Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Why the West Fuels Conflict in Armenia

The U.S. and German position is a relic of Stalinist foreign policy, and damaging to the interests of every nation involved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in German at Nachdenkseiten.

The Armenian claim to Nagorno-Karabakh

The Armenians, who lost 90% of their settlement area to Turkey after the genocide of 1915-1922, have a right to protect the little land in the Lower Caucasus that they still have left. This includes Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been inhabited by Armenians since 2,500 years ago, when the Turks rode through the steppes of Central Asia as nomads and the Germans lived in primitive wooden huts.

The magnificent monasteries in this landscape are eloquent testimony to the ancient Armenian history. Unlike in Kosovo or in the neighboring Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, no massive ethnic shifts in favor of the Turkish or Muslim side have occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh over the centuries.

From the perspective of international law, the initial period of the Karabakh conflict is not that of the disintegration of the Soviet Union around 1990, resulting in massacres (as in 1915-1917, primarily of Armenians), the Nagorno-Karabakh War (resulting in a large number of displaced persons on both sides), and the declaration of independence of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, but rather the early 1920s, and especially 1923. The annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan in that year was pushed forward by the then-Commissioner for the Nationalities of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.

Among Stalin’s motives were dubious promises as well as unfair treaties with Turkey, with which Moscow had already betrayed the Armenians since the Armenian-Turkish war of 1920 in the aftermath of the German-imposed peace of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, and his calculation that both republics and the peoples of Armenians and Azeris, ethnic Turks, would fight against each other forever through the unresolved conflict, thus making it easier for Moscow to govern. This approach of divide-and-rule by attaching individual territories to the states of their mortal enemies had also been pursued elsewhere in the Soviet Union, as in the case of Ossetia, which had declared independence from Georgia in 1920, or in the Fergana Valley with the Uzbek-populated city of Osh, which was annexed to Kyrgyzstan. 

For Azerbaijan, the Stalinist annexation of 1923 cannot give rise to any claim under international law to the Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris who were driven out of the semi-military villages around the Armenian mountainous region during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which were built after 1923, obviously do have a right to return. Also, an exchange of territory not belonging to Nagorno-Karabakh, which was occupied by Armenians, is rightly the subject of negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia.  But a reintegration of Nagorno-Karabakh into the state of Azerbaijan cannot be a matter of debate from the perspective of international law.

The role of the West

So why does the West, whose governments are dominated by lawyers, not recognize the clear legal position in favor of the Armenian claim over Nagorno-Karabakh and defend a Stalinist injustice?

The answer, as almost always when international law is broken without hesitation, is geopolitics: the political situation that arose from the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh is now being used by Washington and London, as well as their followers in Berlin, to keep the conflicts in the Caucasus in general boiling and to attack Moscow through its proxies in Ankara and Baku. The economic issue is oil and gas pipelines north and south of the Greater Caucasus. It is about the great east-west geopolitical axis that runs through Tbilisi and Baku in the middle of Halford Mackinder’s heartland of geopolitics, to Central Asia, and intersects in the Caucasus with the north-south axis between Moscow, Tehran and Baghdad. 

Any strengthening of Armenia, no matter how small and insignificant the territorial changes, is in the way, even if the current president in Yerevan stands for a political rapprochement of the country to the West. Whoever drives the few kilometers from there to the beautiful monastery of Khor Virap stands in the middle of this geopolitical conflict on a border between Armenia and Turkey, which is more impenetrable than the inner-German border of 1961-1989 ever was—with orders to shoot, but without any border traffic and with mutual total blockade. The Armenians can only look longingly at their holy mountain, Ararat, or further north at their old capital Ani, both of which are on Turkish territory—they cannot go there. That this is and remains so is politically desired in the West.

I can confirm this personally because I know the attitude first-hand, especially from London circles. A decade ago, after the Kosovo war, which led to a result not recognized by Serbia, I wrote a commentary in which I proposed a ‘Kosovo-Karabakh exchange,’ i.e. a reconciliation of interests between the Turkish Muslim and Slavic Orthodox sides, extended to the non-Slavic areas of the Caucasus, through the exchange of disputed areas in several places. Such exchanges, with the goal of a lasting peace, have a long diplomatic tradition. They are an economic necessity for the countries concerned. Serbia and Kosovo have now understood this and in the last few years, 15 years after the war, have made great strides in negotiations on the exchange of territories.

The answer, which came at that time from the London journal The Economist, which can be called without offense the mouthpiece of the British government and its geopoliticians in the military and secret services, was an article that can be summarized in one word: NO. It was written by an editor who comes from a high-ranking British military family and who also personally informed me of his rejection. And the current response from NATO and the EU to the advanced negotiations with Serbia and Kosovo is, as we know, also a NO.

So the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict could have been resolved decades ago by simple diplomatic means, which Prince Bismarck already mastered at the Berlin Conference of 1878 that partitioned the Balkans. But there is obviously no interest in the West in making this possible. The victims are the people in Armenia and Azerbaijan, who are inundated with false ‘mediation’ formats such as the Minsk Group which do not produce real peace solutions, and who continue to be betrayed in the backrooms with arms deals and political alliances that instigate tensions instead of making peace. This goes as far as the absurdity that Israel, the country where the survivors of the Holocaust found a home, is now the main supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan, which uses these weapons to attack the Armenian survivors of another genocide.

The abuse of Turkey

Turkey, which is coordinating Azerbaijan’s attacks on Armenian Karabakh’s territory militarily and thus actively intervening because the Azerbaijani military had proved incapable in the past and had always been beaten by the Armenians, is once again an aggressor in the current crisis. It should not be overlooked though that the sparkling nationalism and above all Islamism that drives Turkish President Erdogan to attack Christian Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh is the result of a geopolitical calculation. The aggressors act from the background.

Even before the founding of Israel in 1948, the colonial power Britain had successfully divided the Arab world, which was on a course of socialism and pan-Arabism, by creating the extremist Wahabi Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1924. This was followed by the American-backed seizure of power by the Islamist military ruler Zia ul-Haq in 1978 in Pakistan as the eastern cornerstone of Islamism in the region. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan then jointly launched the attack planned by the U.S. and Britain on the Central Asian geopolitical heartland of Afghanistan, plunging the country into what is now a 40-year civil war.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia had also supported the West in the conflicts over the oil and gas pipeline routes in the Caucasus, especially in the Chechen wars of the 1990s, which were aimed at disintegrating Russia. In this conflict, a young Turkish Islamist named Recep Tayyip Erdogan also earned his first spurs as a servant of Western interests. The transformation of secular, Kemalist Turkey by Erdogan and his AKP party into an increasingly radical Islamic republic since 2003, which is waging war or threatening war against almost all its neighboring states, is no coincidence in view of its predecessors Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. It is the outcome of intelligent geostrategic planning. Mark Curtis has described this initially British strategy of building Islamism, which goes back to the 19th century, in detail and knowledgeably in an excellent book.

Nothing is less in Turkey’s national interest than to continue to pursue exactly what it is doing under Erdogan with its neighbors, from Syria to Iraq and Armenia. The last thing a rationally governed Ankara will want is another ethnic cleansing of yet more Armenians after a ‘successful’ attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. The attacks on the cities in northern Syria—inhabited by, among others, refugees of the Armenian genocide of 1915—since 2011 by Islamist terrorist groups, with the consequence of heavy losses in the civilian population, have already massively damaged Turkey’s reputation in the Arab world and the better informed parts of the West.

For example, Saudi Arabia’s current economic sanctions against Turkey are not only related to the conflict over the murder of Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, but also to Turkey’s continuing occupation of Arab land in Syria. The United Arab Emirates have also taken a clear position against Turkey. Both countries have turned against Islamism recently. In the Arab countries, the interests of Armenians and other peoples in conflict with Turkey, who have been generously received as refugees in countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan in the past, are viewed with sympathy.

To be fair, it must be said that Turkey was incited by the West to support Islamist terror in the Syrian war. In the end, however, Ankara must admit that it has been lured into a trap: that of permanently destroying relations with its neighboring countries and diminishing its role in a region where Turkey could have the potential to become a central economic and regulatory power.

A repetition of Syria’s events in Armenia must therefore be avoided for Turkey at all costs. The consequences of ethnic cleansing of the Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh for the country’s reputation would be different from the events in Syria, which have been swept under the carpet by the Western media. They would be devastating and would last for generations. Not only the door to the Arab world, but also the door to Europe would be closed for good.

Economic sanction measures would be one consequence that could very well destroy a Turkish economy already in deep crisis. The German political position on such measures, whatever the current geopolitical footnotes of Washington and London’s Chancellor Merkel may currently say, would in this case, under the pressure of public opinion, shift towards that of France, which has made its position on the protection of the remains of the Armenian lands unmistakably clear. 

The question for Turkey is therefore whether it wants to continue to stand with those who want to continue the Karabakh conflict in order to further destabilize the Caucasus and attack Russia, or whether it wants to resolve the conflict in order to contribute to the development of the Caucasus region and establish good relations with all its neighbors, thereby strengthening its own potentially leading role in the wider Middle East region.

As things stand now, the best chance for Turkey, and for peace in the entire region, is to keep the West, which seems eternally caught up in geopolitical power games, out of the conflict over Karabakh as much as possible and to find a common solution with Russia based on a reasonable interpretation of international law. Foreign Minister Lavrov, probably the best foreign minister of his generation, a half-Armenian, seems to me to be a good contact person here. Whether he will be so with or without the servant of the West, Erdogan, is the big question. Regardless, such a regional solution would certainly be in Turkey’s best national interest.

Hans-Joachim Duebel is a former World Bank employee who has worked as a housing and financial sector expert for 25 years with both Turkey and Armenia, as well as in every country around Turkey, the Balkans, the entire Middle East and Central Asia.