In Conversation with Paul Goble: Russia-West confrontation, Ukrainian crisis, Karabakh & Zangazur [VIDEO]
By Orkhan Amashov
In an exclusive interview with Azernews, Paul Goble, former advisor to the US Secretary of State, shared his views on the present state of affairs in Ukraine, its geopolitical implications, and gave a detailed and informed articulation of his perspective on the myriad elements of the contemporary Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process.
My conversation with Paul Goble, which took place on 23 June, was highly stimulating and undeniably refreshing. Naturally, our starting point was the perilous situation in Ukraine. I was aware of my illustrious interlocutor's strong views on the subject, and this paved the way for forthcoming deliberations on the other subjects.
Then we smoothly moved into the realms of Azerbaijani-Armenian discourse, and discussed the multifarious aspects falling within the rubric of the present agenda: the main elements impacting interstate normalisation, the Zangazur project, the relevance of the "status" at the present time, the beleaguered OSCE Minsk Group’s dysfunctional nature, the prospects of current negotiations, the Turkish-Russian rivalry in the South Caucasus, the Shusha and Moscow declarations and many other issues.
Q: I understand that you awoke early. Were you being asked for your opinion on a particular matter?
A: Well, I have been up for four hours. I had something I had to get written. The situation in Transnistria does not look good. Somebody asked me to write that up. The EU is going to make Moldova a candidate member today or tomorrow. The consequences are that both Tiraspol and Moscow are going to respond. So, not in a good way. So, I have tried to get that done on the paper this morning.
OA: You have clearly had a very creative morning.
A. I hope it was creative. It was certainly busy.
This juncture in the Ukrainian crisis
Q: We will start with the current circumstances on the ground in Ukraine and then move to the situation involving the South Caucasus, particularly focusing on Azerbaijan. How do you see the interim situation in Ukraine at this moment?
A: When we say "at this moment", we have to talk about different timeframes. My own assumption is that for the next few weeks we are likely to see some small Russian gains. But that beginning from late July-early August onwards, the Ukrainian military not only receives Western-NATO standard weaponry, but also training on how to use them, then I think we will see a reversal, and this will move much more in the direction of a frozen conflict.
I don't see any realistic chance that Ukraine will descend... will collapse, that the government will collapse, that Moscow will be able to occupy Kyiv, let alone all of the rest of it.
It is not so much the sanctions regime as the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people. What is happening right now is the rearmament of the Ukrainian military. Most people act as if once the weapons show up, you can use them immediately. But there are two ways in which that is not true. First, the simpler one is that you simply need to know how to operate them. Some of these very advanced weapons are very complicated, very computerised and they will win their use.
You don't use these weapons in the same way. What we see right now is that the Ukrainian military is being re-geared. The chances of Russia occupying Kyiv or Lviv are rare. What I was basically saying is that once the Ukrainian military has learned how to use these weapons, both in terms of operating them, and also including them. We talk about two months. When the fall comes maneuvring will be easier.
Q: There is one school of thought whereby neither Russia, nor Europe ‘wins’ this war. At the end of the day, Russia will be weakened, and Europe will achieve the objective of making the Russian economy suffer. Eventually, Ukraine will be truncated and lose its eastern provinces, but the rest of Ukraine will be independent, sovereign, and more pro-European. Do you concur with this evaluation which has been made by some people?
A: Well, I have heard that argument made of course. My own view is that it all depends on what you mean by the remnant of Ukraine. Ukraine that controls Odesa has a Black Sea port is one kind of entity. One that is reduced to only the inland areas up against Poland is a fundamentally different one.
I don't think the Ukrainians are going to be satisfied with stopping the conflict, however much the West wants. To get peace? That is not going to be happen. I think there is going to be a continued fight for a very long time, probably until Vladimir Putin is no longer on the scene and the government in Moscow decides that what it is doing is fundamentally against its own interests, not only in terms of sanctions.
Let us be really clear here. As the new census results show, a Russia that absorbs a larger portion of Ukraine is going to be less Russian. Not more. Less Russian. I wrote a piece not long ago in which I said that Putin is often accused of trying to restore the Soviet Union. All the forces that led the Soviet Union to fall apart.
The USSR collapsed because roughly half of the population was not ethnically Russian. Probably, right now about a third of the population is not ethnically Russian. But if you have Belarus, if you have a hank of Ukraine, you are creating a situation in which when only talking about economic problems, we are talking about political survival and I think that Mr Putin does not understand that, but I think that vector is going to continue for some time.
Well, I think we have lived so long in a world where there is ever violence, then the first question is how do you get the violence to stop. And stopping the violence is defying the peace.
We did not talk that way in 1939. We did not talk that way in 1914. And I don't think we are going to talk that way forever. The Europeans are going to stay in that position longer than the Americans are and the Russians have already demonstrated they are not there.
I don't think that stopping the shooting ends this war. And I think you will see a partisan war and will see renewed violence. What Russia has done to Ukraine is of such great violence that I don't think there are many Ukrainians who are willing to say that if we can just stop the shooting that will be good enough. I don't think that is good enough for the Ukrainians, and I think they will continue to fight.
How Europe and how the West, more generally, will respond, we will have to see. But there is an increasing recognition at least in Washington, if not in European capitals, that stopping the violence is not enough, even stopping the violence is not a step toward a settlement.
If you were to declare that all the violence was going to stop today, and everybody did that, that would allow Russia to establish control effectively everywhere it has troops, over time. And from the Ukrainian perspective, that is not an acceptable outcome. I am not sure any Ukrainian politician is going to say there is no substitute for victory, as American generals liked to say in the past.
But I think there is in some ways no substitute for victory, by which I mean driving the Russians back at least towards the line they were on February 23rd. So, I am very troubled by the view that we are going to solve the problem by stopping the shooting. Stopping the shooting is not the end of the war, not the end of the conflict.
We know if we look at the South Caucasus at various points the amount of violence has been seriously reduced because of declarations about agreements. But until the underlying problems are addressed, in the case of the South Caucasus, control of the territory that one of the sides believes should belong to it, or does belong to it, does not end the conflict.
It is not going to end the conflict in Ukraine. With 35-40 million people the Ukrainian nation is going to have the capacity over time to develop the kind of weapons and defensive mechanisms, including I believe ultimately nuclear weapons, that will change this conflict fundamentally whatever people in Brussels and Washington think.
Russia vs. EU over Karabakh
Q: As you have said, this conflict will last for some time and to the end of Mr Putin’s time in power. I now wish to draw your attention to the current situation in the South Caucasus. Russia is a very important player in this region and considers it to be its backyard. Currently, Russia is a chief mediator of the Azerbaijani-Armenian interstate normalisation. How do you think the fact that Russia is currently pre-occupied with Ukraine will impact its significance within this region regarding Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Karabakh issue?
A: The first thing one needs to say about that is what constitutes Russia's backyard varies from year to year. If we had been talking about the Russian backyard in the commentariat and phraseology 30 years ago, we would have been talking about Poland and East Germany, too. I believe what constitutes the backyard of any country is changing over time.
And the notion that Russia has a special right to be involved is erroneous. It should be a participant, but its having the last word on this is an open question. It is not a given right, it did not drop from heaven; it is something that Russians claim.
I have argued for 30 years that any solution in the South Caucasus is going to reflect, above all, talks between and an understanding between Azerbaijan and Armenia that outside powers are not going to be able to impose peace unless they impose their total control.
And presumably since 1991, neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia has been interested in having Russian control. So, the question is how do you move forward? How do you reach some kind of settlement?
I have argued that you need an exchange so that each side walks away with the belief it got what it wanted. Not everyone agrees with that. That is usually the best way.
What we have seen, what we saw after the 44-day war, the explosion part of the conflict is that we now have Russian troops in Karabakh, which did not have. But we don't have the organised Armenian Republic troops in Karabakh. We have Armenian troops, but they are nominally at least part of the pre-existing “Artsakh republic”, the breakaway republic that Yerevan, and to a certain extent, Moscow tried to promote.
I believe, this is my concern, if Russia is the only player, Russia does not have a compelling interest at present in a settlement - in ending the tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its position, its power in the region, depends on playing one side off against the other, which is what it has been doing for 100 years.
Therefore, the participation of the Europeans is welcome, as an alternative, of course. But Europe has far fewer assets on the ground than Russia does. So, it is not equally strong. I think one would have to ask both Yerevan and
Baku what exactly they want. Baku says we want everybody to recognise the borders that existed in 1991. Yerevan says we might recognise those borders, but we want a special status for the Armenian population in Karabakh. That is the basis, but, in fact, there are a bunch of other things.
Baku wants a “corr” (editorial office - corridor) to Nakhchivan. That is a big deal. Armenia wants to be a participant in the economic recovery of the South Caucasus where Azerbaijan has taken the lead. There are multiple issues here. And we tend to get locked in the question which says that the borders of 1991 must be restored or must be changed.
In fact, it is a much more complicated game than that. It is going to take a long time to negotiate even if there is good faith, and right now there is no good faith on all sides. I think the Russian government is playing on that to maintain itself in a weakened position.
I think we have to concede that Russia’s position in the South Caucasus is not as strong as it was in 1991. It may be stronger than it was in 2015. Getting troops on the ground is a big deal. But even there I think you see that the Russians are discovering that having your own troops on the ground may or may not be all that it cracked up to be and give them everything you want.
My sense is that EU participation is welcome, but will not be determinative, Russia's participation is inevitable, but will be increasingly not determinative, because it lacks the leverage in both capitals. It may have some leverage in both, but it does not have controlling leverage in either.
Q: The official Azerbaijani view is that the conflict is over and we are dealing with post-conflict matters. This view is not shared by everybody. In Armenia, the diametrically opposed view is that the conflict is on-going, one phase has finished, and a new phase is underway. The Azerbaijani official view is that the main reason for the conflict - the question of the status of the former Nagorno-Karabakh region - is no longer up for discussion, although the legal regime applicable to the Armenian population of Karabakh, their security and rights is to be determined.
Mr Pashinyan made a couple of interesting comments over the past few months. In late December, he said that the misguided OSCE Minsk Group process was following a trajectory that could not have led to the
separation of Karabakh from Azerbaijan. He added that already the principles elaborated at that stage were somehow directed at the result of Karabakh being part of Azerbaijan.
In April, he effectively crossed the liminal line in the Armenian parliament, stating that Armenians should lower their status expectations, because the international community expects Armenia to recognise the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. However, he reiterated the need to guarantee the security and rights of the Armenians of Karabakh.
Do you believe this notion called status is somehow transmogrifying in an etymological sense? May one argue that the concern is now no longer about the territory, but about the rights and security of Karabakh Armenians?
A: There are some people who believe that. There are other people who don't. On the one hand, in Baku people say if portions of your country are occupied, it does not matter very much whom they are occupied by. That if Russian troops control what used to be called “Artsakh”, it is not necessarily a huge step forward from when Armenian forces used to control what was used to be called “Artsakh”.
And there are many people in Armenia, perhaps the majority even within the government coalition, who believe that any grant of respect to individual members of an ethnic community, namely the Armenians, would rapidly be eliminated overtime and might never be respected in the first place, and, therefore, one needs some kind of territorial structure for it.
I think that is one of the reasons why there are large numbers of people in the streets of Yerevan, protesting Pashinyan's point of view. If Pashinyan had this strength to push forward on what he has been saying for the last few months, there might be a way forward to get a signed agreement.
What there is not however is a sufficient amount of strength, he is just that not politically strong. Secondly, this is even more important, just as the Ukrainians are not going to forgive the Russian invasion on February 24, Armenians are not going to forget the history of their national movement over the last 35 years and the role that Karabakh played in that.
One of the reasons that I have hoped for the restoration of the Zangazur territory as part of Azerbaijan, was because I thought the existence of two Austrias in the South Caucasus was very dangerous. Austrias are where extremists come from, as we all know.
And the nationalism in both Armenia and Azerbaijan is greater because there is a place called Karabakh, and because there is a place called Nakhchivan. If you had a political system that reflected people mostly from around Baku, from the Absheron peninsula, and mostly in Armenia proper, you had a very different relationship between the two.
But the issue of controlling is so that...... Well, I am not sure, but I welcome what Pashinyan is saying. It does provide an opening in principle, but I have very great doubts that he has the ability to take Armenia with him on that.
I think those in Azerbaijan who are saying that the conflict of the status is over are being at minimum overly optimistic. They certainly are trying to seize the rhetorical advantage. In their place, I would do the same. Having said that, you have to ask yourself could any Armenian government sign an agreement giving up for all time any aspirations toward territory beyond the borders of Armenia that existed in 1991. And I think the answer is no.
Let us not forget. Sometimes, it is the simplest things that show us what to do. Armenia is the only country on earth whose national symbol is not in its territory. That is, the people that feel it has been taking losses, retreating for 500 years, and it says something.
Those people are simply not about to simply walk away from these issues, as would be good, or simply perhaps Mr Pashinyan appears to want. I personally am delighted by the possibility that Azerbaijan commits itself to respecting the ethnic rights of Armenians on its territory. That is great. The question is if it is acceptable or credible from the point of view of Armenians.
My suggestion is that at present it is not. And getting to that point is going to be very hard. It is not something that can happen just because the prime minister of Armenia says so occasionally. There are too many Armenians who have different views. The centrality of an Armenian territorial retreat over the last few hundred years, in the mental map of Armenians, is so powerful that changing that is going to be very, very difficult.
And it is going to take some time. I personally do not expect to live long enough to see some kind of a final settlement that everybody expects. I think that is something for the very distant future. Although I fully accept that there will be an agreement that people will proclaim and represent that well before that time.
Zangazur Corridor - the Armenian nightmare
Q: Although pessimism is justifiable, perhaps we will see that settlement within an unspecified fullness of time. I now wish to move to the Zangazur subject. The term ‘corridor’ is not acceptable for Armenia as they see an encroachment into their territorial integrity. What Azerbaijan effectively wants is to connect its mainland territory to Nakhchivan using an unimpeded connection, with Russian Border Guard Services providing security elements and minimal checkpoints. In the ill-informed Armenian view, as I understand it, this amounts to a violation of their territorial integrity. How do you see the prospects of this project and this legal-political contestation?
A. I think we need you to keep in mind that there are many Azerbaijanis who think of Zangazur as a historic part of Azerbaijan. Because that is so, many Armenians see any discussion of what is going on between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhchivan as an effort to move toward that ultimate position, hence the word ‘corridor’ is stricken from the news.
People talk about a minimally supervised transit. Azerbaijan will be very much better off, if the transit can go from across from, what is now the Syunik province of Armenia, between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan so that Azerbaijanis do not have to line up and get Iranian visas to go by land from Baku to Nakhchivan, as they do now. That is critical.
It will be very much better off if that transit is unimpeded, even extraterritorial. Ok? I understand if you are especially worried about the status of Armenians in Karabakh, you would also worry about defending your own territorial integrity if you were an Armenian. Anything that looks like extraterritorial status, anything that looks like a corridor being a step towards the acquisition of the Zangazur-Syunik province by Azerbaijan. That is how it is being viewed.
I think a real agreement is possible. The question is what kind of restrictions are there. Where we are now, as I understand it, is that Moscow currently controls the Armenian border guard system and the Russians will be the ones who will check the documents of Azerbaijanis living either in Nakhchivan or Azerbaijan proper, transiting through Syunik in either direction and that there will be checkpoints along the way. It is not that long, but there will be checkpoints.
What I understand is what Azerbaijan wants is the acceptance of checkpoints at the beginning and end, but in the corridor, it should be almost extraterritorial. The issues of what laws apply or who is in charge and so forth are important, but they are inside.
The difficulty, of course, is that, as we know from world history, again and again, whenever you have a corridor, or you have a transit across an area, it becomes a corridor and becomes a source of conflict. World War II began in Europe, at least nominally, over the control of the Danzig corridor, Germany proper and East Prussia - now Kaliningrad - now we are watching the discussions about what does it mean, what Kaliningrad's isolation means, now that Lithuania has imposed the EU sanctions regime on transit across its territory between Russian Federation and Kaliningrad.
So, what the problem is, it is very easy to say we draw things like this, but if people have expectations of something larger, they see that if people in Azerbaijan see the opening of the transit link as being the beginning of a possibility of a corridor, ultimately the possibility of Azerbaijani control over Syunik - which Azerbaijanis call Zangazur.
People in Armenia are going to fear that is really what this is about. They are not going to see it as an end or see it as an endpoint. The Azerbaijani government in Baku is quite prepared to accept this limited understanding of the transit. I am not sure if all Azerbaijanis are. A lot of Azerbaijanis, especially those driven from their homes, during the war in the early 90s, think that Azerbaijan deserves more than that. And that is a factor. Is it going to be a determining factor? One does not know.
But one has to understand if you are an Armenian, and you look at this agreement or any kind of agreement like that you are going to worry that this is an opening move of something larger. Just as, this is the other case, Azerbaijanis are going to see a suspicion of an opening move somewhere else. And that is what makes it so difficult.
If everybody could say that this is what it is, this is the agreement, and it will always be that way, then sure you could make progress. But this is a historically saturated region in the world. Nobody believes that the next is the last step. Everybody believes that the next step is the step that is on the road to something more.
Some are more in favour of that, others are less in favor of that. But whatever one side of the conflict - people who think that way - people on the other side of the conflict read what happens in terms of that. And that is why Baku may no longer be using the word corridor because the Russians have been persistent on that along with the Armenians. I promise you 99.44 percent of the Armenian population thinks that is the Armenian-Russian “cor” (editorial - corridor). And they see it as the first step toward the Azerbaijani acquisition of Syunik.
Q: I have heard some Armenians say that, during the Second Karabakh War, Armenia "lost Karabakh", and they are on the verge of losing half of Armenia by agreeing to the corridor.
Q: Azerbaijani President Aliyev was in Brussels in December 2021. He compared the Zangazur and Lachin corridors. We know that the term ‘corridor’ is not used in relation to the Zangazur passage in the trilateral declaration. Article 6 of the trilateral declaration says that Azerbaijan is to guarantee unhindered movement along the Lachin Corridor. Armenia has to do much the same in relation to the Zangazur route. President Aliyev has said that if there are checkpoints in Zangazur, Baku will insist on checkpoints in relation to the Lachin Corridor. How do you see this moment in the context of bargaining chips?
A: Think about it for just a minute. The Lachin corridor, from Azerbaijan's point of view, may connect Armenia to the Armenian population of Karabakh inside of Azerbaijan. The Lachin corridor and the Armenian population of Karabakh are part of Azerbaijan.
The situation between Azerbaijan proper and Nakhchivan is very different. Here, we are talking about the connection of two parts of one sovereign state. When President Aliyev said that, I wondered whether he really wanted to make that point.
Because if I were an Armenian negotiator, my response is this is a great place to begin. So, if Lachin is an Armenian corridor somewhere, and somewhere needs to be specified, guess what that is, it is called “Artsakh”. It is a negotiating knife with two edges. It may work in one direction, but it also works in another.
The OSCE Minsk Group - a stillborn spectre
Q: I am now going to ask about the OSCE Minsk Group at the current moment. This institute of Co-chairs does not seem to be functional. The US and France do not talk to Russia. There does not seem to be any chance of group activity. But, on paper, this organisation is still in existence and the Armenian side is making references to it. In February this year, Azerbaijan made a five-point offer. Armenia parried this with a six-point package, wherein one of the points was related to the impotent OSCE Minsk Group. My question is whether this organisation is still alive in a real sense of the word and if resuscitation is, indeed, possible and desirable?
A: I used to keep on my computer screen the factsheet that the last meeting of the League of Nations took place in 1946. International organisations once created take on the life of their own even if they no longer perform any real function.
My own view is apparently close to what I think yours is as suggested by the way you have asked the question. It was the institution of the co-chairs that guaranteed that this would be stillborn. I don’t see the OSCE MG as having any great success. You will hear in the capitals of all the countries involved that, well, it prevented violence for many years. Well, did it? I am not so sure.
I understand why Armenia is very interested in trying to revive the activities of the MG. And it is simply this. The OSCE Minsk Group, in the persons of Americans, and especially the French, are the only ones who seem to be very sympathetic to the idea that a focus, other than the Armenians, the focus of the talks should be on the final status of the Armenian community politically in Azerbaijan.
And the other negotiations are very much focused on the border demarcation of the state border and on the opening of the transit routes. But the question of the final status has always been part of, at least, the nominal agenda of the MG. So, it is not surprising that the Armenians would like to see it revived as a real player.
Is that likely? I think it is not likely for two reasons. Firstly, as you have pointed out, there has really been a break in the East-West dialogue, and it is not likely to be restored anytime soon. That is just a fact. If the Americans and the Russians, or the French and the Russians, can’t talk to each other at the diplomatic level, on a constant basis, I don’t see this group playing a big role.
I think the idea of a final status will always be resurfacing, and when it does people are likely to make references to the Minks Group, which was associated with that issue, the final status. The Minks Group never very much focused on the delimitation and demarcation of the borders, it focused on final status, hence the interest of Armenia for that.
Now we seem to be moving toward a focus. First, on the delimitation of the borders, and then on the opening of communications. Those are easier or simpler things to do. But they leave the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room really is what is the final status of the Armenian community inside Azerbaijan.
Is it a political entity? Or, is it simply a collection of 100,000 plus ethnic Armenians who happen to live in Azerbaijan? That is the huge issue. And it is not the focus now. It is not the focus in Brussels; it is not the focus in Moscow talks. Instead, they are focusing on two other issues. Hence, people are going to talk about some kind of revival from the dead of the Minsk Group. Because it was and is prepared to talk about those things in principle, even if in terms of its actual operation today, it is unlikely to make very much progress.
Q: The present subject matter that both Brussels and Moscow formats are focusing on, as you have said, is interstate normalisation, which entails border delimitation and demarcation and unblocking of communications. The issue related to the security and rights of the Armenian population inside Azerbaijan is not touched upon. Could this be interpreted as a sign that the Azerbaijani government has masterfully managed to downgrade this issue since November 2020?
A: Of course. Azerbaijan won a huge victory, militarily on the ground. It could have won even a larger military victory or could have taken all that would have been “Artsakh”. That would have likely entailed a large Armenia out-migration and international outcry.
I personally believe the Azerbaijani government decided to stop when it did not because of the good offices of the Kremlin, but because it did not want to provoke that.
To the extent that the result of its victory on the ground would have enabled it to shift the discussion from being about the status of the final status of the Armenians in Azerbaijan to the question of the delimitation of the state borders and the opening of communications and transportation lines. It is a great victory for Baku.
Q: In November 2020, some Azerbaijanis were saying that, after the critical moment of the Shusha liberation, it was possible to regain full control over the remainder of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Oblast, including Khankendi. Others were arguing that total victory was unsustainable and Azerbaijan behaved in a very wise and shrewd way, particularly given the prospect of international condemnation, however unjustified. What ultimately happened was that Azerbaijan re-established control over a substantial part of the formerly occupied territories. However, it deemed it necessary to let Russian peacekeepers enter Azerbaijani sovereign territory. Do you believe this was a sensible compromise on the part of Azerbaijan?
A: First of all, I completely agree that Azerbaijan could have occupied all of it. And I also believe that, as I have said, it chose not to do so because it did not want to provoke an outflow of Armenian refugees, which would have given Baku a black eye, putting it in a very difficult position internationally.
And I think there was a sense that if we stop now we will eventually get what we want. The question I have in the settlement is why Azerbaijan agreed to Russian serving as peacekeepers, not even balanced with the Turks, but not even following the normal rules of the peacekeepers in international conflicts
The fact is international law holds that peacekeepers are supposed to be drawn from the countries which are not parties to the conflict. That is why so many of them come from places like Sweden or South America. If, at the end of the conflict, there would have been an agreement to put in Swedish, Brazilian, or pick your own third country as peacekeepers that would have been a huge victory for Azerbaijan.
By having the Russians, who are party to the conflict, there is a Russian military base in Armenia, this is the fact of life. Therefore, since the Russian peacekeepers - quote on quote - have been in Stepanakert, they have acted as if they are allied with the Armenian officials still there. So, they have not acted as peacekeepers are supposed to act.
So, to that extent, Azerbaijan saw part of its victory taken away. I understand why it happened because the assumption was that Russians would not even allow the Turks to be co-peacekeepers. As you know, the monitoring centre which was supposed to be a joint Russia-Turkish was pushed so far out of the zone, that it could not do its job.
The Russians were very heavy-handed, Armenians were thrilled to have the Russians there because the Armenians were certain that the Russians would behave the way they have. The Russians are de facto allies of the Armenians not only in Yerevan, but the Armenians in Stepanakert.
Azerbaijan made a very good calculation to stop the war. My own view is that it made a huge mistake in assisting peacekeepers as opposed to Russian troops. Because now we have the Russian troops on the ground. I take very seriously those in Baku who say if part of your country is occupied it does not matter too much who is occupying it.
Georgia - the way, Armenia - the tool, Azerbaijan - the prize
Q: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is revisiting Azerbaijan today. This will be a generic question. How seriously does Russia need benign Azerbaijan in the light of the current Ukrainian crisis? Azerbaijan and Russia signed the Moscow declaration on 22 February, two days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Do you think that the timing was accidental? How do you see the Azerbaijani approach to the situation, given the Karabakh issue? Was this a well-calculated move by Azerbaijan?
A: I think Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov knew exactly what he was doing by orchestrating the signing of that just before the Russian military moved and invaded Ukraine. I think Azerbaijan was probably taken aback and was surprised by what happened 24 hours later.
I don’t think that Azerbaijan was anymore expecting Russia to move as it did as any other major country. I also think that we need to keep in mind that for Russia, Azerbaijan is the most important country in the South Caucasus, vastly more important than Armenia and Georgia.
A very wise Azerbaijani commentator said about 20 years ago that in the South Caucasus for Russia that Georgia is the way, Armenia is the tool, and Azerbaijan is the prize.
This governs how Lavrov and others in Moscow think. That gives Azerbaijan enormous leverage when it chooses to use it. Sometimes it is used effectively, sometimes not. I personally believe that Azerbaijan conceded too much to the Russians on the peacekeepers and made a mistake in signing an agreement when it did when the things were obviously fluid.
Although no one was expecting February 24th. Let us be clear. There were predictions that the Russians were going to move, and there was a lot of discussions that that would not happen.
Q: The Russians, of course, knew exactly what they were doing.
A: Yes, they knew what they were doing. Azerbaijan was taken aback; they had not thought it all the way through. It is very difficult. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry is filled with some very capable people. But it is simply not large enough and is not structured in a way that guarantees that all the options would be considered and brought to the attention of the people at the top. That is hard in any society even with a huge foreign ministry. When you have a small one, it gets harder yet.
Q: Turkiye is a very important player. As you know, the Turkish government decided to officially change the English transliteration of the country name to 'Turkiye'. I will refer to it as Turkiye. Turkiye is an increasingly important player in the region. It is evident that the Second Karabakh War has only augmented its clout. There is actually a joint Turkish-Russian centre in Agdam, although this does not mean Turkish boots are on the ground. It is a centre with technical personnel. It does not seem to sway considerable leverage on the situation. How do you see the increase in Turkish influence in the light of Russian interests in the region? Do you believe Turkiye will be able to squeeze Russia into a corner at some point?
A: I have mentioned the Agdam center as an example of what was originally discussed as a joint Russian-Turkish operation center that was going to be very close to Stepanakert (editorial -Khankendi), or at least within the former territory of "Artsakh", in a way that would allow the Turks to play an active role, and the Russians insisted on moving it.
I don’t know how much Azerbaijan resisted the Russian pressure in that regard but was compelled to stop. Turkiye is a rising power in the region, it is going to continue to rise. Russia is a declining power, and it is going to continue to decline.
The fact that Russia is a declining power explains Ukraine. Ukraine did not happen because Russia is a growing power. Ukraine happened because Russia is a declining power and decided to go for broke.
If Russia's goal was to keep Ukraine as an ally, to ensure that the relations between Kyiv and Moscow were always close, Putin behaved to exactly the opposite effect. He has driven the Ukrainians into the arms of the West, and probably, I believe, Ukraine will eventually be a member of NATO.
In the South Caucasus, Russia is terrified of the rise of Turkiye. It sees Azerbaijan as Turkiye's closest ally, which it is in the South Caucasus. And Russia is concerned that it represents a threat to the Southern part of the Russian Federation, which it does. In the short term, what you will see is the Russian behaviour that reflects Russia's weakening position rather than Russia's strengthening position. The countries that are in decline tend to behave that way. Even in terms of their own interests.
A very few countries in decline accept that decline and try to adapt. Most countries that are in decline try to show that that is not true by taking actions that usually work against them. Britain in the Suez is a classic example, Russia in Ukraine is another example. Russia's and its relations with Turkiye in the South Caucasus are the third.
Q: The fact Russia has been in decline for some considerable time is obvious, although its end date is undefined.
A. It will not be. Not in our lifetime. What I am saying is that there are ways that Russia could turn it around. But they are so completely at odds with the Russian national self-image and especially with the self-image promoted by Vladimir Putin.
The likelihood of a crash is probably greater today than it has ever been since 1991. And what we are going to see is another round of decolonisation and disintegration. That is not necessary, but it is likely to happen. The fact it is likely that it will happen is going to lead Russia, I believe, to make the same kind of mistakes that other declining powers have made.
I suggest when we talk about what Russia is doing we need to think of it in the context of Russian decline, rather than accept Putin's version of events that Russia has risen from her knees. Russia has risen from her knees only because it was farther down the hill than it was a year, 10 or 20 years early. I just insist on that as an understanding of what is going on. It works in the Caucasus as well as in Ukraine.
Q: There are certain Russia-sponsored or Russia-induced quasi-entities in former post-soviet countries, such as Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia in Georgia, now Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, the former Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Could we say that, in the light of what has happened in Eastern Ukraine, the western view of these entities will be relatively uniform?
A. To be as succinct as I can be, I don't think you are going to see a uniformed position, either in the sense of all these areas being viewed the same, or they are being viewed in the same way in all Western capitals.
What I do think you are seeing is greater suspiciousness in most Western capitals of anything of Russian-ties. There is a greater willingness now to think about these places as catchpoles for the Russian imperial resurgence, rather than as some kind of an inevitable result of the demise of the Soviet Union.
To the extent that that view spreads and is dominant, it will lead to Western countries showing a much more jaundiced view of what Moscow is doing and perhaps a greater willingness to oppose it. President Tokayev's remarks show how he reads the situation. He does not want to be on the wrong side of history.
Q. One of the key aspects which define contemporary Azerbaijan's international clout is its energy export capabilities. The Ukrainian crisis has escalated the importance of this issue in the clearest possible way. Russia, as a key provider of energy to Europe, used to send 155 bcm per annum prior to the sanctions. It is obvious that no country alone is capable of replacing this volume. Azerbaijan sends 10 bcm per annum via the westernmost section of the Southern Gas Corridor. To what extent is Azerbaijan a consequential actor? How greatly will its energy export capabilities impact its status as a player, punching above its weight?
A. Certainly, this is going to give Azerbaijan two great advantages. Firstly, it is going to mean that people will look at Baku as an alternative source, even if it can’t supply everything. Secondly, it will invariably and inevitably be the case that the western countries are less critical of the domestic arrangements in Azerbaijan than they would be if Azerbaijan had not supplied oil and gas. Countries that have enormous economic clout and help are less likely to be criticised for what they have been doing at home. Both of those things are clearly something that the Aliyev government wants.
Q: I wish to ask you about the Shusha and Moscow declarations that Azerbaijan signed with Turkiye and Russia respectively. It seems to me that they are different. The Moscow declaration is about agreeing on a behavioural pattern. It is about cooperation, coordination and not competing in certain areas. Whereas the Shusha declaration seems to be more about harmonisation and evolving into one framework. Azerbaijani President Aliyev recently stated that Baku's ambition is to build a smaller version of the Turkish army. We are not talking about building a smaller version of the Russian army. The Second Karabakh War was a very clear indication of the superiority of technologically-advanced Turkish-supplied Azerbaijani arms over Russia-supplied Armenian arms. How do you see the difference between these two declarations in the foreign policy design of Azerbaijan? How are they different?
A: I think you are absolutely right to point out the differences. The agreement that Baku signed with Ankara is an agreement between allies who have every interest to become even closer allies, between two nations that see themselves quite literally as “one nation and two states”, as the phrase has it. It is about reinforcing and re-asserting that connection.
The Moscow agreement, on the other hand, is between the two countries that have had a troubled relationship. They may cooperate on certain things, they may be in conflict with others, and they try to set the rules of the game so that the conflicts don't overwhelm the places where they can cooperate.
That is fundamentally a different kind of agreement. Diplomats sign both kinds, but they are not the same. Just because they have the same title -declaration, does not mean they are the same. It is important, as you are suggesting, one has to distinguish one from the other.
Q: Interestingly enough, the Shusha declaration has been ratified, whereas the Moscow declaration has not been ratified. I guess it is just a procedure. I would not read too much into it.
A: Well, the speed with which the things are ratified matters in this sense. It depends on whether by withholding the ratification, you can effect when the other side ratifies things. Turkiye wanted to ratify it quickly too, as did Azerbaijan.
As far as I am aware, Russia has not ratified the Moscow declaration either. I am quite sure the Azerbaijani government does not want to get a way ahead of when Russia is going to do it. Appearing too eager in international affairs is almost as bad as appearing too eager when you are in business deals.
Q. There is another big neighbour - Iran - with which Azerbaijan has had a very complicated relationship, to put it mildly. Baku seems to want to have good relations with all of its big neighbours. There is a view that, if Azerbaijan wants to be in a stable environment and to project even greater power, it needs to be on excellent terms with its triumvirate of megalithic neighbours. In March 2022, Azerbaijan signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Iran, envisioning a communications route connecting East Zangazur with Nakhchivan via Iranian territory. How do you see the prospects with Iran?
A. One hopes that there will be some kind of cooperation. But Azerbaijan has to overcome not only the very complicated history of its relations with Tehran but also the fact that Tehran, shall we say, is in a "special relationship" with the West, which is not good.
If Azerbaijan moves too far in the direction of cooperation with the Iranians, it will have consequences for its relations with the West. Many countries care a whole lot about how third parties deal with the Iranians.
It is a multi-layered chess game. It is the case that Iran is an ancient and highly cultured country, which is occasionally led by leaders who made somewhat outrageous statements about how they don't like this and that, which does not sound like the diplomacy we are used to in Western Europe.
Navigating that is going to be hard. My old friend, the late Lennart Meri of Estonia liked to say that he would rather have Canada as a neighbour than the countries he does. I am sure there are people in Baku who say they wished they lived in a different neighbourhood also. But they live in this neighbourhood and it is hard.
Q. The geography of Azerbaijan is indeed very complicated. Mr Goble, I would have loved this conversation to continue for hours and hours. But I understand that time is of the essence. You have been very kind to allocate time for us and respond to our questions. I am very grateful to you, Sir. Thank you very much.
A. My pleasure. I hope we can resume our conversation in the future.