For decades, relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan were seen from a false balance of power prism, that in the end failed miserably, and for Armenia, disastrously.
Since November 2020 the question of what comes next has dominated the political discourse in the region. Some think the solution is a return to a balance of power approach, but given the current realities this sounds more like wishful thinking. The future of the region is not balance of power, but balance of interests. This means that both sides engage and co-operate with each other, simply because it is in their interest to do so. The arguments for such an approach are strong, even if they have not yet been convincingly made to the populations at large.
But first the loose ends from the 2020 war need to be tied up. The Jus post bellum framework has yet to be worked out. Signing a comprehensive peace treaty before the end of the year, as some insist is possible, is unlikely. But signing a peace document by the end of the year is possible. A "Prague Plus", may be a general document that builds on what has been discussed and agreed in Prague on 7 October 2022, and in other already agreed texts. It also means that after its signing negotiations will have to continue very intensively. These are likely to be in two tracks – the main track between Baku and Yerevan, and a secondary parallel track between Baku and Stepanakert.
"It is disingenious to ask what comes first, whether it is peace or a peace treaty, for both depend on each other. For the South Caucasus the next days and weeks will be crucial and it is time for everyone to up their game", writes Dennis Sammut in this Monday Commentary on commonspace.eu
For decades Russian propogandists promoted the idea that the best way to prevent war in the South Caucasus, and particularly between Armenia and Azerbaijan, was to create a balance of power between the two. Based on this logic, Russia flooded the region with weapons and military equipment, selling billions of dollars worth of it to Azerbaijan, and, given that Armenia was a formal ally in the CSTO and a host to a Russian military base, providing billions of dollars worth of arms free or at subsidized prices to Armenia.
This logic was also often taken a step forward, to incorporate the geo-political context: Russia supported Armenia, whilst Turkey supported Azerbaijan, and so a balance existed at the regional level also.
This thinking was always flawed, but by 2016 it had become all but obsolete.
First, in the previous decade, Azerbaijan consolidated its statehood, and using its oil revenues it started purchasing arms from international sources, the quality of which was often much more superior than the Soviet era weaponry Russia was providing free to Armenia. This included drone technology that in the end was decisive in determining the outcome of the 44 day Karabakh War. At the regional level, after the 2016 failed coup in Turkey an unprecedented level of mutual understanding and mutual co-operation developed between Turkey and Russia, steered personally by president Putin and president Erdogan who met regularly to discuss international issues. The two sides gave each other leeway to act in international theatres that was considered unimaginable a few years before. On its part, Russia itself was reviewing its strategic interests, and as a result it saw little value in getting entangled in a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan as an ally of Armenia. It slowly but surely wriggled itself out of its obligations to Armenia and replaced its role to one of detached mediator. The balance of power no longer existed.
Armenia was too slow to realise the full implications of these developments, and as a result paid the price during the 44 day war which it lost. Russia did not come to its aid, nor did it try to stop Turkey from supporting Azerbaijan. The arms Russia had provided proved to be no match for Azerbaijan’s modern weaponry.
Since November 2020 the question of what comes next has dominated the political discourse in the South Caucasus. Should Armenia re-arm to restore the balance of power, and if it decides to do so, does it actually have the economic and financial capacity to? Should Armenia leave the CSTO and seek other alliances that will provide the kind of support that it feels it needs to counter the Azerbaijan-Turkish alliance? And on the Azerbaijani side the question that keeps being asked is if Azerbaijan needs to act again militarily soon, before the balance of power is somehow restored.
This argumentation is often based on fanciful wishful thinking rather than any proper assessment: Armenia may be able to buy 200 million dollars worth of arms from India, but that is not going to be enough to restore the balance of power; it may leave the CSTO, but that does not mean it will accepted as a member of NATO very soon – the “small” detail that Turkey is a NATO member is often conveniently forgotten. As for Azerbaijan, Armenia may be militarily weak, but it does not mean that the Armenian state is about to collapse, nor that the international community would allow a serious incursion on legitimate Armenian territory. The international response to the 13-14 September events should be enough for Baku to understand this.
This means that the region needs to move on from a balance of power prism to something different, and this something different can be tc
Jus post bellum
A second topic that has dominated the discourse in the region for the last two years has been the prospect of Armenia and Azerbaijan signing a peace treaty. The Latin term Jus post bellum is often used for the framework – be it a peace treaty or something else – that provides for the transition from war to peace. That Armenia and Azerbaijan after decades of war and animosity are finding it difficult to negotiate a peace treaty should hardly come as a surprise to anyone. Yet that something is needed, and soon, to see through the transition from war to peace, should be equally clear to everyone. But is it realistic to think that a peace treaty can be agreed and signed before the end of the year, i.e. in ten weeks time as various interlocuters keep insisting is the intention?
Given the current state of play, one can conclude that the signing of a comprehensive peace treaty is unlikely, but signing a peace document by the end of the year is possible. A "Prague Plus", may be a general document that builds on what has been discussed and agreed in Prague on 7 October 2022, and in other already agreed texts. It also means that after its signing negotiations will have to continue very intensively. These are likely to be in two tracks – the main track between Baku and Yerevan, and a secondary parallel track between Baku and Stepanakert.
Chicken or egg, which comes first peace or a peace treaty
To ask what comes first, whether its peace or a peace treaty is somewhat disingenuous, for in fact both are needed. Much has already been said about the lack of trust between the sides and the need to address this at multiple levels. Given the present realities action is needed on three fronts: (a) In the military sphere the two sides now need to be talking to each other intensively; military contacts and confidence and security building measures need to be rolled out as a matter of urgency; (b) the “party of peace” needs to regain the public spaces. The negativity that has dominated the discourse for a long time needs to be fought back; and (c) civilian confidence building measures have to be initiated at multiple levels. It is important that the mass of the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations start feeling the breeze of the wind of peace. There are no quick fixes, but there are quick actions that can be taken: for example movement in the process of opening the Armenian-Turkish border will go a long way.
Nothing is inevitable: both war and peace remain on the agenda
It is not yet possible to say that either war or peace in the South Caucasus are inevitable. Both remain possible. Some would prefer not to make the choice and say that a stalemate where the status quo is frozen, whilst both sides muddle along, may be the best option. The last few years have shown that this strategy failed, and will only result in a state of permanent crisis. There is nothing to suggest it will succeed a second time round.
Balance of interests
Slowly but surely a new school of thought is emerging. This argues that the future of the region is not balance of power, but balance of interests. This means that both sides engage and co-operate with each other, simply because it is in their interest to do so. The arguments for such an approach are strong, even if they have not yet been convincingly made to the populations at large. The details of how on a range of issues - from security to connectivity, from energy to education and health care, a web of co-operation can be constructed that would be able to resist impulses for conflict, will take time to mature but work must start. This is the challenge facing South Caucasus leaders as we enter a few weeks of very intensive diplomacy. Finding the right model for ensuring mutually dependent security and prosperity will require flexibility and imagination. It will also require an international community that is equally ready to be flexible and imaginative, and on top of that it also needs to be generous. For the transition will not come cheap, but in the end it will be cheaper than having to deal with the consequences of war. For the South Caucasus the next days and weeks will be crucial and it is time for everyone to up their game.
Source: Dr Dennis Sammut is Managing Editor of commonspace.eu and Director of LINKS Europe based in The Hague. He writes regularly on European and international security issues, the EU’s policy and strategy towards its neighbourhood and Gulf affairs. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Monday Commentary is a personal opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the views of commonspace.eu or its partners and supporters