The West’s weakness in Azerbaijan will embolden dictators everywhere – including Putin

An ethnic Armenian soldier stands guard next to Nagorno-Karabakh's flag
An ethnic Armenian soldier stands guard next to Nagorno-Karabakh's flag

Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine brought out moral clarity in the West. But the sudden surge of violence between Azeris and Armenians deep down in the Caucasus can seem a tragically complicated conflict.

The mountainous region of Karabakh has seen recurrent conflict between Christian Armenians and largely Muslim Azeris since the late 1980s. But in 2020, oil-rich Azerbaijan used its resources to fund a well-equipped army using drones in combat to shift the military balance decisively in its favour. On Tuesday morning, Azerbaijan went in for the kill to finish off any pretence of self-government for the Armenians in the region.

The Azeris and Armenians are fighting at a crossroads of great power and energy politics. Azerbaijan has been seen as an alternative energy supplier to a Western Europe at loggerheads with Russia. But should Brussels turn a blind eye to both the humanitarian and geopolitical consequences of this new war?

Maybe the West’s attention span has been exhausted by the war in Ukraine, but Russia, Iran and Turkey have deep interests in fighting where their interests meet or rather collide. Few people will think it is a coincidence that Putin’s Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, just happened to arrive in Teheran as the Azeri offensive against Karabakh began.

Although nominally an ally of Armenia, Russia has its hands full in Ukraine and in recent weeks, the Armenian government has irritated the Kremlin by announcing its attention to join the international tribunal in the Hague which has indicted Vladimir Putin. Armenia has just completed a small military exercise with the US army which also greatly antagonised Moscow.

But even if Russia has cooled on Armenia, its neighbour, Iran, is increasingly central to Putin’s war effort. Armenian businesses have been back-door sanctions-busters for Russia, but Iran’s provision of drones and other military supplies to the Kremlin makes it a much more important partner.

Azerbaijan, too, acts as an economic ally to Russia since it effectively launders Russian energy exports, but its regime is assertive and plays both sides of the NATO-Russia divide, just like its Turkic big brother in Ankara. Iran, meanwhile, sees a pliant Armenia as an ally against Azerbaijan, its bitter regional rival that openly sells oil to the Ayatollahs’ bête noire Israel, which in turn has sold drones and other hardware to Baku.

Ironically, both Armenians and Israelis live in the shadow of genocides suffered in the twentieth century. Armenians have seen Iran as a de facto ally while Israelis see it as a mortal threat. At different times in the last  generation ordinary Azeris or Armenians have been the main victims of war. Today, the Armenians of the Karabakh enclave face ethnic cleansing, if they’re lucky, and extinction if they are not.

But the regional big powers are manoeuvring for advantage regardless of the humanitarian disaster unfolding. This crisis is not some Ulster-style local religious dispute. Unholy alliances and dirty deals with resonance well beyond the remote Caucasus threaten wider war.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have growled their hostility to any shift in regional influence to Azerbaijan. But Iranian intervention for Armenia risks conflict with Turkey because President Erdogan emphasises pan-Turkic solidarity with the “brother nation”, Azerbaijan.

The EU has called for peace but the Commission is in an awkward spot. Ursula von der Leyen’s one big foreign policy success to date was negotiating a gas deal with the Aliev regime in Baku which was supposed to help end her native Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. That much of the “Azeri” gas sent west appears to be re-packaged Russian gas sold on at a mark up by Baku tainted von der Leyen’s diplomatic coup from the start. Now it could be doubly blood-stained.

But as a German, the President faces another dilemma about taking a strong line on Azerbaijan’s strangulation of Karabakh. Millions of Turks live in her country and most Turks are instinctively pro-Azeri and anti-Armenian. Frau von der Leyen will be cautious about antagonising this group.

France, however, has a strongly pro-Armenian tradition and a culturally significant Armenian community. President Macron has been at loggerheads with Erdogan’s Turkey for many reasons. Helping to suffocate Armenian Karabakh will just add to the list.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine was clear to all, but the Azeri-Armenian conflict has split Western opinion. Machiavellian regional leaders are engaged in a cruel competition for domination over resources as well as territory. The West’s irresolution over the fate of an ancient community facing extinction signals to Putin its support for Ukraine could be waning.

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