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

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 161

Checkpoint outside Shusha, in Karabakh (Source: Reuters)

*To read Part One, please click here.


Azerbaijan’s army has won the second Karabakh war, regaining about one half of the territory seized from it by Armenian forces in the early 1990s. However, Russia has won the “peacekeeping” after this war—a goal that had eluded Russia after the first war and one it had pursued ever since (see Part One in EDM, November 12).

The armistice agreement, signed on November 9, brings Russian “peacekeeping” troops into Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh and the Lachin corridor. The agreement also assigns Russian border troops to control transportation routes due to reopen between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan, across Armenian territory. The deployment of Russian “peacekeepers” to Azerbaijan began within hours of the armistice agreement’s signing (TASS, November 10–12).

This move in Azerbaijan holds not only local but also international significance. It confirms and reinforces Russia’s self-arrogated monopoly on “peacekeeping” in former Soviet-ruled territories. Russia’s method is to impose a unilateral peacekeeping operation without an international mandate in a given conflict theater and then reject any proposals to internationalize the operation. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria became case studies in this regard (as did the now-forgotten operation in Tajikistan in the 1990s). By the same token, Moscow rules out an internationally mandated peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s Donbas.

The Kremlin has, from time to time, sought Western recognition or express acceptance of a special prerogative for “peacekeeping in the post-Soviet space.” Although such recognition never materialized, Western tacit acceptance became a reality over time. Russia’s “peacekeeping” monopoly is an element of sphere-of-influence rebuilding or maintenance.

Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in Upper Karabakh is the latest case study. Its initial stage conforms to the pattern of the earlier operations (see above) in several respects. It lacks the mandate of an international organization. It is purely Russian in the composition of its personnel. It contravenes the norm that bars a country from peacekeeping in a neighboring country. It is being undertaken in a territory not controlled by the government (Azerbaijan’s in this case) that holds the internationally recognized title to sovereignty in that territory (the Armenian-controlled rump of Upper Karabakh). It has obtained Azerbaijan’s indispensable but reluctant consent in a swift, opaque negotiation. And by stipulating prolongation at regular five-year intervals, it sets the stage for a long-term, potentially open-ended Russian military presence in this territory and thus another “frozen” conflict.

A number of differences from the familiar pattern also stand out. When Georgia and Moldova accepted Russia as “peacekeeper,” they were incompletely formed, dysfunctional states, devoid of allies, and had suffered defeats at the hands of Russian-backed secessionist forces. Azerbaijan, by contrast, is a successful nation-state that has just demonstrated a newly acquired skillset in conducting a modern military campaign thanks to its partnership with the regional power Turkey. Wisely, Azerbaijan has settled for a limited victory over Armenian forces. A further advance into Upper Karabakh—even by 10 kilometers, to the administrative center Stepanakert/Khankendi—would have risked the intervention of Russian forces based in Armenia and international complications for Azerbaijan. Instead, Baku has chosen a more manageable risk—that of a bargain with Russia.

This apparent bargain allows Azerbaijan to regain and securely keep a portion of Upper Karabakh, additional to the seven adjacent districts. In return, Baku has given its consent to Russia’s long-term military presence in the remainder of Upper Karabakh. The local Armenian population certainly welcomes this protection: it looks genuinely peacekeeping from its perspective (Arminfo, November 10–12). Russia, however, will be able to use this enclave as it has used Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria over the years to manipulate the security situation. Russia’s “peacekeeping” presence there was subject to prolongation at regular intervals by agreement with the titular sovereign state—Georgia and Moldova, respectively—just as in the case of Upper Karabakh under Azerbaijan’s legal sovereignty. Yet Russian troops never left those enclaves. After some years, Western powers discouraged Georgia and Moldova from demanding the removal of Russian “peacekeepers”; such demands came to be viewed as destabilizing. Similarly, Russian “peacekeepers” might remain in Upper Karabakh for many years to come.

Russian troops will also be stationed in the Lachin corridor to guarantee the unimpeded overland traffic between Armenia and the rump Upper Karabakh. The Lachin corridor is due to be placed under Azerbaijan’s civilian administration, while the reduced Upper Karabakh remains Azerbaijani de jure but out of bounds to it de facto. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has raised its flag and is installing its administration in the regained portion of Upper Karabakh around Shusha (Azertag, November 12).

With Russian troops controlling Lachin and Russian border guards controlling Azerbaijan’s overland connections with the Nakhchivan exclave, Russia will hold pressure levers that can be activated or held in reserve as the situation might warrant.