Nagorno-Karabakh: and the winner is… Russia

The map of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Golden, using WikiMapia data., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

After a long meeting, the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia, supervised by Russia, agreed on the ceasefire, which should precede the peace negotiation between Baku and Yerevan on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Although Azerbaijan is claiming its victory in the conflict, the Russian Federation is the real winner in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Everything began at the end of September when the frontline between the so-called Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) and Azerbaijan registered military operations on a large scale. From the military escalation to the conflict, the step was quick, and for 44 days, Armenians and Azeris fought each other.[1]

Several foreign actors were directly or indirectly involved in the conflict. Turkey has always supported Azerbaijan against Armenia, playing an ambiguous role. The international arena is still trying to understand how seriously Ankara supported Baku with military personnel (and foreign fighters) and hardware, as the Armenians have claimed.[2]

The French President Emmanuel Macron was the more active among the European leaders and started a media confrontation with Erdogan, supporting Yerevan as the French Armenian Diaspora requested and accusing Turkey of exploiting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for its geopolitical gains.[3]

Iran tried to play the peacekeeper role in the Caucasus, although Baku – Tehran relations have always been swinging. And the United States? Trump was so busy with his presidential campaign to take seriously what was happening in the Caucasus.[4] Moreover, as U.S. media has highlighted, Trump has always been more absorbed in domestic economic policy and ‘make America great again’ than in international issues. Last but not least, Trump’s business interests in Azerbaijan and Turkey have ‘undermined’ the U.S. involvement in the Caucasian dynamics.[5]

In conclusion, only one international actor could have taken care of the situation: Russia. There are many reasons the Kremlin still matters in the Caucasus and the entire blizhneye zarubezhye (near abroad), which find their roots in the historical, cultural, political, economic, and social process that has invested the post-Soviet space since the 19th century. If we look at the past and what has happened in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia (with Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Armenian and Azerbaijan (with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, Russia has always played a decisive role and showed its ability to manage the situation having meetings with regional leaders and all the parts involved.

Geopolitics of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict underlined that:

1) Azerbaijan conquered territories Baku has permanently considered part of its sovereignty. Did Azerbaijan win? Even though Azerbaijan had a decisive military victory, we should consider that Baku’s vast amount of investments in the military sector to improve and upgrade its army did not result in the complete defeat of the Nagorno-Karabakh forces and the conquest of Stepanakert. Azerbaijan has more human, economic and military resources than Armenia and, as government members have often claimed, could have easily destroyed any military resistance in Nagorno-Karabakh, something that has not happened until now. Furthermore, Azerbaijan reached a military victory sacrificing human lives.[6]

2) Armenia cannot easily face a modernised Azerbaijani army backed by Turkey. In the 1992 – 1994 conflict, the Armenian forces reported a victory against a bigger Azerbaijani army thanks to their discipline and strategy. Armenia not only defended Nagorno-Karabakh but even conquered seven Azerbaijani districts creating a buffer zone to protect Stepanakert from external attacks. Nowadays, the situation is different because the Armenian army has shown its limit in fighting against an army equipped with modern hardware. Yerevan should learn the lesson and return to the military market, diversify its import and purchase modern equipment from different international sellers because relying mainly on Russian military export might become a limit.[7]

3) Pashinyan ultimately failed in domestic and foreign policy. In 2018, Pashinyan became the Prime Minister of Armenia and began his personal campaign against ‘the hold establishment’ accused of being corrupted. When Pashinyan took the leadership of the country, the Armenian population had big expectations and hoped that the government could be capable of fighting corruption and crime and improving economic development. After two years of Pashinyan’s government, Armenia faced the same problems it had in the past and was involved in a new conflict with Azerbaijan, resulting in land loss. Someone in Yerevan and Stepanakert is probably missing Robert Kocharyan or Serzh Sargsyan, and Pashinyan’s political future is uncertain and depends on the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations. No Armenian will accept an agreement that sells off Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh because Pashinyan’s government could not contrast another Azerbaijani military offensive.

4) Turkey is a threat to Caucasian stability. Erdogan aims to create the ‘new Sultanate’ following the steps of the past Ottoman empire. This is clear, and no one can deny that in recent years, Ankara has conducted an aggressive and indiscriminate foreign policy in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Until now, the European Union has not been capable of stopping Erdogan’s policy because Ankara has in its pocket the card of migrants with whom it can blackmail Brussels. Trump Administration sometimes tried to stretch its muscle with Ankara, especially last year when Turkey purchased the first batch of the Russian missile system S-400, but the result was not so impressive.

5) Russia still controls the regional Caucasian dynamics, albeit the West, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has tried to play a significant role. The Caucasus is vital in the E.U. Eastern Partnership and E.U. Energy Security Strategy, and Brussels still hopes to play a decisive role in the Caucasian dynamics. Still, democratic slogans, the promises of economic-financial aid, and frequent meetings are useless if the European Union is absent when things get worse in the region. In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia is the most influential actor. The Kremlin has chaired the Minsk Group with France and the United States and has constantly organised meetings between the parties to de-escalate the conflict. Furthermore, the Russian government has always supplied weapons to Baku and Yerevan. The ceasefire agreement reached in Moscow was not an exception to the Kremlin’s management of the Caucasian ‘frozen conflict’ and underlined that if Moscow could influence the Caucasus (this is incontrovertible). Indeed, the Russians are also worried that a further escalation of the conflict could have caused a bigger regional conflict with Turkey or pushed Armenia to ask for help from the entire Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Conclusion

Although Armenia and Azerbaijan reached a ceasefire under Russian supervision, the situation in the region will always be tight, and there are always opportunities that local tension might result in another conflict. Indeed, everything can happen in a land where anger, death, information warfare, and psychological operation have been driving local behaviours.

In the Internet era, where people sign petitions against or to support a cause, Facebook groups organise online events, and we can like or comment on a picture or a piece of news, Russia applies the old rule of diplomacy and geopolitics: be ready when they need you. Unfortunately, neither Brussels nor Washington were and are prepared for Armenian and Azerbaijani people who suffered the war’s consequences, losing their homes, relatives, hopes and life.

If the ceasefire doesn’t last long, we should expect a conflict whose consequences will also affect the European Union. If the truce underlined the Kremlin’s role, the resumption of the conflict would show us that in diplomacy, a late strategy means destabilisation, humanitarian crisis,  and socioeconomic problems.

Sources

[1] BBC News (2020) Что случилось в Нагорном Карабахе? Отвечаем на главные вопросы. Link: https://www.bbc.com/russian/features-54427054

[2] Patrick Keddie (2020) What’s Turkey’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?, Al Jazeera. Link: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/30/whats-turkeys-role-in-the-nagorno-karabakh-conflict

[3] France 24 (2020) Macron condemns Turkey’s ‘bellicose’ statements on Nagorno-Karabakh fighting. Link: https://www.france24.com/en/20200930-macron-condemns-turkey-s-bellicose-statements-on-nagorno-karabakh-fighting

[4] Maziar Motamedi (2020) Iran’s delicate balancing act in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Al Jazeera. Link: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/5/iran-nk

[5] Ian J. Lynch (2020) Trump’s tax returns detail his business dealings in Turkey, Ahval News. Link: https://ahvalnews.com/trump-erdogan/trumps-tax-returns-detail-his-business-dealings-turkey; Michael Safi, Julian Borger (2020) US silence on Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict reflects international disengagement, The Guardian. Link: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/04/us-armenia-azerbaijan-nagaon-karabakh

[6] Al Jazeera (2020) Infographic: Military arsenals of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Link: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/1/infographic-military-arsenals-of-armenia-and-azerbaijan; Michael Kofman (2020) Armenia-Azerbaijan War: Military Dimensions of the Conflict, Russia Matters. Link: https://www.russiamatters.org/analysis/armenia-azerbaijan-war-military-dimensions-conflict

[7] Al Jazeera (2020) The human cost of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Link: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/12/the-human-cost-of-the-nagorno-karabakh-conflict


Authors: Giuliano Bifolchi, Silvia Boltuc.