It is possible to argue that the weightiest consequence of the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in September–November 2020 was not Baku’s victory over Armenian forces but rather the return of Russian troops to the region in the form of “peacekeepers” in Karabakh (see EDM, December 16, 17, 17, 2020). And even though those Russian soldiers are supposed to remain for only five years, their presence effectively seems to have marked the establishment of a Russian protectorate there—one that will not end anytime soon (see EDM, March 18, 22, 23, 2021; Ekho Kavkaza, April 15, 2022).
Developments in the Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks over recent weeks seem to make such an outcome even more likely, allowing Moscow to recover its position in Armenia, increase its leverage over Azerbaijan, and potentially freeze out the West from any future discussions about the Karabakh conflict (see EDM, April 14). At least superficially, Russian-backed moves may make it appear that the goal the West has long sought—Armenian recognition of the 1991 borders with Azerbaijan—has finally been achieved; but in reality, that goal will have been gained at the price of Russian forces indefinitely taking on the role of occupiers. But precisely for those reasons, the long-running conflict over Karabakh will not so much end as change shape, with the axis of hostilities moving from one between Armenia and Azerbaijan to one between both of those countries and the Russian Federation. Consequently, Moscow could end up losing more than it expects to gain.
Beniamin Pogosian, the head of the Yerevan-based Center for Political and Economic Strategic Research, suggested all of these possibilities in an important new interview with Vadim Dubnov of the Ekho Kavkaza portal. The Armenian scholar argued that Armenia, in response to pressure from Moscow and the West, may acknowledge de jure that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan and, thus, be willing to delimit and demarcate the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But crucially, Armenia would probably agree to this solely on the condition that Karabakh remains de facto under Russian control. That is not a perfect solution, Pogosian conceded, but it gives Armenians in Armenia and in Karabakh the best chance to block Azerbaijan from launching any broadscale attacks on Armenian interests while talks about some final autonomy for Karabakh continue (Ekho Kavkaza, April 15).
According to the analyst, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian recently said that “the international community is telling Armenia it must forget about the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh [sic] and agree to some sort of autonomy for it within Azerbaijan.” Behind the Armenian leader’s words, Pogosian asserted, is recognition that if Yerevan refuses to do so and abstains from border delimitation and autonomy for Karabakh (talks that could go on for years), Baku will sooner or later launch a military campaign to recover the rest of this territory. And the international community will stand aside, telling Yerevan that it had warned the Armenians of what would happen if they did not agree to the West’s proposals, Pogosian predicted (Ekho Kavkaza, April 15).
Of course, as Pashinian himself acknowledged, this would represent a break from the position Armenia has maintained since 1988 and would put the 100,000 ethnic Armenians of Karabakh at risk unless there is some other protector. The only available candidate, the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Research analyst insisted, consists of the Russian peacekeepers, whose presence facilitates the necessary condition for Yerevan to make the concession the international community is demanding. That has the effect of putting the West in an awkward position: the United States and the European Union want an end to the conflict, but they also want to reduce Russian influence. Yet Moscow is increasingly ignoring them (Ekho Kavkaza, April 15). Indeed, Russia has declared that the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict will be addressed not by the defunct Minsk Group but by a special Russian representative (see EDM, April 21).
As long as Armenia keeps talking and Russian forces remain in Karabakh, Azerbaijan is unlikely to launch a military campaign either there or elsewhere; the damage to its relations with Western countries would be too great, Pogosian contended. Thus, if Armenia agrees to acknowledge that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan de jure, Moscow may have found a way to maintain its forces in that region for a long time to come—and with at least unspoken if begrudging Western support. Given this, the Armenian analyst said, Russia is confident that Karabakh must de jure be part of Azerbaijan but de facto under Russian control, somewhat imitating its approach to Abkhazia and South Ossetia between 1994 and 2008 (Ekho Kavkaza, April 15). Of course, as Pogosian does not mention, Russia ultimately changed course, invaded Georgia and recognized the two separatist statelets as “independent”—a fact that many in Azerbaijan and the West are all too well aware of.
Some diplomats suggest Baku will accept this arrangement because “there is not that big a difference as to who controls an occupied territory if it is not you.” But many in Azerbaijan see things differently. They view the Russian occupiers as illegitimate and want them withdrawn. If Russia’s “peacekeepers” remain, and if they continue to work closely with Armenian officials, such demands from Azerbaijan will only increase, particularly given the increasing Russian aggressiveness in Ukraine and elsewhere (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, January 31; Meduza, March 27). Such possibilities simultaneously limit Moscow’s options and set the stage for new conflicts between Azerbaijan and Russia in the future.
But the de jure/de facto compromise, which now appears to be on the table, may backfire on Russia in Armenia as well. Karabakh has been too central for too long in Armenian politics for most Armenians to be happy about such an arrangement. Key political figures in Yerevan as well as many regular Armenians will see this “trade” as a betrayal of their national interests. Their anger may focus first and foremost on the Pashinian government. But over time, especially if the Kremlin tries to curry favor with Azerbaijan for other reasons by changing its approach in Karabakh, Armenia’s fury will likely refocus on Russia, however much of a traditional ally Yerevan has long been to Moscow.