28 Dec 2023
‘War of All Against All’: Where Armenia and Azerbaijan Stand?
The ‘One-Day War’ in September enabled Azerbaijan to take control over Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in the dissolution of the unrecognized political entity and the mass exodus of over 100,000 local Armenians. Concerns are growing that another conflict could be on the horizon in the coming spring. On a contrasting note, a historic development is underway as Armenia and Azerbaijan are on the brink of striking a bilateral deal for the first time. However, the “global ocean” in which Armenia and Azerbaijan find themselves is overshadowed by dark skies as ‘The World is at War’.
The world is a dangerous place – perhaps this Machiavellian argument has never been so relevant. What we are witnessing today is a great power competition and a cascade of conflicts progressing in parallel and escalating cumulatively. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza are claiming more and more lives with each passing day. Not to mention hotspots like the Balkans, Taiwan, and the Sahel, which could erupt at any moment.
This is not because conflicts are inherently a new concept; rather, it is the rivalry between great powers for hegemony that has reached its zenith. Anything less than a “Cold War” – some might even call it pre-World War III preparations – is insufficient to describe what is happening on a global scale. This is what distinguishes the present era from previous periods when either bipolarity or unipolarity brought a degree of deterrence and stability. In a world of multipolarity, there are plenty of fingers on the trigger.
The problem of multipolarity is that even if the great powers avoid confrontation with one another, their actions foment war elsewhere. This is the point at which small nations like Armenia and Azerbaijan, along with their never-ending protracted conflict, become instruments in the global struggle for hegemony. A better paraphrasing of this statement might be summed up in just two words: proxy war.
Some politicians in Armenia and Azerbaijan may find it expedient to make short-term alliances with great powers and present this as a success of their state-of-the-art diplomacy. That does not reflect the actual reality. This support is exploitative and temporary in nature. It is destined to be reversed as long as the calculus changes on the part of the great powers. And no matter what, calculus always changes: there is no endless enmity, just as there are no endless alliances. And when calculus changes, it is almost always followed by abandonment.
Armenians and Azerbaijanis need only look into their history to see how painful and costly such abandonments have been. There are several examples: the Allied abandonment of Armenians after World War I and the genocide, and the total disregard for Azerbaijanis in the early 1990s by the major Western powers when they were facing military occupation. The list goes on.
The consequence of becoming a proxy is a topic on which a body of literature exists. However, there is a lack of discussion among Armenians and Azerbaijanis on how to avert this situation, the outcomes of which are well-known and predictable. A closer look at the international landscape guiding Armenia and Azerbaijan might offer a realpolitik solution. Within the paradigm of realist international politics, these two independent states operate, much like any other state, under an anarchical system where their relative power is the only difference. The operational landscape is the same. As is the overarching goal: the preservation of sovereignty within this system. The central problem lies in the fact that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting to prevent the other from maintaining and strengthening their sovereignty.
There is a reality that this period is quite turbulent, but for many Armenians and Azerbaijanis, the exploitation of their conflict for geopolitical ends, particularly by neighboring countries, is not new but rather a routine that has persisted for decades. While Armenia and Azerbaijan do bear responsibility for the failure of negotiations over the past 30+ years, one should not underestimate the monstrous institutional efforts aimed at preventing Baku and Yerevan from talking to each other. With this in mind, it is perhaps an opportune time to consider sticking together as the “ocean” in which these two “small vessels” sail becomes stormy.
In other words, Armenia and Azerbaijan have to agree and set up rules for institutional cooperation to balance and harmonize opposing power concentrations, thus averting the dire scenario mentioned earlier. How? Perhaps a direct response to this question would be talking to each other. This year, amidst numerous tragic events, signifies a historic occasion as Armenia and Azerbaijan reach an agreement through bilateral negotiations for the first time, leading to the release of around 40 detainees/POWs and the parties commit to collaborating on international platforms. One reading of this development– admittedly an overly optimistic one – might suggest that the “diplomatic war” between Baku and Yerevan is drawing to a close.
There is no need to exaggerate this agreement as a panacea for all issues, yet it should not be underestimated either. Both countries still hold conflicting positions in key areas such as borders, connectivity, and humanitarian concerns, creating potential fault lines that could lead to violence. Here, the shift towards bilateralism becomes relevant more than ever because it could serve as a shield against the mounting challenges arising from “forum shopping” in and between Moscow, Brussels, and Washington amidst this turbulent period.
Many in Armenia would likely be skeptical about embracing a move towards bilateralism due to the acute power asymmetry, which leaves Yerevan with limited room to maneuver in negotiations. Many look to Baku to act on this opportunity, as it is the party with accumulated power projection at its disposal. What is crucial at this moment is the willingness to go for a negotiated settlement through compromises, allowing for the establishment of a foundational agreement. This would pave the way for a legitimate order built on learned and formalized rules, rather than on the unintentional consequences of balancing pressures.
But relying solely on bilateralism is not the full solution; rather, if not de-antagonized and placed within a regional framework (ideally on the South Caucasus level), even bilateral talks would not prevent the possibility of a return to violence. History offers ample examples. In 1972, India and Pakistan signed a peace agreement in Simla/Shimla, acknowledging mutual recognition of territorial integrity and a commitment to peacefully resolving disputes. Despite this bilateral engagement leading to symbolic rapprochement, both countries found themselves in another full-scale war in 1999.
This is the potential scenario awaiting Armenia and Azerbaijan if their relations are not de-antagonized. Here comes the elephant in the room. De-antagonizing necessitates stepping away from the institutional comfort zone, where intergenerational hatred is systemized and fueled, and the dehumanization of the Other is legitimized and rewarded. I would advocate what I call the 3Rs: Reconciliation, Re-humanization, and Re-vitalization of the Armenian-Azerbaijani space.
*The cover image is taken by Arpi Bekaryan in Kronidzor during the mass exodus of Karabakh Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh.