The new territory of Russia
In November, Russia won a share of someone else’s country. It did so not through unidentified troops crossing the border or through hybrid warfare. Instead, he negotiated the capture in full and without a single question from the United States or the rest of the world. The battle between Azerbaijan and Armenia for Nagorno-Karabakh preceded annexation. The mountainous region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but since the ceasefire between the two nations in 1994 it has been controlled by ethnic Armenians. The conflict erupted again in September. Two months later, a peace agreement was reached with the winning Russia: it mediated a ceasefire that put the Kremlin’s seemingly peacekeeping boots on the ground. America watched without this happening. As a traditional protector of Armenia, Russia held the only lever to persuade Armenia to sign this ceasefire. By signing, Yerevan gave up its claims to the territories it had occupied in Azerbaijan since 1994 and gained nothing – a ceasefire rather than a forced surrender. In exchange for securing a little less humility for his ally, Moscow gained a present and a presence. In reality – unless America is ready to fully engage in the peace process – Nagorno-Karabakh is now Russia indefinitely. The Kremlin controls the territory for five years, with an automatic extension for another five, if neither party opposes the ceasefire six months before the end of its term. Russia certainly will not. He is now the gatekeeper of a central region for Europe’s energy diversification (reducing the role of Russian imports). If the region is strategically important to NATO, it makes it important to the Kremlin. Armenia, out of distrust in Azerbaijan, will want peacekeepers to remain. The brief but brutal conflict has conclusively proved that Armenia cannot win militarily, and therefore ethnic Armenians must accept either the rule of Azerbaijan or the protectorate of Russia. Weak and broken, Yerevan considers it less a humiliation to accept Russian tutelage in Nagorno-Karabakh, even if only to deny an enemy a complete victory. But this is a longer-term disaster for Armenians. It means they are actually caught in a Russian hug. They cannot turn west and they cannot turn east – either diplomatically or for investment – because the Russians are now responsible. Although Moscow is traditionally seen as “on the other side”, Azerbaijan – thanks to warm support from the United States and the EU in recent years – has steadily deepened diplomatic and economic relations with Russia, in part out of necessity and lack of serious alternatives . However, now, with Russian military boots on Azerbaijani territory for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s lever has also become an economic lever: militarily guaranteeing a transport corridor in Armenia – closed before the ceasefire – to Azerbaijan’s slave Nakhichevan, Russia now controls Azerbaijan’s much-sought direct land route from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and Europe. The West could certainly have seen this. This is how it always starts: a finger at the end soon turns into a fingerprint. Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, Abkhazia – the list of examples continues. Russia’s presence becomes Russia’s control: the only logic of Putin’s neo-tsarist ambitions. In reality, now, just a few weeks after the troops are deployed, the Kremlin is maneuvering: the lines on the maps have begun to bend and flex. On the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense, a page presents a map showing the area in which Russian peacekeepers, in accordance with the terms of the agreement, will be stationed and will have jurisdiction in which to operate. On December 13, miraculously, the land he controlled had expanded. This was changed back to the original the next day, after Azerbaijani diplomatic pressure. But this work demonstrates that Kremlin cartographers are becoming creative – and very early in this intervention. Rumors are now swirling about Russian “passporting” in Nagorno-Karabakh. The production of new demographic realities on the ground by granting citizenship was used to maintain influence in the internal affairs of other post-Soviet nations. Once the Russians occupy the area, the Russian state is forced to intervene. It’s a Kremlin repertoire classic. It preceded the invasion of Crimea. It happened in two regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, again before the outbreak of war, with Russia coming out as the main beneficiary. Most recently, passporting was carried out aggressively in eastern Ukraine through an streamlined process. The Kremlin predicts that by the end of the year there will be more than a million Russian citizens carrying new documents. In all these situations, Russia’s control is secure. Passport would mean that a negotiated settlement of the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh – which was supposed to be a form of autonomy in Azerbaijan, as in Soviet days – would never materialize. Instead, it will turn into a protectorate of Russian passports, giving Russia the pretext – or in Moscow’s lexicon, the legal right – to jump into the region in the event of an imagined threat to its “citizens.” In Ukraine, as a result of Russian destabilization, it is surprising that no more precautionary measures are being taken in the South Caucasus. However, there is still time for America to intervene: the ceasefire will leave room for negotiations on a final peace agreement, with much to decide. The United States must fully and comprehensively oppose the passport. US companies should invest in infrastructure and energy projects in the region, so as to limit Russia’s room for maneuver. The US-led joint investment initiatives between Armenia and Azerbaijan would also help reduce their dependence on Russia. It is time for America to step up diplomatic and economic efforts and reintroduce itself into this process. Otherwise, Russia’s empire will continue to expand uncontrollably.