier for Azerbaijan.  Moscow has also skillfully managed Armenian insecurity and threat perception in its favor, maintaining its security “partnership” with Armenia despite a deepening crisis in that bilateral relationship.

Moreover, even within the context of Western diplomacy, Russia has been granted a rare degree of legitimacy and credibility as a diplomatic partner and mediator of this unique conflict, primarily due to its position as a co-chairing nation, along with France and the United States, of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) “Minsk Group,” which stands apart as the only diplomatic venue for managing and mediating the Karabakh conflict.

Yet, it has been Turkey that has emerged as the most active actor.  In a role that may be as decisive as it is divisive, Turkey has pursued a much more assertive and even aggressive defense of Azerbaijan.  For Armenia and Karabakh, Turkey is increasingly seen as a more serious threat because of its more aggressive posture and due to the Erdogan regime’s assertive pursuit of its interests, most notable evident in its full and unquestioned backing of Azerbaijan.  This driving factor has only elevated the Armenian threat perception of Turkey.  It has only been bolstered by Turkey’s reassertion in the Eastern Mediterranean has prompted a dynamic response in Armenian foreign policy, with a strategic repositioning of Armenia in a closer alliance with Greece and Cyprus and a tactical alignment with Israel and Egypt over maritime security and offshore energy resources.

For Turkey, this vocal support for Azerbaijan is also an attempt to restore Ankara’s past role as Baku’s strategic military patron state, which it lost to Russia and Israel in recent years.  This is also why the Turkish response to recent fighting was immediate and harsh, blindly endorsing Azerbaijan’s version of events even well before the true state of affairs on the ground was determined.

Although this position can be viewed as a natural reaction by Turkey, the sudden and swift backing of Azerbaijan was more of a premature and reflexive reaction than as a result of any prudent well-considered strategy. Therefore, and most importantly, it is a combination of each of these drivers, and Turkey’s repeat of its response to this latest attack, that is now ushering in a new period of a much more active and offensive Armenian foreign policy.

Given this combination of daunting obstacles well beyond the confines of the conflict, the outlook for diplomacy remains bleak.  But with an imperative to halt the fighting and broker a ceasefire or bolster an agreement to “cease firing” at a minimum, it is only European diplomacy that has a chance. Russia has little interest in anything beyond securing its own position of leverage from the conflict.  Turkey has already exposed itself as a biased player without even the pretense of impartiality.  And as the United States remains distracted and disengaged from the South Caucasus, all eyes are on Brussels.

Therefore, the most effective approach for European engagement will be to do just that: engage and engage all parties to the conflict.  With an advantage from Armenia’s greater legitimacy from truly free and fair elections and success in a peaceful transition to democracy, the EU can also engage the democratically elected representatives in Nagorno Karabakh (Artaskh) itself.

While it is no longer sufficient to ignore Karabakh, the military attacks by Azerbaijan and its disdain for diplomacy only makes the case for a new policy of “status neutral” engagement of all parties, without distinction or prejudice.  This is the only way to restore a ceasefire and rebuild a cessation of hostilities that can contribute to a new climate more conducive to genuine and sincere diplomatic negotiations.

The article was first published in New Europe.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.