Karabakh Armistice: Azerbaijani National Triumph, Russian Geopolitical Victory (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 160

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.”


*To read Part Two, please click here.