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Karabakh Armistice: Azerbaijani National Triumph, Russian Geopolitical Victory
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian signed, over a video conference, on November 9, an armistice agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Mediated by Russia between the two belligerents, this armistice dramatically changes the situation on the ground, establishing “new realities” for many years to come.

Vladimir SOCOR

14/11/2020 Region: Russia Topic: Geopolitics

Part One

Azerbaijanis celebrate victory (Source: Daily Sabah)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian signed, over a video conference, on November 9, an armistice agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Mediated by Russia between the two belligerents, this armistice dramatically changes the situation on the ground, establishing “new realities” for many years to come.

Azerbaijan’s recovery of Armenian - occupied territories crowns a 44-day military operation featuring sophisticated equipment and tactics, amid a groundswell of domestic popular support. The campaign’s success transcends the battlefield. It signifies another stage in Azerbaijan’s maturation from a nation - and state - building project (as it was barely 30 years ago) to a fully consolidated nation-state.

Released in the form of a tripartite declaration (Kremlin.ru, November 10), the armistice agreement: a) restores Azerbaijan’s sovereign control over seven districts that Armenian forces had occupied since the early 1990s and emptied of their Azerbaijani population; b) it divides the Armenian-populated Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh into two parts, under Armenian and under Azerbaijani control, respectively; and c) it authorizes the long-term stationing of Russian “peacekeeping” troops, a goal that had eluded Russia from the 1990s to date.

Karabakh peace deal map (Source: BBC)

A full ceasefire went into effect at 00:00 hours, Moscow time, on November 10, along the then-existing contact lines between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. The armistice agreement brings the following changes and new realities on the ground:

In terms of territory, the November 10 contact line allows Azerbaijan to retain the districts of Fizuli, Gubatly, Zangilan, and Jabrail, all which Azerbaijan’s forces regained in the campaign just concluded. In addition, the Kelbajar and Aghdam districts shall be returned (by Armenia) to Azerbaijan until November 15 and November 20, respectively; and the Lachin district will be returned by December 1. This will complete Azerbaijan’s recovery of the seven districts adjacent to Upper Karabakh.

Furthermore, the November 10 contact line allows Azerbaijan to retain the southern part of Upper Karabakh itself. This amounts to partitioning Upper Karabakh, militarily and administratively. The city of Shusha comes under Azerbaijan’s control while Upper Karabakh’s administrative center of Stepanakert/Khankendi remains under Armenian control.

Within the next three years, Azerbaijan and Armenia shall jointly develop a plan to build a new road connecting Armenia with Upper Karabakh via Azerbaijan’s Lachin district (Lachin corridor). Azerbaijan pledges not to interfere with traffic through the Lachin corridor. The corridor’s width is set at five kilometers. The document’s wording does not clarify whether the proposed new road would replace the existing road or run parallel to it, in parts or in toto. Stepanakert/Khankendi is the terminus of the existing Lachin road, and it will undoubtedly remain the terminus of a new road. The proposed new road seems intended to bypass the Azerbaijani-controlled Shusha (see above and below).

A Russian “peacekeeping” contingent shall be stationed within the Armenian-controlled rump of Upper Karabakh along the Armenian-Azerbaijani contact lines. Its deployment to the area began on November 10 and shall be synchronized with the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Upper Karabakh. The Russian contingent’s size is set at 1,960 infantry (motor-rifle) troops with light weapons, 90 armored personnel carriers, and 380 motor vehicles (no mention of helicopters). The command headquarters will be located “in the Stepanakert area” (TASS, November 10). The mission’s duration is set at five years initially, to be prolonged automatically at five-year intervals, unless one of the “sides” (Armenia or Azerbaijan) declares its refusal with six months advance notice.

Russian “peacekeepers” shall guard the Lachin corridor’s existing and future road. This will be the sole Russian military presence in Azerbaijan’s sovereign and effectively controlled territory. The Armenian de facto controlled rump of Upper Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, and shall henceforth host Russian “peacekeepers” with Azerbaijan’s consent under this agreement. Although Shusha’s location could be construed as a part of the Lachin corridor, the armistice agreement excludes Shusha both from the notion of the Lachin corridor and from the Russian “peacekeepers’ ” area of responsibility (which partly explains the intention to build a new Lachin road).

The armistice agreement creates a “peacekeeping center for ceasefire monitoring” on the ground, without elaborating any further. This is meant to accommodate a minimal Turkish presence in the armistice-implementation system. Moscow and Ankara were still negotiating about this center after the November 10 armistice declaration had been made public. It will be a bilateral Russian-Turkish military observer mission, with its own technical equipment, to be located in Azerbaijani territory, thus to monitor the ceasefire at a certain distance from the Upper Karabakh contact lines. This Russo-Turkish center does not bring Turkey into Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation and does not change the latter’s mono-national character (TASS, Interfax, November 10–12).

The armistice agreement stipulates the “reopening of all economic and transportation links in the region.” As part of the general reopening, Armenia pledges not to interfere with traffic via the Armenian territory that separates the western part of Azerbaijan from Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan, which has been isolated since the early 1990s. Russian border troops shall control the traffic of goods and passengers via that corridor. Additional transportation links (meaning motorways) could be built, subject to mutual consent of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The agreement fails to specify the number of Russian border troops that will be part of that mission; what forms that control would take; and whether it would apply to the highway, the railroad or both. The railroad in this corridor belongs (as do all Armenian railroads) to Russia’s state railways corporation. Russian border troops have long been stationed in that part of Armenia guarding the border with Iran. Presumably, additional Russian border troops would be deployed for the transportation-control mission.

Displaced persons and refugees may return to their places of origin in Upper Karabakh and the seven adjacent districts, with assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Azerbaijani population of expellees - technically, displaced persons and refugees - from these areas in the early 1990s numbered some 800,000 by generally accepted estimates, almost all of whom fled to Azerbaijan’s interior. The seven adjacent districts had no Armenian population. They have remained uninhabited and been systematically made uninhabitable since then.

The armistice agreement stops short of addressing the ultimate core issue of this conflict - that of the legal-political status of Upper Karabakh. That status was to have applied to the territory of the former “Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region” (abbreviated NKAO in the negotiators’ parlance over the last three decades) - i.e. Upper Karabakh - the Armenian-majority enclave within Azerbaijan. The armistice agreement, however, not only omits this issue but divides that territory between an Azerbaijani-controlled part and a locally Armenian-administrated part (see above), the former being free from Russian troops, the latter guarded by Russian troops with Azerbaijan’s consent, even as both parts are Azerbaijani territory under international law.

Nor does the armistice agreement reference the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group, whose three co-chairing countries (Russia, the United States, France) had, during almost three decades, developed a framework for the settlement of this conflict. Often cited as the Madrid Principles, this framework inspires the November 10 armistice agreement in many ways, with one major exception: Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation. The Minsk Group never agreed on it. This operation gives Russia significant leverage to manipulate and pressure the other parties for a long time to come, pending a definitive solution. Azerbaijan has won the campaign, Russia has won the “peacekeeping.”

Part Two 

Checkpoint outside Shusha, in Karabakh (Source: Reuters)

Azerbaijan’s army has won the second Karabakh war, regaining about one half of the territory seized from it by Armenian forces in the early 1990s. However, Russia has won the “peacekeeping” after this war - a goal that had eluded Russia after the first war and one it had pursued ever since (see Part One in EDM, November 12).

The armistice agreement, signed on November 9, brings Russian “peacekeeping” troops into Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh and the Lachin corridor. The agreement also assigns Russian border troops to control transportation routes due to reopen between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan, across Armenian territory. The deployment of Russian “peacekeepers” to Azerbaijan began within hours of the armistice agreement’s signing (TASS, November 10–12).

This move in Azerbaijan holds not only local but also international significance. It confirms and reinforces Russia’s self-arrogated monopoly on “peacekeeping” in former Soviet-ruled territories. Russia’s method is to impose a unilateral peacekeeping operation without an international mandate in a given conflict theater and then reject any proposals to internationalize the operation. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria became case studies in this regard (as did the now-forgotten operation in Tajikistan in the 1990s). By the same token, Moscow rules out an internationally mandated peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s Donbas.

The Kremlin has, from time to time, sought Western recognition or express acceptance of a special prerogative for “peacekeeping in the post-Soviet space.” Although such recognition never materialized, Western tacit acceptance became a reality over time. Russia’s “peacekeeping” monopoly is an element of sphere-of-influence rebuilding or maintenance.

Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in Upper Karabakh is the latest case study. Its initial stage conforms to the pattern of the earlier operations (see above) in several respects. It lacks the mandate of an international organization. It is purely Russian in the composition of its personnel. It contravenes the norm that bars a country from peacekeeping in a neighboring country. It is being undertaken in a territory not controlled by the government (Azerbaijan’s in this case) that holds the internationally recognized title to sovereignty in that territory (the Armenian-controlled rump of Upper Karabakh). It has obtained Azerbaijan’s indispensable but reluctant consent in a swift, opaque negotiation. And by stipulating prolongation at regular five-year intervals, it sets the stage for a long-term, potentially open-ended Russian military presence in this territory and thus another “frozen” conflict.

A number of differences from the familiar pattern also stand out. When Georgia and Moldova accepted Russia as “peacekeeper,” they were incompletely formed, dysfunctional states, devoid of allies, and had suffered defeats at the hands of Russian-backed secessionist forces. Azerbaijan, by contrast, is a successful nation-state that has just demonstrated a newly acquired skillset in conducting a modern military campaign thanks to its partnership with the regional power Turkey. Wisely, Azerbaijan has settled for a limited victory over Armenian forces. A further advance into Upper Karabakh - even by 10 kilometers, to the administrative center Stepanakert/Khankendi - would have risked the intervention of Russian forces based in Armenia and international complications for Azerbaijan. Instead, Baku has chosen a more manageable risk - that of a bargain with Russia.

This apparent bargain allows Azerbaijan to regain and securely keep a portion of Upper Karabakh, additional to the seven adjacent districts. In return, Baku has given its consent to Russia’s long-term military presence in the remainder of Upper Karabakh. The local Armenian population certainly welcomes this protection: it looks genuinely peacekeeping from its perspective (Arminfo, November 10–12). Russia, however, will be able to use this enclave as it has used Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria over the years to manipulate the security situation. Russia’s “peacekeeping” presence there was subject to prolongation at regular intervals by agreement with the titular sovereign state - Georgia and Moldova, respectively - just as in the case of Upper Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s legal sovereignty. Yet Russian troops never left those enclaves. After some years, Western powers discouraged Georgia and Moldova from demanding the removal of Russian “peacekeepers”; such demands came to be viewed as destabilizing. Similarly, Russian “peacekeepers” might remain in Upper Karabakh for many years to come.

Russian troops will also be stationed in the Lachin corridor to guarantee the unimpeded overland traffic between Armenia and the rump Upper Karabakh. The Lachin corridor is due to be placed under Azerbaijan’s civilian administration, while the reduced Upper Karabakh remains Azerbaijani de jure but out of bounds to it de facto. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has raised its flag and is installing its administration in the regained portion of Upper Karabakh around Shusha (Azertag, November 12).

With Russian troops controlling Lachin and Russian border guards controlling Azerbaijan’s overland connections with the Nakhchivan exclave, Russia will hold pressure levers that can be activated or held in reserve as the situation might warrant.

NB. The article was first published in Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume: 17 Issue: 160 (Part One) and Issue: 161 (Part Two)