Once again, Armenia started the shift. In spring 2018 a tremendously hopeful uprising, reminiscent of 1989 in Central Europe, forced the post-communist elites to surrender power. Vladimir Putin was visibly displeased to meet Nikol Pashinyan, the anticorruption journalist and street rebel elected Armenia’s premier by an overwhelming majority. Mr. Pashinyan admittedly had neither political team nor experience; he is learning statesmanship on the job, often at great expense to his nation. Yet he managed to significantly reduce corruption, helping to unlock the legendary entrepreneurship of Armenians. Amid all the grim news, the Armenian economy, led by the I.T. sector, is registering impressive growth.
All that, to Moscow, is punishable. When in September 2020 Azerbaijan launched a massive offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh lasting 44 terrible days, Russia effectively allowed Azerbaijan and Turkey to nearly destroy its Armenian ally, under the pretext that Karabakh was outside the mutual defense treaty. At the cusp of Azeri victory, however, Mr. Putin personally brokered a cease-fire and ordered a crack force of his peacekeepers into the enclave.
That brought nearly all the perimeter of the former Soviet Union into Russia’s sphere of influence. Rebellious Belarus, its dictator dependent on Russian support, was in hand; so too the war-torn Caucasus. The large and oil-rich Kazakhstan itself requested Russian peacekeepers during a bewildering bout of street violence in January 2022. Strangely, the elite Russian troops soon departed from Kazakhstan. A month later, the whole world realized that they had been dispatched to Ukraine, the last sizable piece of Mr. Putin’s post-Soviet gambit. And there his plan broke down.
History has a habit of serving the same lessons with changed variables. In 1988, it was the dreamer Gorbachev stumbling over Nagorno-Karabakh that unwittingly shattered the world order. Today, Mr. Putin could become the second, much darker incarnation of the Kremlin aggrandizer going awry on all fronts. The consequences — from emboldening international aggression to reanimating the West under the banner of NATO — will be profound. As events in Nagorno-Karabakh show, the fragile post-Cold War order is giving way to something else entirely.
The Caucasus might seem strange and distant. Yet it might prove the wedge that turns the fortunes of world order. Trieste, Smyrna, Sarajevo, Danzig and Crimea were all such places. Let us not have to relearn history at the cost of yet another ethnic cleansing.