Vicken Cheterian

Karabakh: The War Moves to the Diplomatic Front

After 44 days of war in Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan saw acceleration of military operations, an accidental shooting of a Russian helicopter, and finally signing an agreement to stop the hostilities. Russian troops will be deployed in the conflict zone.

Militarily, the Armenian defence lines in the southern front collapsed. After Azerbaijani armed forces managed to break-in from the southernmost corner of the front, they advanced in flat areas next to Arax River. Under the cover of their aerial domination thanks to modern Israeli and Turkish drones, Azerbaijani forces reached close to the Lachin- Stepanakert highway, the major road link between Karabakh and Armenia. After four days of fierce battles, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev announced in a televised address form Baku on November 8 that his forces captured the symbolic city of Shushi/Shusha. 

There were alarming news about the fate of Armenian civilians left behind in towns and villages overrun by Azerbaijani forces. 

The gamble made by Baku-Ankara alliance worked. Under the cover of a global pandemic, and as the world attention is turned towards the US presidential elections, a military solution was imposed on the Karabakh conflict. The rapid military advances of Azerbaijan made its weak points without consequences: the participation of Turkish forces in a war in post-Soviet lands for the first time, and the deployment of several thousand Islamist mercenaries. 

While Turkey was directly involved in supporting Azerbaijan militarily and diplomatically, Russia kept a neutral posture. The most visible Russian figure was Sergey Lavrov, the head of the Russian diplomacy. Russia took a diplomatic position as one of the three co-presidents of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, in charge of mediations for the Karabakh conflict. In other words, Armenia was left alone against the superior forces of Azerbaijan and Turkey. 

Some analysts suggested that Russia was surprised by the rapidity of Turkey-supported Azerbaijani attack. Another idea put forward was that Russia lacked the means to interfere. Yet, available information contradicts both of these suggestions: Russia evidently knew about Turkish military presence in Azerbaijan, and Russia had enormous military capabilities in the Caucasus, as the Kavkaz 2020 war-games had revealed. It had started on September 22, lasting until September 26 – that is one day before the start of the war, the military exercises mobilizing some 80’000 soldiers. In other words, Russia had all the means to intervene early on and stop the war, but it chose not to.  A third interpretation suggested is that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not favourable towards Armenian leader Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018 through a popular Velvet Revolution, under such slogans as democratic change and fight for corruption, everything that the Russian leader dislikes. 

On November 9, the last minute accidental shooting of a Russian Mi-24 helicopter by an Azerbaijani missile over Armenia, could have taken events out of control. Yet, a quick apology from Baku seems to have calmed down the situation.  

Russia Brokered Agreement

The agreement that was mediated by Russia and signed on November 9 by Azerbaijani and Russian presidents Aliyev and Putin, and by the Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, is composed of 9 points. What is obvious is that Russia is the guarantor of the new order between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Another point is the absence of Turkey in the text of the deal, although it is clear that Ankara has emerged as a key actor in the Karabakh conflict. 

The agreement gave Azerbaijan huge territorial gains: not only Azerbaijan will preserve its current gains, but Armenian forces will withdraw from the districts of Aghdam, Kelbajar and Lachin. Armenian towns and villages to the south of Karabakh including Hadrut will remain under the control of the Azerbaijani side. A corridor of 5 kilometres through Lachin will be preserved under Russian peacekeepers to ensure communications between Karabakh and Armenia. Displaced peoples will return to their original homes – although it is not clear whether ethnic Armenian refugees and displaced people will be able to return to their original homes as well. The text does not give enough guarantees for the future security of the Armenian population. It does not say anything about the final status of Karabakh. 

All blockades would be lifted, and communications will be established between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, through southern Armenia, under the supervision of Russian border guards. If this happens, it would slowly normalize relations between neighbouring populations, separated by three decades of conflict and blockades. 

Russian peace keepers will be deployed in the conflict zone, their numbers being determined at 1960 soldiers with 90 armoured fighting vehicles, and 380 additional military vehicles. In the end, Russia received what it had claimed years back: deployment of its soldiers in the Karabakh conflict zone.


While it needs more time to analyse the long-term consequences of the Second Karabakh War, here are some quick remarks:

1- The Armenian side lost important territories, but preserves some of Karabakh, this time under Russian security guarantees. Pashinyan is weakened, and it is not clear whether he could survive. He paid a high price for his contradictory policies, and exacerbated populism. More important the project of democratization and modernization of the country could now be threatened. Now, Armenia is at crossroads, as it has to clarify the ambiguities that emerged under Nikol Pashinyan: whether its common project is human development and democratization, placing the human at the centre of its political system, or whether it wants to follow symbolic nationalism, emotional and irrational. The small country does not have resources for achieving both modernization and have huge military spending at the same time. If the Armenian public consolidates in the medium term on a vision of democratization and development, it could turn its current defeat into long-term advantage, freed from the unsustainable burden of military effort, and re-invest in building a civic polity more adapted to a quickly changing, globalized world. Such a strategic reorientation in political culture is not easy after the last seven weeks, but it is possible. 
2- Azerbaijan has won a huge victory. Since the emergence of post-Soviet Azerbaijan, the Karabakh conflict and later the defeat in 1991-94 with territorial losses haunted Azeri public opinion. With this victory, Ilham Aliyev is stronger than ever, as the nationalist euphoria has destroyed any space for the internal opposition. Ilham Aliyev, who came to power by succeeding his father in 2003, will be able to stabilize further his dynastic rule, and the vertical regime he built. In the near future, Azerbaijan might see emergence of tensions between a centralizing power, and a public opinion that was activated and mobilized during the war. This victory of Azerbaijan could on the long be a pyrrhic victory, leaving the country with an antiquated political system in a time oil and gas resources are its only strategic strength.
3- The war showed that neither multilateralism matters, nor Western influence counts. Whether the US or the Europeans, their influence is in sharp decline, and Russia with Turkey have the keys for the future war or peace in Karabakh and the Caucasus region more broadly. This lost Western influence, or an illusive “international community” will not come back anytime soon, and smaller actors in international relations have to accommodate with Putins of their neighbourhood. 
4- Finally, Putin achieved all his goals – weakening Pashinyan, deploying his forces further in the Caucasus, winning more influence on Armenia and on Azerbaijan, and even emerging as a peacemaker. On the other hand it is not clear what Turkey won, at least it is not from the text of the agreement. The relationship between the Russian and Turkish leaders that we saw emerging in Syria and Libya has been reproduced in Karabakh, with Putin being in the lead.  

Whatever the case, the agreement will open a new page in Karabakh and the South Caucasus, with new opportunities but also many new uncertainties.