Sunday, November 29, 2020

Are the Events of a Century Ago Repeating Themselves for Russia and Turkey in the Caucasus?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 26 – Few nations are as given to the Russians to considering any new development as the recapitulation of events that happened earlier, with debates about whether that is a tragedy, a farce, or something to be welcomed. Not surprisingly, some Russians are now discussing Armenian events in 2020 in terms of those which happened in 1920.

            Two new articles, one by a frequent commentator on the southern Caucasus and a second by a historian of the Russian special services and their relationship with the Soviet military, are especially interesting in this regard because they likely provide a glimpse into Russian thinking about what comes next in Armenia.

            In a detailed comparison of the events of 1920 and those of 2020 in the region, Aleksey Baliyev argues that “history is repeating itself not as ‘farce’” but rather in ways that provide guidance on how the situation has and will develop (

            Like a century ago, the real borders between Turkey and Russia are being decided, something that is obscured by the existence of Armenia and Azerbaijan but that is nonetheless real, Baliyev says, because the outcome of the war now like the outcome of the war in 1920 was not so much about the peoples in the region but the powers behind them.

            Then, Moscow introduced forces to oppose the Turks; and now, it has done so again in the form of its peacekeepers to restrain Turkey’s agents in the Caucasus, the Azerbaijanis, the commentator says. A century ago, agreements were signed only to be rejected; and Baliyev implies that something like that may occur again as the balance of forces shifts.

            Then as now, at the center of the conflict were Qarabagh and Nakchivan. The latter was given to Azerbaijan by the Soviet-Turkish treaty of March 16, 1921; the former had a more complex history. According to Stalin’s aide Mikha Tskhakaya, the best solution – a division of the region along ethnic lines – was not adopted.

            The reason, he argued then, Baliyev recounts, is that “the authorities of Azerbaijan were able to connect these issues with that of the importance of stable relations of the USSR and Turkey.” Consequently, Qarabagh became part of Azerbaijan without an immediate border with Armenia.

            In sum, what happened in 1920 and what is happening again now reflects “a tactical correspondence of interests” between Russia and Turkey, something that was and is definitive but only for a time because of the unwillingness and inability of Western powers who support Armenia to back up their words with real force.

            The other commentary worthy of note comes from Aleksandr Kolpakidi, a historian of the Soviet special forces and of the 11th Red Army which reconquered the South Caucasus for Moscow a century ago. His view of what has happened now is even more negative because of what he argues happened in 1920 (

            In both years, Russia by deferring to Turkey suffered a major failure not only between Moscow and Ankara but in the region. “Azerbaijanis are dissatisfied with us because they consider that we support the Armenians; and the Armenians are dissatisfied because they consider that we didn’t support them enough.”

            But the real tragedy now is not simply that Turkey has won out over Russia but that Russian arms, in the hands of the Armenians who used them, have proved to be anything but reliable and effective, Kolpakidi says. “It is one thing to show cartoons with magic rockets,” he points out, “it is quite another when one must deal with real life.”

            The Kremlin is quite effective doing the first; but the current war shows that that won’t compensate for its technological and geopolitical failings.

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