A War on the Russian Imperial Frontier

Overnight, it seems as if a new war might have broken out in Europe. Armenian authorities claim that at least 49 soldiers have been killed in fighting with Azerbaijan at their disputed border. A new conflict would be a tragedy and a waste. But it would also signal something else: the collapse of Russia’s global empire as it is defeated in Ukraine, and the shaking of the kaleidoscope this will inevitably cause. 

Armenia and Azerbaijan dispute the ownership of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In 2020, they fought a war over it. Unexpectedly, the Armenians were handily defeated. Azerbaijan was heavily supported by Turkey, and Armenia by Russia. The same Turkish drones which are fan favourites in Ukrainian hands wrecked hundreds of Armenian vehicles and positions. The war was called off after a month of this punishment. An uneasy ceasefire has barely held ever since. 

In the search for allies, Armenia has had a difficult hand to play. But even saying that, in choosing Russia, it has chosen poorly. In late 2020, Russian forces were flown in to serve as ‘peacekeepers’ between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and as Russia has launched its own war in Ukraine, its commitment to keeping the peace has steeply declined. 

As Russia has thrown away the lives of tens of thousands of its soldiers, it has drawn more deeply on foreign expeditionary forces. It has evacuated its Syrian bases and called home Kremlin-affiliated mercenaries from Africa.  

Even if your local Russians did not depart straightaway, Moscow has made it clear: their mission is no longer the priority. If you are a member of an armed group opposed to Russia, and want to act in defiance of the Russians, now is the time. And if you merely wait long enough, they might run away of their own accord. 

This month, Russian advances in Ukraine have turned into a series of routs. And as Russia’s war effort has collapsed, it has withdrawn more troops from its imperial frontier – including from Karabakh. Now seemed like the time for Azerbaijan’s dictator to have his war. 

This is a tragedy on its own terms. And much can be blamed on Russia – for inserting itself self-importantly as a mediator, for starting its own unprovoked conflict and being soundly beaten, and for running away from international trouble rather than abide by agreements with Armenia and others. 

Everyone must learn the lesson that has so far eluded Armenia. Russia cannot be trusted to keep their word, and Russians are a good deal less capable in military terms than they pretend. Russia cannot fight your wars and it cannot be depended upon to keep the peace.   

But the free world, and the United States, bear their own blame too – not least for the bizarre delusions which accompany American Democrats when they occupy the White House. Faced with any conflict that they are not party to, American Democrats and European diplomats resort to one of the silliest platitudes in diplomacy. They say that, for every conflict except Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is no ‘military solution’. Already, they have wheeled this out as new hostilities flare in Karabakh.  

‘As we have long made clear, there can be no military solution to the conflict’, said a press statement attributed to US secretary of state Anthony Blinken. ‘We urge an end to any military hostilities immediately’. 

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, meanwhile, said that ‘We call on both sides to resume negotiations to work towards a comprehensive settlement of outstanding issues, including border demarcation.’  

That will show them. 

But diplomatic cliché aside, there is a serious assumption underpinning this line of thought. It is an incorrect assumption, and one which means the American Democrats and the Europeans keep failing to predict conflicts, and to react to them with appropriate seriousness and determination. On the question of ‘military solutions’, the Americans and the Europeans are wrong. For at least one side to most conflicts, there is always a military solution. 

This is as true of any conflict over Karabakh as it is in Ethiopia and Yemen. If one side can win, they can force a solution. That’s what Azerbaijan hoped to do in 2020 before it accepted Russian mediation and what it may do again if it scents that a weakening Russia cannot save Armenia now. 

The Europeans and the Americans must understand that wars do not just fizzle out by law of nature. When dictatorial presidents hear from the European Commission that there is no military solution, they don’t suddenly change their minds and decide to renounce war for good. 

It takes more determined effort to stop conflict. The Russians have failed. If the Americans and Europeans want peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they should send peacekeepers of their own to replace the withdrawn Russian ones, rather than bleating ineffectively about diplomacy. 

This piece was originally published in The Spectator.

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