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The recapture of the Karabakh region from Armenia by Azerbaijan’s forces has unleashed a storm of both outrage and ambition in Europe’s east. In the Western Balkans, it may reignite Serbian aspirations to reconquer Kosovo, while in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, it could reinforce convictions that territories currently occupied by Russia will eventually also be regained.
The case of Kosovo is the most distinct, despite the veiled warning of Serbian President Aleksander Vucic that Kosovo could be reoccupied by Serbian troops. Rather than simply dismissing his comparisons, such assertions need careful scrutiny if the lessons of Karabakh are to be learned.
Both Kosovo and Karabakh were autonomous regions within republics — in Serbia and Azerbaijan, respectively — subordinated to larger state structures: Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. When the latter disintegrated, several crucial distinctions emerged between the two regions based on the nature of the war and the international responses. Armenian forces expelled or displaced over 500,000 Azeri civilians from Karabakh and neighboring districts and formed a military alliance with Russia to hold occupied territories.
The exact opposite happened in Kosovo, where during the collapse of Yugoslavia, Serbian government forces expelled or displaced nearly 1 million of the majority Albanian population and claimed the territory for Serbia. A government that expels and murders a national group in a distinct region where they form a majority undercuts its legitimacy to control that territory.
Equally importantly, an international force led by NATO intervened in Kosovo to prevent further mass murders and expulsions and terminated Belgrade’s control. Kosovo’s statehood was recognized by over 100 countries, including all but four NATO members. The country has established democratic institutions closely monitored by international institutions, and it is taking the first steps toward EU accession.
In stark contrast, no country recognized Karabakh as an independent state, not even Armenia or Russia, and no international peacekeeping force was allowed to enter.
The three main lessons stemming from the Karabakh war can be more fruitfully applied to the territories captured by Moscow from Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine: Status quos are temporary, Russian peacekeepers are harmful, and final status agreements are essential.
A status quo does not last indefinitely, particularly if the two protagonists insist on diametrically opposed solutions. The term “frozen conflict” is a misnomer. More accurately, these are unresolved conflicts where negotiations are deliberately stalled or diverted by one of the parties and international mediation is weak or sporadic. Negotiations over Moldova’s Transnistria region, Ukraine’s Donbas, Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Azerbaijan’s Karabakh were not resolved after the initial wars, thus raising the prospects for reigniting.
A second basic lesson is that Russian peacekeepers weaken the host state. They not only prevent the control of territory by the aggrieved capital, but they are also used to legitimize separatist entities, create parallel authorities, divide state institutions, apply pressure on the central government, and disqualify the country from progressing toward EU and NATO membership. Russian forces in the Transnistrian region of Moldova serve as a prime example, and Moscow has calculated that emplacing its forces in Karabakh will provide greater leverage in curtailing Azerbaijan’s Western aspirations.
A third lesson demonstrates that territories separated during wars require international legitimacy regarding their final status to guarantee independence. Kosovo is the most obvious example of a relatively speedy path from territorial separation to widely recognized statehood, despite Serbia’s opposition. Although the Kremlin has tried to engineer a similar outcome in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, only six countries, including Russia itself, have recognized them as independent, they are excluded from international organizations, and Georgia is determined to reclaim them. Similarly, Russia’s outright annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea is not internationally recognized as legitimate.
An additional lesson in the European arena is that sustained EU and U.S. engagement is more likely to resolve the conflict and ensure enduring security. In contrast, the Kremlin’s mediation is calculated to advance its strategic ambitions by creating “frozen states” that cannot progress into international institutions.
Although Azerbaijan has regained its territories through war, it may now become more beholden to the Kremlin because Russia was the chief mediator with Armenia, and Russian peacekeepers will now patrol the reclaimed Karabakh region.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks, is co-authored with Margarita Assenova.