Moscow’s End Game in Artsakh-Karabakh
By Pietro A. Shakarian
On 9 November, at emergency negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a peace statement that ended the war over Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) that had raged since 27 September.
The agreement stopped the fighting, saving countless lives, and prevented an impending Azerbaijani seizure of Stepanakert. However, although the agreement ended the violence, it has created additional questions and presents new challenges to the lasting peace that is sought by Moscow.
With this agreement, Russia has firmly solidified its position as the supreme power broker in the Caucasus. They have managed (1) to stop the war and associated instability; (2) to save a strategic ally (Armenia) from total defeat (which would have drastically shifted the balance of power against Russia); (3) to create a mechanism to monitor and prevent any efforts toward renewed hostilities; (4) to create facts on the ground to cement its position in Transcaucasia indefinitely; and (5) to draw a clear red line against any external influence in the region, especially against Turkey and NATO.
Although Azerbaijan, heavily aided by Ankara, scored decisive successes against Armenian forces in the field, it now has to accept Russian peacekeepers on its territory (and they will not be leaving any time soon, even beyond the five-year extension). For its part, Turkey failed to obtain the concessions that it had desired, specifically Turkish peacekeepers in Karabakh itself. Moreover, although Ankara wields significant influence in Azerbaijan, it still has to contend with those Azerbaijani elites who favor closer ties with Moscow.
In accordance with this agreement, the Karabakh Armenians have suffered significant territorial losses, both in terms of the “security belt” territories and even the southern half of the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO). At the same time, they have come away with firm security guarantees from a much larger and more powerful player – Moscow. The Russian presence is highly appreciated in Stepanakert and Yerevan. According to a Sputnik poll published on 19 November, 85% of Armenians considered Russia to be their ally. Additionally, the final status of Karabakh remains unresolved.
With some peace agreement in force, Moscow now seeks to restore the balance of power in the region. The Russian leadership has made clear its displeasure with the performance of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on more than one occasion. His handling of the war was the breaking point for the Kremlin. Amid a flurry of new revelations from Russian President Putin, Colonel-General Movses Hakobyan, and others, Pashinyan’s military record is now in tatters. As his government crumbles, the embattled and beleaguered “Velvet Revolutionary” now faces calls to resign from across the political spectrum in Armenia. The streets, once Pashinyan’s source of power, are now the driving force advocating for his departure. He stands at the dusk of his political power.
However, as the attention of Moscow and external observers remains focused on Pashinyan’s fate, less attention has been paid to Russian-Azerbaijani relations. For its part, Moscow also does not trust Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The Kremlin has not forgotten his active role in the realization of the American-backed Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline, bypassing Russia. Moreover, although Aliyev has made efforts toward a normalization of ties with Russia in recent years, he nevertheless bears responsibility for allowing an external actor (Ankara) to waltz into the post-Soviet space and seriously challenge Russian influence. In addition, by using military force to alter the situation on the ground in his favor, Aliyev has demonstrated to other ex-Soviet states that military action is a legitimate means for conflict resolution. In the aftermath of the November agreement, Baku became openly boastful about its apparent victory, making careless missteps in the process.
Such haughtiness has not gone unnoticed by the Kremlin, which seeks to establish some balance and parity between the sides. In this regard, Russia has major coercive tools at its disposal to keep Baku in line. First, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers serves as a major trump card for Moscow against Azerbaijan. Second, they continue to keep the heat on Baku over Mi-24 helicopter shoot-down incident of 9 November. On 14 November, Putin presented the Order of Courage to the injured survivor of the shoot-down – Vladislav Gryazin – as well as posthumously to the two Russian pilots – Yuri Ishchuk and Roman Fedin – who perished in the attack. Shushi is another pressure point that Moscow can exert on Baku. There are about 500 Azeri troops “trapped” in the city, and the question of their evacuation remains unresolved. In general, Moscow does not have a favorable opinion of either Pashinyan or Aliyev, nor does it trust either of them. They would prefer more level-headed, dependable, and flexible partners in both Yerevan and Baku.
Although opposition to the harsh terms of the peace statement in Armenian and Karabakh society is widespread, it is highly unlikely that the deal will be denounced or canceled. As Putin himself said, any steps towards canceling the deal for Armenia and Artsakh would be “suicide” and amount to a resumption of war, which could put the very existence of the Karabakh Armenians at risk. However, opponents of Nikol Pashinyan have since moderated their position, eschewing any return to hostilities, and instead accepting the peace statement as a foundation for a lasting settlement. Many hope to persuade Moscow to soften the terms of the agreement, particularly with regard to Shushi, Hadrut district, and two districts that Karabakh Armenian forces are set to cede to Azerbaijan – Kelbajar (Karvatchar) and Lachin (Kashatagh).
The terms of the agreement have already been revised, as early as their initial announcement. Then on 15 November, the date in which Armenian forces were initially supposed to withdraw from Kelbajar, Azerbaijan, at Moscow’s insistence, changed the date of withdrawal to 25 November, extending it by 10 days. At the same time, amid fears about the fate of Armenian religious and historical sites, Russian peacekeepers moved in to guard the 12th century Armenian Dadivank monastery in Kelbajar.
Kelbajar and Lachin are hemmed in by the former NKAO to the east, Armenia to the west, the Lachin corridor to the south, and the high Mrav mountains to the north, where snow has already fallen. As such, these districts are of vital strategic importance, not only for Armenia and Artsakh, but for Russia as well. An important security buffer for Karabakh Armenian civilians, their retention under Armenian control (or even under the neutral control of Russian peacekeepers) would make returning civilians feel safer, encouraging more to return, and thus strengthening the Russian peacekeeping mandate. Logistically, it would also be convenient in terms of communication and supply lines between Russian forces in Artsakh and in Armenia.
There is also the matter of the populations in these districts, which originally hail from the Shahumyan, Getashen, and Khanlar districts north of the former NKAO (hence why an alternative Armenian name for Kelbajar is Nor Shahumyan), as well as other parts of Azerbaijan. During the 1990s war, the Armenian inhabitants of those districts were expelled by Azerbaijani forces. Meanwhile, Azeri civilians fled Kelbajar and Lachin as Armenian forces took those districts. The November agreement provides no resolution for the status of Armenian refugees from Shahumyan, Getashen, and other areas.
If the agreement is implemented down to the letter, without further revisions, then the resulting outcome on the ground will be reminiscent of a territorial settlement that one might find in interwar Europe. It would leave Azerbaijan effectively in control of an enclave surrounded by Armenia and Russian-guarded Karabakh. This “Danzig solution” will require the extraordinarily good will and trust among four different states (one of them unrecognized) in order to be realized effectively. Unless significant revisions are made, it is difficult to see how such a scenario will lead to a lasting peace among the sides, especially in the current conditions. In fact, it may lead to the rise of “mini-Karabakhs” within the Karabakh issue.
Another bone of contention, Shushi, remains under de facto Azerbaijani control. In the end, rather than conceding this contested city to one side or the other, Moscow may opt to make this “Caucasian Jerusalem” into a “neutral city,” under the protection of Russian peacekeepers.
Nevertheless, talks continue, on both the substance and implementation of the agreement. Now that Moscow has massed substantial forces on the ground in Karabakh, it will not concede its position, but rather solidify and enhance it. It intends to “freeze” the conflict, with the aim of halting hostilities indefinitely and, by extension, ensuring that no foreign power can take advantage of the situation ever again. Effectively Putin is putting his fist down and drawing a clear red line in the Caucasus. As he has said, he hopes that he will “never use the terms ‘Nagorno-Karabakh conflict’ again.” Only time will tell.
(Pietro A. Shakarian is a PhD Candidate, History, Ohio State University)