End of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict holds hope for new beginnings

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The writer is senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former UK ambassador to Belarus

After its latest military offensive two weeks ago, Azerbaijan is set to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave within its borders controlled until now by neighbouring Armenia. This will bring to an end a conflict that began in 1988, has preoccupied both combatants, and is a key driver of international engagement with the Caucasus. The outcome holds strategic implications for the west.

For Azerbaijan, this is a total victory won by the cruel, hard methods of military force and economic blockade, together with training and equipment from Turkey. For Armenia, it is a devastating defeat that exposes its failure to prepare diplomatically or militarily for the rising power of an adversary three times its size, and its reliance instead on a contradictory mix of Russian security guarantees, which were not honoured, and western sympathy, which proved merely rhetorical.

For the west, the end of the war shows that outcomes it calls “unacceptable” cannot be stopped by words and meetings alone. The limits of its mediation and soft power have been painfully exposed. Western attention is now focused on humanitarian concerns: the flight of more than 100,000 Armenians from the enclave, and the fate of those few who remain in it. But it should urgently consider the longer-term strategic implications too. The end of the war has the potential to transform the region and forge new relationships within it.

Armenia, disillusioned with Russia, its supposed protector, has just taken part in military exercises with US forces. To Moscow’s fury, it also plans to join the International Criminal Court, which this year indicted Vladimir Putin for war crimes. The west should help Yerevan provide welfare for those arriving from Azerbaijan — which will add up to 4 per cent to Armenia’s population and strain resources.

But the key question is how relations between the west and Azerbaijan will develop. The west’s energy ties with the oil and gas-rich country are more important than ever as it weans itself off Russian supplies. Now there are new security possibilities, especially in light of the war in Ukraine. Azerbaijan is the only country that borders both Russia and Iran, two western adversaries whose ever-closer relations evoke growing alarm. Azerbaijan’s ties with Turkey, a Nato member that also provides weapons support to Ukraine, means that it is receiving military training according to the alliance’s standards. All this offers the potential for a deeper relationship, if the west has the strategic imagination to grasp it.

But much depends on Azerbaijan’s choices. These will determine whether the west’s engagement is limited and transactional or could be deeper and more sustained. Baku would do well to recall Churchill’s maxim: “In victory, magnanimity.” Armenians who choose to remain in Azerbaijan must be protected and allowed to live in safety. Baku should be ready to sign an early peace treaty. It must renounce any designs on Armenia’s sovereignty.

Beyond this, all parties should explore economic opportunities denied them by the conflict. France and Germany fought three wars in 70 years yet were able to begin reconciliation through integration. Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have fought three wars in half that time, could learn from this — and the EU could help.

The goal should be to build a region defined by the interests of the future rather than the agonies of the past. Secure, stable and constructive relations between Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the west would not only be good in themselves, but unwelcome to Russia, which thrives on instability. The west should be ready to support this. Azerbaijan’s choices will be critical. After decades of mutual enmity, generosity towards defeated Armenia could reap disproportionate rewards. The next move is Baku’s.

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