Argument

When Great-Power Politics Isn’t Great Enough

Turkey and Russia helped craft a cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh. But what they need is a grand bargain for the entire region.

Russian peacekeepers patrol the village of Dadivank in Nagorno-Karabakh on Nov. 20.
Russian peacekeepers patrol the village of Dadivank in Nagorno-Karabakh on Nov. 20. KAREN MINASYAN/AFP

Armenia and Azerbaijan have, for the time being, agreed to a tenuous cease-fire after six weeks of fighting over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. But it’s unlikely to be a long-term fix. While Baku is jubilant over its territorial gains, many Armenians reacted to the news with outrage, storming parliament and other government buildings to demand answers about a deal they feel amounts to betrayal. A peace settlement that satisfies both sides does not yet seem in sight.

Now, more than ever, a lasting peace settlement is of paramount importance. That’s largely because great powers’ involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh has raised the stakes of resolution: Russia and Turkey may have both helped broker the existing cease-fire, but it is uncertain whether their interests in Nagorno-Karabakh—and beyond—will continue to align. An unfinished peace in Nagorno-Karabakh arguably makes the current situation more, not less, dangerous; having been dragged into the hostilities, Russia and Turkey may sooner or later be pushed to face off against one another.

Fortunately, a more peaceful future is possible—it just requires reaching deeper into the past.

For decades, the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh has been treated as a bilateral zero-sum game. In reality, it’s part of a crescent of deadlocked, simmering, and occasionally white-hot conflict zones running east from Ukraine across the Caucasus and Caspian Sea and south to Syria, any of which could take over headlines in the months and years to come. Each of these conflicts involves a cast of outside actors—from Russia to various NATO members—in a complicated tangle.

The conflicts in this arc—Transnistria, Crimea, the Donbass, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh, and Turkey’s southern rim—are all unique. But they share the feature that they are structurally hard to solve, and thus illustrate how hard it is to achieve peace when irreconcilable claims collide. In all of these disputes, there are few win-win scenarios for long-term resolution. Moreover, several of these conflicts, like Karabakh, threaten stability far afield.

With multiple standoffs imperiling long-term regional security, it might be time to coalesce all central Eurasian conflicts into negotiations over one grand bargain, where all actors—great powers included—are forced to give and get a little for mutual, overarching net benefit. Far from lofty idealism, there is a historical model for such an unlikely peace: In Europe, the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815 settled the many interlocking challenges that arose from the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars—for major and minor European powers alike.


Prince Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, France’s foreign minister and chief negotiator during the Congress of Vienna, summed up its core principle succinctly. For a settlement to work, he is reported to have said, “Everyone needs to leave unhappy, and having had to make sacrifices. It is from these partial sacrifices that must come to life the agreement of all, the greater good.”

The Congress of Vienna came on the heels of the high-intensity Napoleonic wars, which had upended the geopolitical arrangements that predated the French Revolution of 1789. It included extensive exchanges of territory reaching from Netherlands to what today is Ukraine, secured freedom of navigation for the major transport routes of its time—the Rhine and Danube— and provides a strong historical precedent for overcoming multiple violent standoffs through complicated cross-swaps.

Precisely because various players needed a face-saving way out of deadlock, these multilateral swaps offered a viable approach to transcend a zero-sum game. In such arrangements, governments have an opportunity to secure a prize that otherwise will not ever become available. Some irredentists might be lured by historical opportunity. Moreover, a grander settlement can help explain sacrifices to a leery populace; it’s still a tough sell, but easier than defending a direct concession.

Multilateral swaps offered a viable approach to transcend a zero-sum game.

In the two centuries since, the Congress of Vienna has been the subject of historical intrigue and veneration. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger authored his doctoral dissertation on the event, and it informed many of his own realist persuasions. Today, though there are key differences between 19th-century Europe and modern Eurasia, there are still enough core parallels to render the Congress of Vienna relevant.

The current impasse from Crimea to Karabakh is structural and has developed cumulatively over the 30 years following the end of the Soviet Union which, as the historian Ronald Grigor Suny put it, “is still unraveling”; the Congress of Vienna, by contrast, followed decades of hard-fought war. Modern parties to Eurasian conflict zones are either democratic or various shades of authoritarian, while the Congress of Vienna was attended mostly by unabashed monarchs. Today, people are emboldened by the idea of self-determination, which had yet to make its debut in 1814. And there are new actors on the global stage, who—like the United States and China—can complicate matters by exerting their own influence.

But besides contextual particularities, the overarching challenge underpinning Europe’s 1814 territorial disputes and Eurasia’s 2020 conflicts remains the same. Then and now, leaders grappled with how to integrate various de facto territorial gains into a de jure system, and hoped to reestablish a workable, stable, and ideally prosperous order. As Kissinger noted, the key question of the Congress of Vienna was how to recreate legitimacy. Not establishing such an order is risky and costly; it is risky in that unresolved conflicts can spark more wars, and costly in human lives, poverty, uncertainty, and military spending. Without a larger settlement, the threat of destabilization remains.


In Karabakh today, a Talleyrand model could transcend the current zero-sum game between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenians find it inconceivable to give up the core of Karabakh; too much of Armenian identity is invested in the region. But it’s also important to understand why Karabakh has taken up unprecedented significance in the Armenian imaginary: Armenians’ pre-eminent national symbol—Mount Ararat—remains out of reach in Turkey. Ararat was the geographical center of several Armenian kingdoms and is seen as the people’s holy mountain; in 1921, the Treaty of Kars assigned Ararat to Turkey. On clear days, the dormant volcano looms over Yerevan, the Armenian capital—a constant reminder of national loss. Karabakh was a symbolic salve of sorts, and now it’s at risk, too.

If Armenians are brought closer to Mount Ararat, they may be more flexible in Karabakh.

In a “Congress of Istanbul,” as we’ll call it, grievances over Karabakh could be balanced out with leeway on Mount Ararat; if Armenians are brought closer to Mount Ararat, they may be more flexible in Karabakh. In one version of this ambitious thought experiment, Turkey could create a multilateral peace park on the sparsely populated Eastern slopes of Mount Ararat. This park could allow Armenians access to the mountain that is so central to their historical imagination—yet blocked by a closed border, and the peak inaccessible without a hard-to-get permit. Ani, the abandoned capital of the ancient Armenian kingdom, is also just across on the Turkish side of the border and inaccessible from Armenia. An Armenian government that can deliver a symbolic return—or at least a return of access—to Ararat and Ani could muster more support for painful concessions on Karabakh.

Turkey and Armenia may struggle to develop friendly relations, but it’s not outlandish to suggest that Ankara might be tempted by a swap of some sort. After all, following Talleyrand’s principle, Turkey would also gain something for making a resolution on its eastern border. The country appears to have a vested interest in half a dozen territorial disputes—from the Aegean to interests in Northern Syria. In a “Congress of Istanbul,” some of these disputes could be tweaked in Turkey’s favor.

But the swaps needn’t stop with Turkey. Across the Black Sea sits Russia which, under Tsar Alexander I, was a key player in the Congress of Vienna. Today, Russia remains the strategic protector of Armenia proper (and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad), and could facilitate a final settlement over Karabakh. Russia may be motivated by the prospect of international recognition of its claim to Crimea, Ukrainian territory that it invaded in 2014. While nearly every country has resisted such a recognition, there is no plausible scenario under which external pressure will move Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine—even if a liberal government came to power in Moscow.

Rather, it may make more sense to seek Russian concessions in return for recognizing Russian control over Crimea. Three concessions could contribute to settlements elsewhere. Next to nudging Armenia and potentially Syria to join a multilateral peace, Russia could contribute to settling conflicts in Ukraine and in Georgia.

In Ukraine—in return for the crown jewel of Crimea—Russia could ensure that the government in Kyiv regains control over the Donbass, an area currently administered by vassals of the Russian government. (Kissinger is often associated with suggesting such a swap himself.) Russia could also cancel Ukraine’s debts and offer favorable terms on energy supplies. Such measures wouldn’t make up for a bitter loss, but they would boost the country’s long-term development and standard of living.

Georgia, too, could benefit from Russian concessions in South Ossetia. The Russian protectorate in the heart of the country seems like a wedge against Georgian statehood. Opening a vital North-South transport route through South Ossetia would benefit Armenia and Russia, too. Moreover, the tiny Ossetian statelet—which has fewer residents than New York has homeless people—has few realistic prospects of providing for its own citizens. Returning South Ossetia to Georgia would lead to more economic development, participation in the Georgian mountain tourism boom, and reverse its ongoing depopulation.

Georgia should also regain control of Gali, an area in breakaway Abkhazia settled mostly by Georgians. (Abkhazia otherwise has achieved a degree of practical statehood.) While many Georgians would be unhappy not to get all of Abkhazia back, such a settlement—and peaceful relations including trade, access, and tourism—would probably be the best possible outcome for Georgia.

The democratic deficits of Russia (and, to a lesser extent Turkey) may be an advantage for an ambitious peace.

The democratic deficits of Russia (and, to a lesser extent Turkey) may be an advantage for an ambitious peace. Autocratic leaders do not face a vibrant internal opposition when they settle. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may find a “Congress of Istanbul” attractive: It would put them in the historical spotlight and allow them to upstage established Western diplomacy, yet again.

Still, popular referenda, say, ten years down the line, could ensure that the people have the final say and democratic will prevails. Another referendum in Crimea, for example, could be an incentive for genuine reform in Ukraine. Imperfect as such referenda are, East Timor’s independence illustrates that they can also prevail against repression if the desire for change is overwhelming.

Kissinger wrote that, after the Congress of Vienna, “Europe experienced the longest period of peace it had ever known.” Following decades of violence, Europe’s middle class began to emerge and prosper. And yet, the established Western diplomacy of our day has mostly rejected the idea of tinkering with borders; the worry is that it will open a Pandora’s box. But the war in Karabakh is evidence that that perilous box is already wide open. A modern “Congress of Istanbul” could close it and address challenges that established diplomacy has not been able to tackle for decades—with positive aftereffects for generations to come.

Hans Gutbrod teaches at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and has worked in the Caucasus region since 1999. Twitter: @HansGutbrod

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