The operation to reunify the Azeri territories, which Azerbaijan initiated as an "anti-terrorist" activity in September 2023, irreversibly changed the status of northern Karabakh. The Azerbaijani authorities forced the separatist regime in Karabakh to abolish pseudo-state structures, so that the "separatist republic" would disappear at the end of December 2023. Thus, after almost 32 years of existence, with the support of Armenia, the separatist regime Karabakh administration was forced to abandon the approach regarding the right to self-determination and, respectively, internationally recognised "statehood." Thus, after more than three decades, there are clear premises for at least one frozen conflict, which arose in the context of the collapse of the USSR, to cease to exist.
In addition to some geopolitical improvements, Azerbaijan's actions have generated collateral victims. The reintegration through military elements, as envisaged in Baku, did not take into account the Armenian civilian population of the region. The rapid and methodical manner in which President Ilham Aliyev's regime is carrying out reintegration with the use of force indicates that there was a plan prepared in advance. The outcome of the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenian war favoured a geopolitical rise of the Azeri factor in the South Caucasus. Although the Azerbaijani side tries to create the perception that the exodus of Armenians from Karabakh is voluntary, this process is comparable to "ethnic cleansing." More than two-thirds of Karabakh's more than 120,000 Armenian inhabitants have taken refuge in Armenia due to a lack of safe alternatives. Under the conditions of an authoritarian regime in Baku, the absence of an international mechanism for the protection of the Armenian population, within the territorial limits of Karabakh, excludes their return to the territory of Azerbaijan. Although the UN has decided to send an assessment mission to Karabah, if an adequate civilian mission is not established in the reintegration process, the protection of the Armenian ethnic minority cannot be effectively guaranteed. Therefore the goal of stopping the exodus and reversing the flow of people to Karabakh, with the creation of prerequisites for peaceful co-existence with Azerbaijani citizens who left the region in the 1990s, has a probability of being achieved that is close to zero.
While the situation in Georgia appears frozen after the 2008 war, and the situation in Ukraine faces uncertainties related to the duration of the war and Ukrainian military capabilities, the frozen conflict in Moldova may have a non-violent resolution within a tangible time frame. Unlike Azerbaijan's actions, the Moldovan government does not have the political will or military capacity to initiate unilateral measures to return the Transnistrian region to within Moldovan constitutional boundaries. Furthermore, the context of European integration excludes non-peaceful scenarios.
Territorial reintegration of Azerbaijan
Until 2023, the pseudo-authorities of Karabakh were informally recognised only by the separatist entities of the former Soviet space. Among them were the Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, occupied by Russia since 2014. The list also included separatist regimes in Georgian territory – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – recognised only by Moscow and some of its satellites, after the Russian-Georgian military clashes in 2008. Furthermore, since the early 1990s, Northern Karabakh has developed political ties with the separatist regime in the Transnistrian region of Moldova.
Under the leadership of autocratic President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan is firmly pursuing the reintegration of its territories, once occupied by the military forces of the separatist Karabakh regime, with military support from the official Armenian army. Although Baku insists on the legitimacy of its reintegration efforts, the use of force to achieve this goal has produced casualties on both sides. Thus the Azerbaijani side reported 192 dead soldiers and 511 wounded, and the Karabakh administration reported 200 dead and 400 wounded. At the same time, more than 100,000 Armenians have already left the region (CNN, September 2023), which means that in theory, there are still more than 20,000 people who did not flee.
Baku's strategy is based on two main factors. First, the assertiveness of the Baku government is supported by its military superiority over Armenia, as demonstrated during the 44-day war of 2020. The second factor is the decline of Russia's geopolitical power in the region in the context of the Ukrainian resistance and offensive, supported by massive political-military-financial aid from the West, against Russian aggression. In addition to these factors, a political trend is taking shape, at this time difficult to stop or reverse, according to which Armenian officials show interest in definitively separating Armenia's strategic interests from the status of Karabakh as a separatist region within Azerbaijan.
The security guarantees that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wants to obtain for Armenia will depend, however, on Aliyev's tolerance for the reputational costs to his regime. However, the current unilateral and forced reunification of Azerbaijani territories demonstrates that Aliyev is capable of adopting disruptive behaviour, similar to that of the leaders of Turkey and Russia, to achieve strategic objectives at the risk of sanctions.
The knot of geopolitical interests: Armenia, the West and Russia
Both Armenia and the EU, the US and Russia have refused to get involved in stopping the actions initiated unilaterally by Baku. Territorial reintegration by military means, undertaken by Azerbaijan, has resulted in a wave of refugees leaving Karabakh and a humanitarian crisis that Armenia must manage. The combined effects of these events correspond to a process of "ethnic cleansing". Baku wants to counteract the negative perceptions through the UN evaluation mission, the implementation of which will serve as a strong argument for Azerbaijani media diplomacy in the West.
For national security purposes, the priority of the Armenian government led by Pashinyan is to remove structural obstacles to a peace agreement with Azerbaijan. The signing of such a document is desirable during the summit of the European Political Community in Granada, held on October 5. For this reason, any support for the Karabakh separatist regime is perceived by Pashinyan as a measure that contradicts Azeri territorial integrity. An international peace treaty, supported by the EU and the US, is a more important goal for Pashinyan, because it would provide for mutual recognition of the Azerbaijani-Armenian borders, within the limits of the 1991 borders. This could prevent manifestations of territorial revisionism. Thus Armenia can contribute to the diversification of national security sources through closer ties with the West, as a counterweight to the Azeri-Turkish tandem, and as an alternative to the fading Russian factor.
The EU and the US advocate the observance of the principle of territorial integrity, which also applies to Azerbaijan. As Western geopolitical actors demand the restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity in the context of ongoing Russian military aggression, deviating from the same principle in the case of Azerbaijan would have exposed a double standard. By carrying out the strategy of supporting Armenia's national security, the US and especially the EU avoided jeopardising their strategic dialogues with Baku in the field of energy, regional security, etc. The reluctance of the West, especially the EU (OC-Media, September 2023), to act decisively and quickly to prevent the exodus of Armenian refugees from Karabakh demonstrated certain transactional aspects in its foreign policy towards Armenia and the balance of power in the South Caucasus. Sanctioning Aliyev could have brought him closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin, worsening prospects for a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan, through which Russian influence in the region could be greatly minimised.
From Russia's perspective, the dissolution of the frozen conflict in Karabakh appears to be an inevitable process, given Armenia's inferior military capabilities, ruptures in the Armenian-Russian strategic dialogue, the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic alliance, and the critical energy assets that Azerbaijan used to fuel Western reluctance in the face of the Karabakh refugee crisis. For these reasons, Moscow is trying to instrumentalise the dismantling of the Karabakh separatist regime to weaken Pashinyan's legitimacy, pitting it against the nationalist rhetoric of the opposition that is sympathetic to relations with Moscow. The image attack against Pashinyan and the government he leads, recently orchestrated by the Russian Foreign Ministry (Mid.ru, September 2023), confirms Moscow's intention to fuel anti-government protests, which combine the discontent of the opposition and that of more than 100,000 refugees from Karabakh.
The solution to the Transnistrian conflict: three limitations in favour of a peaceful solution
Compared to Azerbaijan's actions to resolve the frozen conflict on its territory by military means, Moldova opts for strictly pacifist approaches. The imperative to build democratic institutions in the context of European integration, the structural limitations related to the neutrality status, as well as the political approach of the current government, create three categories of constraints that favour the peaceful resolution of the Transnistrian conflict.
The European integration process is part of the first category of limitations that prevent resorting to instruments other than peaceful ones in relation to the solution of the frozen conflict. Already as a candidate for EU membership, Moldova has an obligation to develop and strengthen democratic order and institutions. The EU values of peace and stability, which are indispensable aspects of the EU accession process, establish that the resolution of conflicts, including those of a territorial nature, must take place peacefully, through negotiations. At the same time, based on the fact that Moldova's accession to the EU is not conditional on the resolution of the Transnistrian conflict, based on the precedent created by the Cyprus case (bne IntelliNews, July 2023), the need arises to speed up the conflict settlement disappears. Any future political temptation to use force to accelerate the resolution of the conflict with a view to joining the EU within a tight deadline therefore has no justification. At the same time, the possibility of investing in Moldova's "attractiveness" for the political, economic and social elites of the Transnistrian region increases. The building of the given "attractiveness" requires that Moldova's EU accession negotiations begin in the near future and that this process brings visible results in the sphere of economic development, the fight against corruption and an increase in living standards.
The second category refers to the structural deficiencies of Moldova in the field of defence. In this sense, the neutrality status that the country implements in accordance with the 1994 constitutional provisions has led to suboptimal development of the army. This excluded the use of military instruments from the political conversation about viable territorial reintegration solutions. Only after Russia launched an all-out war against Ukraine in February 2022 did Chisinau focus on modernising the national army, relying on the EU's Peace Facility (as of December 2021, €87mn) and individual assistance from Nato countries (USA, Germany, etc). However, the use of military methods is taboo for the government in Chisinau. Russia is also not capable of triggering a military action by unfreezing the conflict, as it would provoke a reaction from the Ukrainian army, which could decimate Russian influence over the Transnistrian region.
The third category of constraints is related to political-diplomatic motivation. Thus Chisinau rejected the signals and "offers" received from various Ukrainian political actors regarding Ukraine's eventual willingness to help the Moldovan government resolve the Transnistrian conflict. The EU and the US support reducing Moldova's dependence on the Transnistrian region in the field of energy and infrastructure. Ukraine has also eliminated the possibilities of contact between the Transnistrian region with Moscow and the region's access to the global market through its territory and Ukrainian physical infrastructure. Consequently the dependence of the breakaway region on Chisinau increases, and the dependencies decrease in the opposite direction. The decoupling of regional infrastructure chains from Russia in the context of the Russian war against Ukraine and the intensification of Moldova's energy interconnections with Romania further reduce the future resistance of the separatist Tiraspol administration in the face of peaceful reintegration initiatives.
Although geopolitical opportunities are foreshadowed by the reduction of the Russian presence in the South Caucasus, the demise of the separatist regime in Karabakh also has serious humanitarian consequences for the Armenian population in the region. The deployment of an international civilian mission in Karabakh constitutes an emergency. This could serve to protect the Armenian minority and ensure peaceful co-existence with the Azerbaijani majority, but it will not prevent Karabakh's transition from a separatist region to an indivisible part of Azerbaijan. None of the parties with geopolitical interests in the region oppose the reintegration scenario. The agenda of the current government in Yerevan predominates the objective of a lasting peace with Azerbaijan, the EU and the US think in strategic terms trying to avoid any alignment between Aliyev and Putin, and Moscow uses the Karabakh crisis to complicate the situation for Pashinyan's political survival.
Taking into account Tiraspol's increasing dependence on Chisinau and the EU, Moldovan authorities believe that the separatist regime will show goodwill and interest in reintegration measures. Although relying largely on the survival instinct of the Transnistrian region, decision-makers in Chisinau, with the attention of their partners in Brussels and Washington, are trying to avoid humanitarian crises. Even if Moldova would not use force, as Azerbaijan did in Karabakh, causing the exodus of people from Karabakh, unco-ordinated pressure on the separatist regime in Transnistria could cause a socio-economic collapse in the region and, consequently, a flow of refugees.