Russian ‘Peacekeeping’ in Karabakh: Old Model, New Features, Mission Creep (Part One)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 11


Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in Upper (Nagorno) Karabakh, which ended the 44-day war last November, is laying the foundation of a Russian protectorate in this Armenian-inhabited territory of Azerbaijan (see EDM, December 8, 10, 2020).

This undertaking shows some familiar features of Russia’s earlier “peacekeeping” model in its claimed sphere of influence (Tajikistan, Moldova’s Transnistria, Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia), combined however in Karabakh’s case with significant new features. The latter include: calculated Russian even-handedness, consent by all parties on the ground, active Russian military involvement in civil affairs, and an expansive mission creep.

Akin to Russia’s earlier “peacekeeping” operations, the ongoing one in Karabakh also lacks international legality or legitimacy. It does not have a mandate from one of the qualified international organizations (see Part Two); the troops deployed belong to one country only; Russia conducts this operation on the territory of a neighboring country; and there is no safeguard against prolonging this operation in perpetuity (unless Russia decides to end it at its own discretion). All of that contravenes the United Nations-approved norms of peacekeeping operations, as followed by legitimate missions worldwide, except by Russia in its claimed domain.

At the same time, the operation in Karabakh differs from Russia’s previous “peacekeeping” model in some significant respects. In this latest case, Russia has not intervened on the side of local proxies to ensure their victory against the legitimate government; nor has Russia imposed its “peacekeeping”  intervention upon an unwilling but defeated government; nor did Russia, in this case, aim to disable a country (be it Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, or Azerbaijan) from “going West.”

Instead, all parties on the ground have deemed Russia’s peacekeeping intervention as serving their own respective interests. Armenia asked for it in order to save its army’s remnants from complete destruction and its government from collapse. The unrecognized Karabakh “republic” embraced it in order to stop further territorial losses, survive truncated, and reverse the stampeding exodus of its population. Azerbaijan, while triumphant over Armenia, entered into a carefully calculated bargain with Russia as part of the armistice agreement: Baku regained certain districts without costly casualties; sealed a partition of the Karabakh “republic’s” territory; and obtained Moscow’s endorsement of an overland route from Azerbaijan to its Nakhchivan exclave and to Turkey via Armenian territory (see EDM, November 12, 13, 2020; January 12, 2021).

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin crafted the terms of the armistice agreement to position Russia as a unique arbiter among all parties on the ground. Putin personally mediated the armistice negotiations between Baku and Yerevan throughout the 44-day war, consigning Western diplomacy to irrelevance, and leaving Turkey as the sole possible counterweight to Russian influence in the region.

Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation, however, lacks not only international legitimacy (see above) but has not even been codified on an inter-state level between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. No such document exists as yet. The November 9–10, 2020 tripartite armistice agreement, actually titled “declaration” (zayavlenie), covers Russia‘s “peacekeeping” operation in clauses 3, 4 and 5 (out of nine clauses). This document has merely the standing of a political declaration, with the loose wording of a framework document, necessitating follow-up negotiations over the details.

Following Upper Karabakh’s partition along ceasefire lines, Russia’s “peacekeeping” troops are stationed in the rump-Karabakh “republic,” not in the territory regained by Azerbaijan. From President Putin on down, Russian officials emphatically declare that all of “Nagorno” Karabakh—including the unrecognized “republic’s” territory—legally belongs to Azerbaijan as the titular sovereign. Nevertheless, Russia’s military operates there without a legal basis, but only with the de facto consent of Azerbaijan. Moscow openly acknowledges that its “peacekeeping” operation has no legally valid mandate as of this time.

According to Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the mandate ought to take the form of a tripartite agreement and is still under discussion (TASS, January 18). The discussions, however, proceed on two separate, bilateral tracks: Moscow-Yerevan and Moscow-Baku (as did the earlier negotiations toward the armistice agreement).

Open sources indicate that Russia’s Defense Ministry is the lead institution negotiating a peacekeeping mandate. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, along with Lavrov, visited both Yerevan and Baku (in that order) as early as November 21, 2020, with Russian drafts of a tripartite mandate for the consideration of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and President Ilham Aliyev. A “package of documents regulating the Russian peacekeeping contingent’s activities in the zone of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” was signed by Shoigu and his Armenian counterpart, Vagharshak Harutiunian (TASS, Armenpress, November 21, 2020). Nothing was signed with Baku, however, on that occasion or since then.

President Aliyev and other Baku officials carefully avoid airing their objections publicly; instead, they outwardly express satisfaction with the existing situation. Thus, when Putin received Aliyev and Pashinian on January 11 in Moscow, Aliyev declared that “Russia’s [peacekeeping] operation reflects the positive development of our political-strategic partnership over the long term” (Azertag, January 11; Kommersant, January 12; see EDM, January 12). The Kremlin is keen to showcase its peacekeeping mission as successful; and Baku would gain nothing by embarrassing Moscow publicly on this account, particularly while Russia behaves constructively with Azerbaijan on other issues important to Baku (first and foremost, Azerbaijan-Armenia border demarcation).

Baku, however, defends its interests in the backstage negotiations on the parameters of Russia’s “peacekeeping” and other types of presence in Upper Karabakh. Some of Baku’s desiderata, unmet by Moscow thus far, are being communicated from time to time via certain media outlets, usually indirectly and occasionally directly. Thus, Baku wants Russia’s military in the Karabakh “republic” to avoid treating the latter’s authorities as if they were lawful ones; to order Armenia’s own troops stationed there back to Armenia; to eventually demobilize the Karabakh “republic’s” troops; and to stop Yerevan officials and foreign politicians from visiting Stepanakert via Armenia and without Baku’s consent (in line with Baku’s policy ever since 1994). In order to be able to control such visits, Baku seeks to install an Azerbaijani border checkpoint in the Lachin corridor, where Russian “peacekeeping” troops alone hold sway since the November 10, 2020 ceasefire (Azertag, January 6;, January 8;, January 6, 13, 18).

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, draws a distinction between political and humanitarian activities in terms of access to the unrecognized Karabakh “republic.” According to President Aliyev, although “humanitarian assistance exceeds the November 10 armistice declaration, we understand that this is for the Armenian people living there, so that they don’t suffer in winter. A lot of [humanitarian] cargoes are being delivered there via Azerbaijan.” Indeed, Azerbaijan actively facilitates those deliveries by Russian military and civil-affairs personnel to the Armenian-inhabited territory via Azerbaijan (Azertag, January 6; see EDM, December 8).

*To read Part Two, please click here.

*To read Part Three, please click here.