Russia’s new territory
In November, Russia got a piece of other people’s land. It did not do so through unidentified troops moving across a border or through hybrid warfare. Instead, it negotiated its conquest in full view of and without a single question posed by the United States or the rest of the world. Fight between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh prior to annexation. The mountainous region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but since a ceasefire in 1994 between the two nations has been controlled by ethnic Armenians. The conflict flared up again in September. Two months later, a peace deal with Russia came into play: it mediated a ceasefire that placed the Kremlin’s seemingly peacekeeping boots on the ground. America looked blankly at how this happened. As Armenia’s traditional protector, Russia was the only leverage that could convince Armenia to sign this ceasefire. By signing, Yerevan renounced claims to the territories it had occupied within Azerbaijan since 1994 and achieved nothing – prevented a ceasefire rather than forced surrender. In return for securing for his ally a marginally less humiliation, Moscow was given a gift and a presence. In fact, unless America is ready to participate fully in the peace process, Nagorno-Karabakh is now Russia’s indefinite time. The Kremlin apparently controls the territory for five years with an automatic transition to another five if none of the three parties to the ceasefire object six months before the end of the mandate. Russia certainly will not. It is now the gatekeeper to a region central to Europe’s energy diversification (reducing the role of Russian imports). If the region is strategically important to NATO, it makes it strategically important to the Kremlin. Armenia, for distrust of Azerbaijan, wants the peacekeepers to remain. The brief but brutal conflict has certainly proved that Armenia cannot win militarily and that ethnic Armenians must therefore accept either the rule of Azerbaijan or the Protectorate of Russia. Weak and broken, Yerevan finds it less humiliating to accept Russian guidance in Nagorno-Karabakh, if only to deny an arch-enemy a complete victory. But this is a long-term disaster for the Armenians. This means that they are effectively trapped in a Russian embrace. They cannot turn west and cannot turn east – neither diplomatically nor for investment – because the Russians are now in charge. Although Moscow has traditionally seen it as “on the other side”, Azerbaijan – due to lukewarm US and EU support in recent years – has gradually deepened diplomatic and economic relations with Russia, in part from necessity and lack of serious alternatives. But now, with Russian military boots on Azerbaijani territory for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s leverage has also become economic leverage: By militarily guaranteeing a transport corridor across Armenia – closed before the ceasefire – to Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhichevan, Russia now controls Azerbaijan land route from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and Europe. The West could certainly have seen this coming. This is how it always begins: A toe head soon turns into a footprint. Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, Abkhazia – the list of examples continues. Russian presence becomes Russian control: the only logic in Putin’s neo-tsarist ambitions. The Kremlin is now maneuvering just weeks after the deployment of troops: Lines on maps have begun to bend and bend. On the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense, a page shows a map outlining the area where Russian peacekeepers are to be stationed under the terms of the agreement and will have jurisdiction within which they can operate. By December 13, the country they control had miraculously expanded. This was changed back to the original the next day after Azerbaijani diplomatic pressure. But this activity shows that the Kremlin cartographers are getting creative – and very early in this intervention. Rumors are now swelling of Russian “passporting” in Nagorno-Karabakh. The creation of new demographic realities on the ground by granting citizenship has been used to maintain influence in the internal affairs of other post-Soviet nations. When Russians occupy the area, the Russian state is obliged to intervene. It is a classic in the Kremlin repertoire. It preceded the invasion of Crimea. It happened in two regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, again before wars broke out, with Russia emerging as the largest recipient. Recently, passporting has been used aggressively in eastern Ukraine through a helpful streamlined process. The Kremlin predicts that there will be over a million Russian citizens carrying newly minted documents before the end of the year. In all these situations, Russia’s grip is secure. Passporting will mean that a negotiated solution to the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh – what should be a form of autonomy within Azerbaijan, as in Soviet days – will never materialize. Instead, it becomes a Russian passport protection that gives Russia a pretext – or in Moscow’s lexicon, the legal right – to jump into the region if there was any imagined threat to its “citizens” to show up. into Ukraine in the wake of Russian destabilization, it is surprising that no more precautions are being taken in the South Caucasus. It is still time for America to step in: the ceasefire must give way to negotiations on a final peace agreement with much left to decide. The United States must fully and extensively oppose passporting. US companies should invest in infrastructure and energy projects in the region to limit Russia’s room for maneuver. And US-led joint investment initiatives between Armenia and Azerbaijan would help cut dependence on both of Russia. It is time for America to intensify diplomatic and economic efforts and reintroduce itself in this process. Otherwise, Russia’s empire will continue to expand unchecked.