The recent escalation of tensions in Karabakh has acquired a new and potentially destabilizing aspect, one that may matter far more in the future even if current clashes do not spark a new round of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. For the first time, Yerevan and Baku openly expressed anger about the role of Russian forces in Karabakh. Moscow describes these forces as peacekeepers even though they do not meet international standards in that regard, often act in a one-sided manner and fail to do more than only report violations of the ceasefire rather than actually keep the peace. Indeed, these forces’ behavior has been such that some observers have viewed them as creating a new Russian protectorate rather than acting as ostensibly intended (see EDM, January 21, 2021; January 22, 2021; January 26, 2021; March 18, 2021; March 22, 2021; March 23, 2021). That Armenia has now joined Azerbaijan in criticizing Moscow on this point represents a major change in the positions of the two countries since Russian forces were inserted in the region on the basis of a trilateral declaration at the end of the 44-day war in 2020.
Azerbaijan has long been critical of the so-called “peacekeeping contingent.” After all, Baku did not manage to have Turkish forces inserted in Karabakh and does not like the fact that Russian troops are on Azerbaijani territory (see EDM, September 22, 2021; March 29). But Baku is especially incensed now because it believes that the Russians have been too cozy with the remnants of the Armenian-backed Artsakh government and have failed to insist either on the withdrawal of Armenian army units from Karabakh or the Armenian construction of an alternative road into the region so the Lachin Corridor will be under complete Azerbaijani control (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 4).
That stands in sharp contrast to Armenia’s public position. Until now, Yerevan has been supportive of the Russian presence in the region, convinced that the peacekeeping force is the only real protection for ethnic Armenians in Karabakh (see EDM, April 26). And many Armenians still believe that. Nevertheless, in early August 2022, some openly expressed outrage that Russian forces in Karabakh have not responded vigorously to what Yerevan sees as Azerbaijani aggression against Armenians. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan even demanded that Moscow’s role be clarified lest more problems arise—a position he took following protests by Armenians in the streets, a few of whom even called for the introduction of French troops in Karabakh to counterbalance the Russian forces—a position certainly anathema to the Kremlin (Haqqin.az, August 6; Ehorussia.com, August 4). Indeed, the Russian Federation has already reacted sharply to this criticism coming from the South Caucasus (Kavkaz-uzel.eu, August 4).
This shift in turn has consequences not only for the three countries most directly involved—Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia—but also for two neighboring states, Iran and Turkey. The West will also be impacted, as it hopes to recover some influence in the region and facilitate more gas flowing from Azerbaijan to offset cutbacks in Russian gas to Europe. As a result, what might seem to be a small diplomatic tiff of local interests has quickly become an international issue with the United States, Turkey, the European Union and Iran all becoming more active. In recent days, the West has mounted an intensive diplomatic effort in the region to try to calm the situation, and Iran has even moved troops up to the Azerbaijani border (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 4; Banki.loans, August 6; Rosbalt, August 6; Aysor.am, August 6; Politros.com, August 9). Such outside involvement could lead to an easing of tensions that escalated over the past week, or it could have the exact opposite effect.
The violence in Karabakh in early August 2022 was triggered by Baku’s demand in July that Yerevan immediately pull the last remaining Armenian troops out of the disputed territory. Armenia responded that it was in fact doing so. Yet, the reality of what is actually happening on the ground is much more complicated. Three groups of Armenian forces are currently in Karabakh. To begin with, military units consisting of Armenians from Armenia are stationed in the region, which Yerevan acknowledges must be withdrawn. The second group consists of military units that include Armenians from Karabakh itself, which will soon not have any Armenians from Armenia as part of the forces. As a result, Yerevan does not believe these units fall under the November 2020 declaration; these regiments were partially mobilized last week (Panarmenian.net, August 6). (Some analysts have even suggested that the recent clashes reflect Baku’s decision to move before all Armenian troops have left these units) (Apostrophe, August 6) The third and final group is made up of irregular forces of heavily armed Armenian civilians in Karabakh—also units that Yerevan refuses to manage (see EDM, July 21; Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 4).
This situation, with Russian “peacekeepers” between various Armenian forces and the Azerbaijani army, is fraught and regularly gives rise to charges and countercharges of military action from both sides. And that is precisely what happened last week (Vchaspik.ua, August 6).
Baku says Armenian forces attacked Azerbaijani forces, prompting the latter to seize several high points in Karabakh that had been in the Russian zone. In contrast, Yerevan says that Baku has made this baseless charge to further its aggression against the Armenian community. Both do agree, however, that the Russian forces, which are supposed to keep the two side apart, have consistently failed to do so. That is exactly what makes the current case so explosive and even raises the risk of a new, broader conflict (Rosbalt, August 5; Vestikavkaza.ru, August 8).
Yet, this latest violence, which resulted in three deaths and left 19 wounded, currently shows that the conflict in Karabakh is far from over and even evolving. Russia’s role is no longer as unchallenged as it once was, especially if Moscow cannot beef up its presence in Karabakh given troop shortages because of the war in Ukraine. Consequently, the Kremlin has now become the target of criticism from both sides. And even if tensions wane in the coming days, all this is a reminder that the Karabakh conflict continues to simmer and has the potential to explode in unexpected ways in the future.