Task Forces


The Lessons of Nagorno-Karabakh

By Jovan Kovacic, Political Affairs Editor, New Europe

As the dust settles over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Caucasus, lessons emerge that are crucially pertinent to Serbia’s future choice of geopolitical and military partnerships and outlines appear of an insidious partnership between Turkey and Russia.

After several weeks of fighting, Azeri troops backed by Turkish forces and Syrian rebels that Ankara brought to the fray, captured swathes of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, forcing its Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to accept a humiliating Russian-brokered truce.

In fact, Armenia lost almost two-thirds of the territory it held for the past 20 years in the frozen conflict after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Now the enclave it will still hold, under the truce, will be linked to Armenia proper by a narrow corridor which will be protected by Russian peacekeepers. Turkish peacekeepers will be deployed on the other side of the lines on the Azeri side.

Muddying the waters on Thursday Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said no Turkish peacekeeping troops will be deployed in the region. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar contradicted him the same day and reiterated that they will be deployed.

“For Armenia — whose population remains deeply fearful of Azerbaijan and Turkey after repeated clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh, a history of pogroms against Armenians in the region and the long shadow of the 1915 Armenian genocide — the result is a historical disaster,” Politico’s Ben Judah writes.

The big question is why did Russia fail to come to Armenia’s aid? Armenia is a full member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), while Azerbaijan left in 1999. CSTO was designed to defend its collective external borders, but the organization and Moscow failed to react to the attacks and violation of Armenia’s air sovereignty.

Analysts claim that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin wanted to teach Pashinyan a lesson for courting the West. Indeed, Pashinyan paid a dear price for this, with demonstrators clamoring for his resignation over what they perceive is capitulation and a sell-out of their country.

Putin, however also sent an explicit message to the member states, but also to those who are in the negotiation process for membership in the CSTO – India, Egypt and Iran – “do not play with fire, do not court the West. It’s me or bust,” a senior Western analyst told New Europe.

Serbia has its own frozen conflict in its back-yard with Pristina dating almost the same – since 1999 when NATO bombardment forced the Serbian authorities out of the breakaway mostly Albanian populated province of Kosovo and placed it under UN authority under the Resolution 1244.

Over the past several months some headway has been made in talks between Belgrade and Pristina under the auspices of the US and the EU

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a perfect example of what he wants to avoid, how a frozen conflict can easily be thawed and allowed to explode into a genuine bloody conflict and catastrophe.

“We must draw realistic lessons from what happened in the 90ties. We cannot leave our children this frozen conflict but instead work on a compromise solution,” he said.

He, like many analysts, pointed out that the world, bar a few statements, showed very little inclination to intervene. “The Nagorno-Karabakh war and all its geopolitical intrigue and consequence is hardly mentioned in Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw or London. Why Europe had no plan to prevent war in its neighborhood or play a part in its resolution is simply not being discussed,” Ben Judah noted.

“It is obvious there is another reshuffle of cards in play in the world and that at the end of the day one must always count on own forces’” Vucic said.

Belgrade insists on its course towards EU membership, Partnership for Peace with NATO while maintaining good relations with Russia which backed Belgrade in the UN Security Council whenever the issue of Kosovo was raised.

However, after the Washington agreement on promoting economic cooperation signed at the White House Oval Office last month between Vucic and Pristina’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti and witnessed by President Donald Trump, relations between Belgrade and Moscow, never really at their best for years now, took a sharp turn for the worse. Putin cancelled a previously agreed visit to Belgrade and so did Lavrov weeks later when he was to attend the commemoration of the liberation of Belgrade in WWII.

Many Serbs believe that Russia will come to their rescue in case of another war in the region and have not forgiven NATO for the almost three-month bombardment which took civilian casualties and wreaked havoc on the country’s infrastructure.

“What happened in Nagorno-Karabakh is a stark warning also to Serbia that it cannot rely on Moscow. It should seriously rethink its military policy,” said the analyst.

“First, it is obvious that the state must define its vital national interests and foreign policy. Foreign policy, in fact, represents the relationship between the cost price and the benefits received and has nothing to do with religion or emotions. Serbia’s foreign policy identity should be clear to everyone and its orientation towards European integration indisputable. In the security context, we essentially need a reliable alliance with powerful and influential countries or integration into a collective security system that guarantees us a peaceful future. Everything else is misconception…,” Nikola Lunic, the Executive Director of Serbia’s Strategic Policy Council, recently wrote in an article.

In other words, Serbia, surrounded by NATO member countries from all sides bar Bosnia & Herzegovina, should start rethinking its policy towards NATO which has since apologized for the innocent victims and the destruction.

“Every loss of innocent life is a tragedy, and I am profoundly saddened by each and every one of them.  I have expressed my condolences to the families and all those who have lost their dear ones on both sides of the conflict. We must not forget the past but we can move forward, and this is what NATO and Serbia are doing with this partnership – we are looking towards a better future,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a recent interview to Serbian media.

Serbia has signed the Partnership for Peace agreement with NATO and despite its official policy of neutrality, it has conducted over the past decade many more military exercises with the Alliance than with the Eastern bloc armies. It recently cancelled participation in a joint exercise in Belarus over the current protest to the chagrin of pro-Russian community and Moscow.

“Although the (Serbia’s) National Security Strategy and the Defense Strategy were adopted 10 months ago, it is obvious that Serbia’s determination to expand and improve cooperation with the CSTO should be reconsidered. This security alliance has proven that it provides only the illusion of security to its members and that all CSTO vows are subject to the national interests of the member states,” Lunic said.

NATO, however, has a problem of its own in the shape of an important member – Turkey which has started behaving like a “rogue agent” ignoring the Alliance’s calls for de-escalation of tensions with fellow member, Greece, getting into a serious row with France and acquiring Russia’s advanced hardware, including the anti-aircraft system S-400. This recalcitrance cost Turkey the loss of promised US-made F-35 stealth fighters which will be delivered instead to UAE under a USD 28 billion deal disclosed on Wednesday.

Indeed, Turkey has been sliding away from NATO over the past few years but the latest successful adventure in Nagorno Karabakh has raised much concern over what appears to be an emerging pattern of fast friendship and concerted action to achieve common strategic goals.

It started off with Syria years ago. First, the Russian troops saved Assad’s regime, but left a pocket of insurgents in Idlib intact to be joined by Turkey, which waded into foreign sovereign soil without being invited, in the capacity of self-appointed peace-keepers – ostensibly to protect its borders against the Kurds. It’s like having a fox guard the henhouse, said the analyst.

“Then came Libya with pretty much the same scenario – again the two were on the opposing sides but without inflicting any serious mutual damage – and now both are there waiting for the peace talks to end, and our bet is both will stay on as peace-keepers.

“Now Nagorno-Karabakh and again we have the same scenario of boots on the ground. Turkey has pulled off another fast one, this time over Iran too which can’t be too happy with seeing Ankara’s influence expand in its own backyard. We say one occurrence is an incident, two of the same – coincidence – three of the same can only be a strategy.”

“Trump was soft on Erdogan and gave him a lot of leeway, despite sanctions, which were after all moderate. Erdogan better not expect the same leniency from the new Biden Administration”, the Western analyst said.