THE TIMING was impeccable. On November 7th, as the world’s democratic leaders lined up to congratulate Joe Biden on his presidential victory, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The two strongmen, overcome with nostalgia for imperial grand games, had some business to discuss. With America and Europe distracted by elections and the second wave of covid-19 for the past few weeks, they have been busily rejigging the political map of the south Caucasus, potentially shifting the balance of power in this strategic region at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East for years to come.
The contours of the new political map began to emerge two days later with a peace settlement for the region’s longest-lasting unresolved conflict, in the area, once part of the Soviet Union, that is centred on Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist ethnic-Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. In the early 1990s, Armenia, aided by Russia, captured the enclave which it considered essential to its identity and statehood, and occupied the seven adjacent districts that belonged to Azerbaijan. The conflict was semi-frozen but never resolved and drowned in diplomatic talk.
But on September 27th, after 25 years of waiting for the return of its territory, Azerbaijan, aided by Turkey, went to war, reversing its defeat and regaining most of the lost ground—with Russia’s apparent acquiescence. And on November 8th, after six weeks of heavy fighting, Azerbaijan raised its flag over Shusha—a hill-top citadel inside Nagorno-Karabakh, and a cradle of Azerbaijani culture—causing spontaneous jubilation on the streets. It was the eve of the national flag day, marking a short-lived period of Azerbaijan’s independence from 1918-20.
Within hours, Armenia’s exhausted and demoralised forces were forced to capitulate. The news was delivered by Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, in the form of a Facebook post. “Dear compatriots, sisters and brothers. I personally made a very hard decision for me and all of us. I have signed a statement on the termination of the Karabakh war with Russian and Azerbaijani presidents. The text of the statement is unbelievably painful for me and our people,” he wrote.Under the agreement, Armenia is to lay down arms and withdraw from the remaining districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, which has a security agreement with Armenia, will deploy a 2,000-strong fully armed peacekeeping force for the next five and possibly ten years. There was no mention of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the past few days tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians have fled their homes in Stepanakert, the capital, as Azerbaijan’s army closed in. To Armenians, the news was all the more shocking for Mr Pashinyan’s failure to prepare his country for this surrender. Unsurprisingly, Yerevan erupted in protest, with crowds storming the parliament and calling Mr Pashinyan a traitor. Meanwhile, with lightning speed, Russia has moved in its troops, establishing a long-craved military presence in the Lachin corridor that links Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh—the main artery of the conflict. This is something Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, has long resisted. Having closely observed the use of Russian peacekeepers in the war unleashed by Moscow against neighbouring Georgia in 2008, he had no desire to see Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet he had little choice. Going any further in this war risked a direct confrontation with Russian forces, which have a security agreement with Armenia. The shooting-down of a Russian military helicopter by Azerbaijan forces over Armenian territory shortly before the peace deal was announced had given Russia a casus belli.It is also likely that Turkey helped persuade Azerbaijan to accept the deal. Though not mentioned in the trilateral agreement, Turkey was nonetheless a key player in the six weeks of fighting and a beneficiary of the peace deal. Under the peace agreement Turkey will get a direct transport corridor through Armenian territory to the main part of Azerbaijan and the Caspian sea—linking it to Central Asia and China’s Belt and Road initiative. The peace agreement provides for the building of a road from Azerbaijan proper to Nakhchivan, an exclave bordering Turkey. Although Russia will control the road itself, Turkish and Chinese goods will travel along it.In one sense, a military resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh was perhaps always inevitable. Azerbaijan, an oil-rich economy, grew richer, more confident and more frustrated at the protracted peace process. But three factors in the end brought it about.One was the growing assertiveness of Turkey, which showed its willingness to use force and provide military backing to Azerbaijan, in the form of planners and Syrian mercenaries. The second was Russia’s acquiescence in Azerbaijan’s war and in Turkey’s presence. In the past, Azerbaijan had been constrained from launching an all-out offensive by Russia’s security commitment to Armenia. But as Azerbaijan has rightly calculated, that commitment was in effect annulled by the “colour” revolution in Armenia in 2018 that swept Mr Pashinyan, a populist leader, to power.In the eyes of Mr Putin, who does not recognise the legitimacy of leaders brought to power by revolutionary uprisings, Mr Pashinyan did not deserve Russia’s protection. He further angered Mr Putin by imprisoning a friend of his, Robert Kocharian, a former Armenian president, and by refusing Mr Putin’s request to let him out or even to see him during his visit to Yerevan in 2019.The third factor was the gradual disengagement of America from the region, which became particularly pronounced under Donald Trump. This drew strong criticism from Joe Biden, now the president elect, who issued a statement on October 13th: “Inexplicably, the Trump administration has been largely passive, and disengaged, throughout this recent period of escalation.” Neither Mr Trump nor his secretary of state had reached out to Armenia and Azerbaijan, he said. The White House should not delegate diplomacy to Moscow and tell Turkey to stay out of the conflict, he argued. Ironically, it was on the very day that Mr Biden was declared to have won that Mr Erdogan picked up the phone to Mr Putin.