It is very likely that international politics in the South Caucasus is now entering a new stage of development, characterised by the completion, in one form or another, of the largest and most well-known regional conflict — in Nagorno-Karabakh, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The science of international relations deals with the issue of conflicts between great powers with relative ease. Their clashes over interests and values may have, as a practical embodiment, the question of the fate of this or that territory, but the security problem is invariably at the core. Control over territory is of secondary importance here, and the nature of the confrontation concerns the general issues of influence on international politics and the survival of its participants from a strategic perspective.
Such conflicts, whether military or diplomatic ones, often turn into serious wars. However, due to the relative comparability of the opponents’ capabilities and, most importantly, their superiority over the others, the conflict proceeds and is resolved within the framework of bilateral relations. Such conflicts are similar in nature and the factors that determine their course. They are formulaic and easily accessible for forecasting, using the methodological tools of the science of international relations.
The situation is somewhat more complicated in cases where we are talking about states that, by virtue of their combined power capabilities, are not of serious importance for the international balance of power. Such conflicts are not fundamental from the point of view of the interests of their participants and occur for a very specific reason, which is always the territorial issue.
The opposing sides do not pretend to resolve their basic security issues during the conflict — in any case, they do not depend on their will, and the survival of small and even medium-sized states is a derivative of the general development of the international situation. Since the focus is on a very specific issue that arises in unique circumstances, the fate of each of these conflicts is unique.
It is very likely that international politics in the South Caucasus is now entering a new stage of development, characterised by the completion, in one form or another, of the largest and most well-known regional conflict — in Nagorno-Karabakh. The confrontation over the fate of this Armenian-populated region within Azerbaijan has been a central factor in all regional life for more than three decades.
In fact, it was the most important factor in the development of the two neighbouring states after they gained independence in 1991. It shaped their system of foreign policy interests, and determined the development of political systems, economic ties, and military organization.
In general, the formation of new independent states in the space of the former Russian Empire and the USSR was the last stage of a process which unfolded throughout most of the 20th century and was global in nature. Its distinguishing feature was that the new countries were not a product of the collapse of colonial empires, as happened in Africa and Asia, and much earlier in Latin America, but had already formally been sovereign subjects of international relations within the USSR.
In other words, their territorial limits were determined not when these states appeared, but much earlier — in the process of establishing borders between the union republics. The only similar example known to us is the fate of federal Yugoslavia, which experienced a series of bloody wars in the 1990s, whose main function was the division along ethnic lines. However, in this case, the main conflicts were resolved fairly quickly due to the fact that the United States and the leading powers of the European Union were able to determine their position and achieve the defeat of one of the warring parties. Although in this case, the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo, still remains to be determined.
In the case of the former USSR, all territorial conflicts that arose at the time of the collapse of a single state turned out to be, according to the accepted slang expression, “frozen”, i.e. without a definite outcome for a long time. Now we can witness how this stage is coming to an end. The main reason why the situation in Transnistria, relations between Georgia and its former autonomies, as well as until recently in Nagorno-Karabakh has not been resolved, is the absence of a pronounced external force capable of forcing one of the parties to defeat.
The states of Western Europe also went through a stage of defining their ethnic boundaries. Just as for the USSR it was not of fundamental importance that this or that territory belonged to a certain republics, the medieval European system did not know a clear national delimitation. Therefore, at the stage of formation of modern nation-states in Europe, they also faced this objective problem. In most cases, it was solved by violence that took place in large and small wars. The two world wars of the last century played a particularly important role here. As a result of them, significant masses of population were artificially displaced from the territories they occupied before. That is why for the countries of Western Europe the rigid ethnic division is not so tragic — they themselves have gone through this over the past 200 years.
In the case of the ex-USSR, such a scenario turned out to be impossible because the question of an unconditional leader, in terms of force, whose security interests determine the fate of small and even medium-sized neighbours was not defined. The Western countries sought to solve the problems in Moldova, Georgia or Nagorno-Karabakh in the usual way — through the support of scenarios which were bad for national minorities — but they could not do this in full due to the presence of the Russian factor. Neither was Russia itself ready to act as an authority capable of imposing an inevitably unfair decision on one of the parties.
This became possible only in one case: with the former Georgian autonomies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are directly adjacent to Russian territory. In the other two cases — Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh — the Russian influence was enough to prevent the West from realizing its scenario, but not so dominant that it could resolve disputes on its own. Moreover, Russia itself is not ready to proceed from the presumption of inevitable injustice in resolving such conflicts.
As a result, the participants were, to a greater or lesser extent, left to their own. This was especially true of the conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh, where, unlike Transnistria, there was no Russian military presence until November 2020. It appeared there only after the strategic direction of the development of this conflict was determined during a violent clash between its most important participants, Armenia and Azerbaijan, in the fall of 2020.
Thus, the Karabakh conflict really turned out to be the very example where the direct influence of external powerful players turned out to be minimal. This was, apparently, the reason that it develops within the framework of bilateral relations between the main conflicting parties. External forces, even the most powerful, cannot exert a decisive influence on its evolution. However, how sustainable is the likely solution remains to be seen.