Militarily, Azerbaijan won the second war in Nagorno-Karabakh, thus taking retaliation for its defeat against Armenia in the first war. Although Moscow’s formal ally lost miserably, Russia is also among the winning parties. It moved its military into the region while basically removing Western forces from there. Nonetheless, Turkey – a new dangerous actor – has entered the theater. This may wreak revenge on Russia in the long run.
Author: Grzegorz Kuczyński
“This document does not settle the Nagorno-Karabakh issue; it only puts an end to the war,” said Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in his address to the nation, shortly after a trilateral war-ending deal was announced by his country, Azerbaijan, and Russia. This sentence also pinpoints the core of the events that unfolded over the six fall weeks in the South Caucasus. The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is not solved yet as the agreement concluded on the night of November 9 and 10 left unmentioned the issue of the final status of the enclave. Its lion’s share is now in the hands of Armenia, with Russia playing the role of its security guarantor. The reason for both the conflict and the Azerbaijani-Armenian skirmish over the past three decades has not faded. The fighting may resume soon. What occurred after Azerbaijan’s undeniable military triumph was just the change in actual borders and shifts in the international balance of power in the South Caucasus. Baku reclaimed all Armenian-occupied territories of Azerbaijan around the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh along with a chunk of the enclave. Is this a permanent solution? It is rather doubtful.
The Kremlin-brokered truce further complicates the territorial conundrum by adding two corridors – one between the Armenian part of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia and the other one connecting Azerbaijan to its enclave of Nakhchivan. Russia will control both, which is, perhaps, one of the reasons behind creating these passages. Moscow seeks to benefit from the new situation arising from both Azerbaijan’s military advantage and Russia’s sluggishness towards a streak of defeats of its Armenian ally.
Having made a successful attempt to negotiate the ceasefire and sent its “peacekeepers” to Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia undeniably comes as the biggest winner in the war. This is especially against the backdrop of its cautious stance it had shown for more than a month, the one that many had recognized as its weakness. What became the Kremlin’s success was pushing the West out of the area. In the light of recent events, the so-called OSCE Minsk Group eventually confirmed its inertia and the reason for existence. However, Moscow had to give a green light for admitting Turkey as a new actor in return. Although the peace deal certainly fails to satisfy meet the expectations that come along with Ankara’s intense involvement in the war on the side of Azerbaijan, it is rather the opening of the door towards Turkish expansion regionwide. This is no longer the success of Russia, but rather its failure. Moscow lost its de facto monopoly to control the course of the conflict and admitted other actors into its no longer exclusive sphere of influence. Certainly, Russia is on good terms with Turkey but who knows what the future holds.
Since 1994, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the unrecognized Armenian quasi-state, jointly controlled roughly a fourth part of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory, including the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Armenian-occupied districts. For twenty-five years, the authorities in Baku have sought to reclaim these territories. This became was possible only now, although they failed to attain accomplish its their top goal priority – of occupying the whole Armenian-owned territory. Baku provoked the outbreak of the 44-day war. Fighting flared in the morning of September 27 and lasted until November 9. According to Armenia, at least 2,300 Armenian of their soldiers and 50 civilians were killed. Azerbaijan did not report its military casualties but said 93 civilians had lost their lives. Russian President Vladimir Putin informed about over 4,000 people dead and more than 8,000 injured in the clash. Besides, there are thousands displaced by the conflict.
Azerbaijan’s military successes came as a surprise to many. Some believed that the Armenian military and Karabakh fighters hid well enough in their trenches to resist an attack from Azerbaijan, as was the case in the spring of 2016. It seemed that fighting that erupted on September 27 would terminate like earlier escalations – like that in the summer of 2020 when the Azerbaijani army managed to regain a couple of square kilometers and one or two foothills, a move that prompted them to claim success and stop the fire. But it was different. The Turkish-supported military of Azerbaijan was far better equipped and organized than the Armenian forces. From the first to the last day of the flare-up, Azerbaijan showed the initiative while the mobilized Armenian military reserves proved not ready for modern warfare – neither technologically nor psychologically. On the frontline, the Armenian military was nothing but cannon fodder, slaughtered by hostile unmanned aerial vehicles. Armenian troops could not respond to the large-scale use of combat drones by their enemy. They lacked adequate sensors, electronic warfare cover, or counter-drone weaponry. As a result, the Armenian forces had to withdraw from the frontline positions they had been occupying since 1994.
Three factors tipped the scale in favor of Azerbaijan: technological advantage, tactics, and Turkey’s support. It was no coincidence that Azerbaijan chose the southern direction to perform the decisive strike. Unlike in the mountainous north, much of the terrain is flat. Furthermore, Armenia saw the northern part, located closer to Stepanakert, as its priority on the battlefield. There it had built more solid ground fortifications and sent more troops. In turn, the southern direction was treated secondarily, with its defense being far weaker. Azerbaijan’s armed forces defeated the Armenian military by breaking through the southern part of the frontline and marching westwards – slowly yet steadily – to capture territories with a flanking maneuver in the Aras River Valley, off the Iranian border. Having reached the frontier of Armenia proper, the Azerbaijani army headed north toward the mountains of Karabakh while bypassing main Armenian fortifications located farther east and forcing the enemy into an open-field battle. Little numerous yet mobile groups of Azerbaijani infantry in lightly armored and Israeli-upgraded tanks got support from Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, Israeli-made loitering munition, long-range artillery, and missile systems.
The Azerbaijani military advanced towards the cities of Shusha and Stepanakert. Militarily, the seizing of the former on November 7 was critical for the fate of the whole war. Capturing Shusha meant winning domination over Stepanakert, the capital of the enclave, and crossing the city’s main transport route to Armenia. The collapse of the capital was just a matter of time, but then Azerbaijan halted the offensive and agreed to call a truce. It did so while having the biggest advantage over the enemy since the beginning of the campaign. Pashinyan insisted that if he had not agreed to halt the conflict, the enemy could have rapidly besieged a group of up to 25,000 Armenian servicemen.
Why did Aliyev not decide to turn down the Russian proposal and push with the offensive until recapturing the whole enclave? There are several reasons for this. Among them was the fear of the massacre of civilians in Stepanakert during the attempt to reclaim the city, a move that would severely undermine Azerbaijan’s image worldwide. One might wonder whether Aliyev sought to snatch the whole Nagorno-Karabakh. Even without this, Azerbaijan is beset with a difficulty to relocate tens of thousands of displaced persons to the regained areas. This poses a gigantic logistical and financial challenge as the Armenians demolished and burnt houses and whole infrastructure when fleeing the grounds, they had occupied a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps Aliyev did not want to incorporate the area inhabited by the Armenian “fifth column” into his country, which would possibly require granting them autonomy and amending the constitution.
What is in the November 9 deal that ended the second Nagorno-Karabakh war? Under the nine-point truce agreement, Armenia ceded control of roughly 70% of formally Azerbaijani-owned lands it had controlled so far, namely the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven Azerbaijani districts around. After twenty-six years, Azerbaijan reclaimed all the occupied lands around the Nagorno-Karabakh district – except for the Lachin corridor – along with its southern part, including the city of Shusha.
What are the top provisions of the deal? First, the trilateral agreement “froze” the frontline. Azerbaijan retains the area it managed to seize from Armenia in the six-week war, namely the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and seven Azerbaijani-occupied districts (since 1994) nearby. But the winner made more territorial gains. By December 1, Armenia was expected to cede to Azerbaijan the rest of the lands neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh that it clutched until the ceasefire between the warring parties. There is, however, an exception.
Another issue is to keep a strip of land between the modest albeit still Armenian-controlled enclave of Karabakh and Armenia. The five-kilometer wide Lachin corridor is poised to serve as the bridge between the two. The deal stipulates Armenia and Azerbaijan shall submit a plan to build a new road connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh within three years. The existing link between Stepanakert and Armenia runs through Shusha while the new one should bypass the city. Armenia keeps control of the northern chunk of the enclave along with its capital city and the Lachin corridor. The status of this area has not been clarified and it should be assumed that it would be subject to additional arrangements in which Azerbaijan’s negotiating position will be incomparably stronger than that of the Armenians.
In practice, the agreement implements most of the Madrid Principles, first discussed back in 2007, as peace settlements of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, suggested by the OSCE Minsk Group and accepted by the two warring parties yet later dismissed by Armenia. Madrid Principles set forth a proposed formula that called for handing over the Armenian-occupied Azerbaijan proper surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku. The same applied to a land link connecting the exclave and Armenia or the right of all refugees and the internally displaced to return home. But some discrepancies show that the OSCE Minsk Group has lost its raison d’être while the war and its truce terms brought a diplomatic defeat of Western countries. In Madrid, talks touched upon international security guarantees, including a multinational peacekeeping mission, but now only Russia offers any such guarantees and peacekeeping forces.
Both Moscow and Yerevan assured that the agreement did not indicate the Turkish presence in peacekeeping forces deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh. Notwithstanding that, a clip published on the official website of the president of Azerbaijan contains a video talk between Aliyev and Putin. The former said Turkey would take part in the mission whereas Putin did not object to that. What was the reaction of Russia? It said Turkey would monitor the truce from a joint peacekeeping center instead of sending its forces to the line of conflict.
Russia has taken on the main military role in the area. Under the deal, the country began deploying 1,960 “peacekeepers,” 90 BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, 380 vehicles as well as special military gear along the Armenia-Azerbaijan line of contact and the corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Russian “peacekeepers” are to be stationed on the spot for five years, with the possibility of extending their stay for further five-year periods, provided that the two parties to the conflict give their consent. The rotation of forces will occur twice a year. Russians will be tasked with controlling the passage between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan. The mission will be carried out by the FSB border forces, not a regular army,
Under the truce agreement, the actual borders shifted much in favor of Azerbaijan, Russia introduced its forces to the region – with Turkey’s symbolic involvement, at least for now. But neither the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh nor its status is solved. Formally, it is still the Azerbaijani-owned autonomous enclave while partly being a territory under the Armenian administration, holding close links to Armenia. The conflict was “unfrozen” for a while. Then Azerbaijan claimed some territorial gains, and Russia sent its military to the area, before “freezing” it again. The origins of the conflict remained. A lasting peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia is not at all closer, compared to the situation a couple of months ago.
The truce is an undeniable success of Baku. The narrative on the displaced returning home after nearly thirty years of exile will overshadow disappointment over halting the operation before regaining control of the whole Nagorno-Karabakh region. Armenia saw the provisions of the peace deal as a humiliating battlefield defeat. It sparked an outrage in Armenia where people flooded the streets of Yerevan and stormed the seat of government. The mob assaulted Araray Mirzoyan, the speaker of the National Assembly. Undeniably Pashinyan’s position is in grave danger. Of course, Aliyev also came under fire over not ending the war with a total anti-Armenian pogrom and allowing Russian troops into the area. But there are some positive points for Baku. First and foremost, it is now Russians, and not the Azerbaijani, who will hold responsibility for the security of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. If anyone attempts ethnic cleansing, Moscow will have to handle that. Besides, that it is doubtful that whether any ethnic Armenians would still like to reside in the enclave in the next five years, under the current deal.
Nonetheless, along with Azerbaijan’s victory in the war, Russia emerged as the biggest winner in the flare-up of fighting. This raises no doubt at first glance, yet, gives grounds for discussion upon a deeper analysis and from a longer time perspective. By brokering the Baku-Yerevan deal, Russia retained its status as an actor in the South Caucasus, although it is not the only one playing this role. Not only has Moscow won leverage against Azerbaijan, but it also made Armenia virtually fully reliant on itself while discrediting Pashinyan and punishing Yerevan for its 2018 revolution. Although Russia will pay for this with its trust, it does not care about this, believing that with their teeth clenched, Armenian officials have no other choice but to ally with Russia. What elevated Moscow’s role in the conflict was sending troops to the area and seizing control of two major corridors –between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia as well as Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan. Consequently, Russia solidified Armenia’s presence in its sphere of influence while boosting its leverage on Azerbaijan.
Undeniably, Russia made a thrilling diplomatic move that many promptly named as a massive success of the Kremlin. However, it also took on enormous responsibility and either side could blame Moscow for any possible mishap. Moving its military into such a tension-imbued region could be seen as somewhat its downfall too. If it needs to mobilize its troops, this means other measures did not work. Russia completely failed to bar Turkey from stepping into the South Caucasus, although it managed to diminish its military presence to a joint peacekeeping facility.
Turkey “thawed” the “Russian-frozen” skirmishes, reclaiming its status of a critical ally, almost that of Azerbaijan’s patron saint, it had lost back in the early 1990s. The terms of the agreement cannot come as the success of Ankara, but Turkey adopted a long-term strategy, reaping some profits too. An example is that the Azerbaijan-Nakhichevan link through the Armenian region of Meghri may in theory open Turkey’s land route to both Azerbaijan and whole Central Asia. Turkey will push for expanding its influence in the Caucasus and elsewhere. Erdogan’s ambition is to make Turkey the prevailing power in the Black Sea region. Although Turkey did not take part in the formation of the peace contingent, it has proved its essential role in the Russian-dominated area. Turkish influence is likely to grow in Azerbaijan and Georgia as well as in the whole Black Sea area. Now, despite their cordial relations, Moscow will have to compete with Turkey in areas the Kremlin saw as its traditional sphere of influence.
Armenia’s battlefield failure and Turkey’s involvement are also vital for Georgia. Tbilisi has always been in good terms with Ankara. Little is known whether this might advance Georgia’s chance of becoming part of the NATO Membership Action Plan. Certainly, much will depend on the Biden administration. In addition to solidifying Turkey’s presence (a NATO state) in the Caucasus, there are two arguments in favor of this scenario. Certainly, much will depend on the Biden administration, but there are two arguments in favor of this scenario – in addition to solidifying Turkey’s presence – as a NATO state – in the Caucasus. These are include the increased importance of the Black Sea region in the eyes of the military bloc – which already translates into some decisions to strengthen this flank – and a more compliant NATO-linked policy of Paris and Berlin towards the United States, with the latter being more likely.
The West is however the second-biggest loser of the latest Nagorno-Karabakh war only to Armenia. Moreover, the outcome of the fighting brought also a breakdown in Europe’s diplomatic efforts. Set up by the OSCE in Europe in 1992 to mediate the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region, the Minsk Group – with France and the United States as its two co-chair countries – was completely marginalized. During the presidential campaign, the United States held no particular interest in how events unfolded in the Caucasus. Furthermore, Emmanuel Macron’s calls for a ceasefire were completely disrespected. So were all international institutions; it was only a few days later that they were noticed. “Russia is in talks with Armenia and Azerbaijan on the deployment of United Nations structures in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Russia’s foreign minister said on November 13. He mentioned the UN office for refugees and its development program.
Pushing the West out of the picture is a cornerstone of a new regional order. What Russia demonstrated that it still enjoys a huge influence in the region and could negotiate a truce agreement. Firstly, it came as the most efficient mediating power in the post-Soviet area. Secondly, it boosted military presence in the Caucasus, turning into a top peacemaking force in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Meanwhile, however, Moscow had to acknowledge it does not have an exclusive right to the area. Baku’s victorious war with its arch rival revealed a critical role of Turkey in the region while Moscow had to greenlight Ankara’s being part of their joint monitoring center. With the dominant position of the United States in Georgia as well as the growing influence and prestige of Turkey in Azerbaijan, Russia remains with an Armenian ally – defeated, weakened, and betrayed. Both the war and the terms of the peace deal seem like Moscow’s great success at first glance but may prove troublesome for it in the long turn. The post-Soviet era is ending and that was when Russia was the natural hub, the attitude which determined policies in most of the remaining former republics. Now Moscow must change the way it conducts its policy on other chunks – it is just one out of a few actors while other competitors might outplay it.