Late September 2023 witnessed the brutal and tragic end by military force of the Armenian enclave inside Azerbajdjan, Nagorno Karabach, and with it the end of some 20 years of Armenian-Azeri military conflict, part frozen, part in flames – as well as the end of endless attempts by various international actors, notably within the so-called Minsk Group, to negotiate a peaceful solution that would accommodate the colliding interests and positions of the local parties involved, Azerbajdjan, Armenia proper and the Armenian minority enclave, Nagorno Karabach.

The fate of Nagorno – and of Armenia – is the latest in a problematic, contemporary series of examples of setbacks for Western-led international peace-keeping diplomacy, sometimes backed by military force (as in the Western Balkans) and normally with basic backing from the UN for needed legitimacy, in its quest for peace and stability in troubled conflict areas: the concerning trend in this series includes the cases of Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Sudan, the string of Sahel countries, and others, at times also displaying examples of long drawn-out more or less frozen conflicts finally ending up, as now in the case of Nagorno Karabach, with a total victory of one side, reflecting a trend of a rules-based global order being replaced by raw power politics.

Total victory in the case of Nagorno Karabach means total, long-planned, Azerbajdjani revenge, with massive Turkish military support, after its loss to Armenia in the fatal 1992 war and the ensuing decades of Armenian protection of the NK enclave and occupation of and devastation of surrounding territories – and of gradual build-up of oil-rich Azerbajdjan’s military strength.

But there was a time, after the end of the Cold War and after the bloody 1992 war between the two Trans-Caucasian contenders, when the newly created Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was deemed willing and capable to provide the appropriate forum for mediation and a settlement. Plans were many and varied to organize a Minsk conference and to send OSCE peacekeepers to the area with the task to oversee implementation of a settlement. Much of world attention then was focused on the Nagorno Karabach issue.

“The security organization’s mediation in Nagorno Karabach was supposed to be based on the principles of the Helsinki Accords, the 1975 agreement between the West and the Soviet Union that formally established territorial integrity, self-determination, and the non-use of force as essential to preserving European peace. In practice, none of these principles were honored. In fact, international commitment to this conflict was always under-resourced because the South-Caucasus was considered too marginal.” (Thomas de Waal, “The end of Nagorno Karabach – How Western inaction enabled Azerbaijan and Russia”, Sept 26, 2023)

Having recounted the years, or decades, of Armenian nationalistic defense of the 1992 war gains and the Azeri build-up of its revanchist project for reconquest of its territories, de Waal dryly summarizes that “Western mediators came up with cleverly drafted peace formulas but were never able to offer the `boots on the ground` to enforce them, as they did in Bosnia or Kosovo”, adding that “All this gave Russia the strongest leverage, and at the end of the 2020 /when Azerbajdjan reconquered all occupied territories and part of Nagorno Karabach/ it duly became the only outside power to intervene directly and put boots on the ground in the form of peacekeepers”.

Not France, not the US as co-chairs of the Minsk Group, and individually. But Russia, but only 2000 Russian troops. And then there was, and is, Turkey with its open military support for brotherly Azerbajdjan (and its mixed competition-cooperation relationship with Russia, here as elsewhere).

“The modern maps of South Caucasus were drawn between 1918 and 1921, during and after World War 1. Then Armenians and Azerbaijanis fought over the disputed territories of Karabach, Nackhchivan and Zangezur, and Turkish and Russian armies marched in and out. What is unfolding today seems a sad throwback to those times, with the multilateral organizations like the OSCE and UN in retreat and appeals by Western actors to international principles go unheeded.” (again quoting de Waals expert analysis).

So what happens now, with Azeri president Aliyev claiming total victory after the final military onslaught, victory, that is, over what was left of Nagorno Karabach, with Armenian president Pashinyan heavily criticized at home for having abandoned his fellow Armenians in Karabach?

Aliyev, with complete Erdogan support, now aspires to the full political integration of the enclave’s population and has started to arrest leading Karabach defenders, calling them terrorists. But instead of adapting to the new realities and staying on, now as Azeri citizens, droves and droves of the Karabach population are now seen fleeing their country through the famous Lachin corridor; at least half the 130 000 or so population have already left, and the rest is likely to follow, facing a desperate future as refugees in Armenia proper, and beyond. Completely unable now to do anything about it militarily, and deeply disappointed at the non-existing response on the part of the Russian “peacekeepers”, the embattled president Pashinyan, has now started to look to the West, to the US, for deeply needed support. Meanwhile, former Karabach leaders have bowed to realities and declared the Nagorno-Karabach province null and void as from new year.

Celebrating the victory, comrades-in-arm Aliyev and Erdogan recently met recently in the other Azeri enclace, Nakhchivan, bordering Turkey and separated from Azeri territory by a stretch of Armenian territory towards Iran. There the two leaders discussed the next geopolitical and geoeconomic step, long sought after by the two, the Zangezur corridor to link Nakhchivan with Azerbajdjan proper and thereby pave the way for a trade route Turkey-Azerbajdjan and beyond, to (and from, China’s Belt and Road) the East, with considerable potential. Erdogan now claims that neighboring Iran has started to like this idea, or project. But what about Armenia whose consent, in times of defeat, is required?

It can be tentatively assessed at this stage, with Russia’s role being demonstrably reduced, politically and militarily, as a result of its demanding war in Ukraine, and that of the US remaining weak, that a hard pressed Armenia will have to bow to realities and seek accommodation with a Turkey which may now – with the Nagorno-Karabach problem “out of the way” – be more free to act on its Armenia file. Such accommodation could involve balancing a negotiated acceptance of the Zangezur corridor project (assuming Iran’s blessing) with a series of normalization steps with Turkey, including the trade boost potential following opening of the long-closed border. Perhaps what is left of the “earthquake diplomacy” of last spring will help here.

Nonetheless, scenes from the road between Nagorno-Karabach and Armenia these days, with desperate refugees reminding of the Balkan wars, or of earlier episodes of Armenian suffering, are tragic. A heavy price for the triumph of 1992.

And lots of reflections to be done as to what this chain of events represents as a new example in the trend of declining multilateralism – and declining Western influence.

The author is ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of RSAWS.