The war in Ukraine raises new questions about the future of the international system. Will we remain in a post-bipolar world, or are we entering a new multipolar one? What prospects await Armenia amid this turbulence: will it continue to peg its destiny between Russia and the West, or find itself in a new world increasingly decoupled from Western influence?
Humanity has entered a post-Western world, at least from the point of view of the Russians, Chinese and Turks who, together, have been leading a convergent reappraisal of a multipolar system that is in conflict with the post-Cold-War, post-bipolar world. How will Armenia seize this shift of geopolitical tectonic plates? Can it find its place in this systemic redistribution of power?
In the eyes of those leading this infernal authoritarian triangle, the war in Ukraine is not the first ongoing war of the post-Western era. It is the second. The first one was the 2020 Artsakh War which witnessed the sidelining of the United States and France, two of the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs. They were entirely discredited since Azerbaijan’s military victory in coalition with Turkey, Pakistan and Jihadists, and to a certain extent, involving Russia and Israel. What has happened since the November 9, 2020 ceasefire that put an end to the 44-day war?
Simply put, we see a progressive recomposition of the global strategic space being led by Russia, Turkey and China, who, in Transcaucasia, lean on Azerbaijan to weaken the interests of Western powers. In the wake of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya, the time has come for the neo-imperial trio to take care of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Since Turkey has entered into a collusion with Eurasian powers, Ankara represents less of a threat than a partner in the eyes of Beijing and Moscow. Turkey is rather seen as a partner upon which both authoritarian giants can rely to move their pawns toward the Middle East and Europe.They can also employ Turkey as a fighting column in the heart of NATO, as part of a larger shared anti-Western strategy. The result is that Ankara plays the ace up its sleeve. It exercises leverage on Moscow’s actions in the Caucasus and in the war in Ukraine while sending aid to Azerbaijan and weapons to Kiev to counterbalance Moscow. Ankara also influences Beijing on the Uyghur question where Islamic solidarity, a principle so dear to Erdogan, is absent.
Entering the post-Western world, the strategic debate is shifting from a world of alliances toward a world of partnerships; more negotiable than the sanctity of alliances, and more flexible than a formal charter. Over 30 years ago, in 1991, the geopolitical shifts favored the Russia-Armenia alliance as well as the Moscow-Yerevan-Tehran axis out of which came the de facto territorial reunification of Armenia and Artsakh against the Ankara-Baku axis. The main partner in this alliance, Russia, while weakened, counts on its Armenian ally to defend its interests. Today, the situation is reversed. The new geopolitical shifts are about destroying what was acquired in the South Caucasus to Azerbaijan’s benefit, and against the Moscow-Yerevan-Tehran axis, hence Baku’s reconquest of territories and the weakening of Armenia. The main partner in these alliances, Russia, now reinforced under Putin, is counting on its Turkish and Chinese partners to project influence across the world.
As a corridor between two seas and four cultural zones (Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia) the South Caucasus finds itself at the heart of a redistribution of land and sea interests. Until 1991, the Baltic, Black and Caspian seas were practically “Communist lakes”. Virtually closed-off maritime zones, these three basins held the distinction of serving platforms for the Soviet Navy to project power toward northern Europe (the Baltic Sea), the Mediterranean (the Black Sea), and Indian Ocean (the Caspian Sea). For the Communist Bloc, control of these three seas constituted a strategic goal of primary importance since they formed part of a maritime security buffer. Now, 30 years after the collapse of the USSR, everything has changed. Russia has retreated from all three seas.
Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO, if successful, will complete the Baltic Sea’s transformation into a “NATO lake”. The Black Sea remains in a bloody configuration until Ukraine recovers sovereignty over its shores. The Caspian is also seeing a reversal of Russian power projection, with Kazakhstan the only littoral country out of five with membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Organization (CSTO). In other words, the nascent post-Western world is firstly one that sees Russia’s interests thwarted over these three seas. In the North, the situation has been frozen by NATO’s presence, which dissuades Russia from any ill-conceived adventurism; in the Center, the situation remains confrontational due to the war in Ukraine and Russia’s occupation of 20% of its territory; in the South, the situation remains complicated by the strategic choices made by the three states (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) invited to join the 3+3 format envisioned by Russia, Turkey and Iran, with China’s blessing. Yet Georgia has shown no interest in being part of this post-Western world. On the contrary, it is fully pivoting towards the Euro-Atlantic space, expecting further integration through EU and NATO membership. Azerbaijan, a “good student” of Russian-Turkish-Chinese authoritarianism, feels at ease in this post-Western world and relies on this neo-imperial dynamic to accumulate the dividends of its military victory against the Armenians. Thus, whether the South Caucasus tilts towards the West or towards the post-Western world depends entirely on the choice Armenia makes. Yerevan, which holds the key to the future of the South Caucasus, is today at the heart of rivalries between Americans and Europeans on the one hand, and Russians, Chinese and Turks on the other.
For the West, Georgia is already considered their geopolitical ally, while Azerbaijan has become a gas partner of primary importance for its supply diversification. Armenia, an emerging democracy in the region, benefits from a geographical position allowing it to both move closer to Georgia toward a common market, and to Iran as a key point on the North-South Corridor if and when the Iranian nuclear issue between Washington and Tehran is resolved. The West has thus every interest in placing all three states under their sway in order to pivot the entire region westward.
Given Russia’s continuing decline in influence across the three seas, and considering that Russia’s maneuvering ability is increasingly narrowing on the Western end of this post-Western world, Moscow seeks, with the support of Baku and Beijing, to open and control new routes. These routes are only possible through the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia and the so-called “Zangezur corridor” connecting mainland Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan with China’s approval. For Baku, this is a windfall—a version of pan-Turkism, albeit diminished, would come to be and following the 2020 military victory, would serve as a confirmation of a political victory in 2022 or later. For Beijing, it’s a shortcut, and thus, saves time and money in the development of its new silk road project. It’s also a bet that Turkey will play its anti-Western card. It’s also an outlet for transporting its goods via land towards states which are not party to international sanctions. Finally, for Ankara, this would double its benefits, since to the East, Turkey would now have a foothold in the South Caucasus, Moscow’s old stomping grounds, and to the West, Turkey would solidify its status as a global economic and strategic intersection.
Iran, for its part, continues to ponder its options. As convenient as the 3+3 format may be for Tehran, not to mention the fact that a South Caucasus devoid of Western influence would fill it with joy, the weakening of the Moscow-Yerevan Axis would be cause for concern. Preoccupying policy makers in Tehran is the idea of a Greater Azerbaijan which could unmask its own vulnerabilities with the backdrop of strengthening of ties among Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel. Coupled with a potential weakening of its relationship with Armenia, such a development remains a source of concern for Iran. This is pushing Tehran to be more flexible to remain master of its own destiny. From this perspective, it is by no means absurd to search for convergences of interest between the United States and Iran. Solving Iran’s nuclear program problems would allow Tehran to regain control of post-Western processes (in Tehran, the hope is that joining a post-Western world will not lead to loss of sovereignty) without losing face in its relations with Moscow, Ankara and Beijing. This would also enable Washington to revive the idea of the North-South Corridor through Georgia and Armenia, while reducing the influence of Russia, China and Turkey.
Where does Armenia fit into all this? Does the struggle for domination of the South Caucasus mean a partition of Armenians between the Republic of Armenia on the one hand, and Artsakh on the other? How will Armenia react to the idea of reestablishing communication lines between Baku and Nakhichevan? First and foremost, Yerevan is not hostile to the reopening of the commercial axis, including between the two parts of Azerbaijan, but on the condition that Armenia maintains sovereignty over its section of it. Iran and China aren’t opposed to this condition, and Russia has made it known that any transportation route will not interfere with the sovereignty of Armenia while Baku and Ankara are both opposed. Baku has, nonetheless, conditioned the resolution to the Karabakh conflict on what it calls the “Zangezur Corridor”. Ankara is taking its time when it comes to normalizing relations with Yerevan.
Thus, the establishment of the post-Western world in the South Caucasus rests beyond Armenia. Nikol Pashinyan’s government can accept it by taking the risk of turning its back on Artsakh, which seeks to attach itself to Russia, to see the Armenian market further integrate into the Eurasian Union of which Armenia is already a member and deprive itself of financial support of Western partners disappointed yet again by Yerevan’s choice, endangering its democracy in the long term. Or his government can wait to see how the conflict in Ukraine will develop, hopes for strong gestures from the West and bets on a resolution of the Iranian nuclear deal and even on an electoral defeat for Erdogan in 2023. In the meantime, Russia has two irons in the fire. If the war in Ukraine turns in its favor, Moscow consolidates its partnership with Ankara, continues to bet on Pashinyan and sacrifices its allies in Armenia (Kocharyan, Sargsyan and the ARF). If the war becomes too precarious for Russia, Moscow eventually reverses its partnership with Ankara, weakens its relationship with Baku and gets rid of Pashinyan in favor of a hypothetical coup d’etat or palace revolution in Yerevan putting in place the forces of the Old Regime, who will carry out Moscow’s new agenda: the resumption of fighting in Artsakh. In other words, Armenia has the choice between three options: either the West imposes itself in the South Caucasus and preserves the sovereignty of the three States but in the name of regional balance arbitrates the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis (least likely option); or the post-Western world integrates an Armenia now reduced to the rank of Eurasian market without Artsakh (most realistic option); or the post-Western world goes to war with itself and sets the South Caucasus ablaze (plausible option).
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