The Second Karabakh War (September 27–November 9, 2020) has resulted in an Azerbaijani national triumph, a self-inflicted Armenian trauma, geopolitical gains for Russia, another debacle of Western diplomacy, and Turkey’s reassertion as a regional power in the South Caucasus.
The significance of Azerbaijan’s military victory transcends the battlefield by far. It caps Azerbaijan’s maturation from a mere project in nation- and state-building (as it was in the early 1990s, when Armenia seized 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory) into a fully consolidated, successfully modernizing nation-state. Azerbaijan presents a stark contrast to Russian-allied Armenia’s failed modernization.
Azerbaijan’s Western orientation in terms of oil and natural gas resource development and export destinations laid the economic basis for its overall modernization, including the military modernization that enabled this triumph. While its Western orientation is bound to continue in the energy sector, Baku sees itself treated with neglect bordering on the malign by Western powers in political and geopolitical terms. This sentiment had been swelling in Baku for years, seemingly unnoticed by Western diplomacy, which actually exacerbated this sentiment in Baku during this war (see EDM, November 25, December 1, 3, 7). Azerbaijan has, therefore, turned to Turkey as a natural protector and strategic partner, as well as to Russia for a transactional partnership to regain the Armenian-occupied territories.
This war has successfully operationalized the Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership in the military sphere for the first time. While rooted ultimately in Turkic solidarity, Azerbaijan made this strategic partnership materially possible by becoming a major, high-value economic partner to Turkey. The Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline, Baku–Erzurum and Trans-Anatolia gas pipelines, Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway, and the Star oil refining complex (Aliaga near Izmir) have turned Azerbaijan into the single largest investor country in Turkey, and they have contributed to Turkey’s national goal to become a major energy transit country. This year, moreover, Azerbaijan became Turkey’s largest direct supplier of natural gas, overtaking Russia in that role (see EDM, July 6). All of that amounts to a vital Turkish national interest to support Azerbaijan’s security and success. Turkish weaponry and military advice were key to Azerbaijan’s victory in this war.
Azerbaijan’s war aims were initially limited to regaining the seven inner-Azerbaijani, Armenian-occupied districts adjacent to Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh. This formulation of goals was acceptable to Russian President Vladimir Putin who, exploiting Western disengagement, had positioned himself as the unique mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia. At every stage of the Azerbaijani forces’ advance, President Ilham Aliyev offered to stop if Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian would publicly commit to withdrawing Armenian forces from those seven Karabakh-adjacent districts by a certain date. Given Yerevan’s refusal, not only of this demand but of any negotiations unless Azerbaijan stopped advancing, Baku enlarged the definition of its war aims to include Upper Karabakh’s southern part, with the town of Shusha. This turned out to be the limit of what Putin would accept, and only in return for Azerbaijan’s consent to a Russian “peacekeeping” intervention in Upper Karabakh’s remaining territory (see EDM, November 12, 13).
Under the November 10, 2020, armistice, Azerbaijan has regained some 80 percent of the total area that the 1994 armistice had left under Armenia’s control. However, some two thirds of Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh’s territory, including its administrative center Stepanakert (Khankendi), remains under Yerevan’s and (increasingly) Russia’s control since the November 10 armistice (see EDM, December 8, 10).
Russia and Azerbaijan have thereby arrived at an undeclared quid pro quo, largely at the expense of Russia’s official ally Armenia. Adopting a mediator’s role, Russia accepted Azerbaijan’s resort to war, which Azerbaijan strictly limited to regaining its own territory from Armenian control. Moreover, the Kremlin compelled Yerevan to withdraw its forces from three of those seven districts without combat. Although Azerbaijan’s forces had almost crushed the Armenian forces before November 10, a pursuit operation into the mountainous and forested terrain of those three districts could have cost the Azerbaijani army many combat casualties.
Thus, Russia’s studied “neutrality” posture during the 44-day war, then the green light for Azerbaijan to regain three (out of seven) Karabakh-adjacent districts without having to fight for them, and finally Putin’s consent to partitioning Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh into Armenian- and Azerbaijani-controlled zones, amount to major Russian concessions. In return for these, Baku has consented to Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in the remainder of Upper Karabakh, a territory universally deemed as part of Azerbaijan. Moreover, Baku is postponing—apparently sine die—the return of that territory under Azerbaijan’s effective sovereignty, as distinct from legal but nonfunctioning sovereignty.
The terms of that quid pro quo look fairly balanced at this time; but they also look more risk-fraught for Azerbaijan than for Russia in a medium-term perspective—or even in the short term, should Russia choose to wield the leverage it has gained through the “peacekeeping” presence on the ground.
Baku’s quid pro quo with Moscow is, in part, a well-nigh inevitable result of Western diplomacy’s disengagement from conflict-resolution efforts in recent years. Disengagement (and the resulting inadequate information about developments on the ground) robbed Western diplomacy of effectiveness on four levels: first, it failed to induce Russia to be more responsive to Azerbaijan’s interests in the protracted negotiations; next, Western diplomacy failed to restrain Armenia from repudiating the “basic principles” for conflict-resolution, worked out earlier in consensus with Russia (the Kremlin did not restrain Armenia either); third, Western diplomacy failed to stop Azerbaijan from resorting to military force after Russia had given its green light to Baku to redress its legal rights through force; and fourth, vitriolic Western criticism of Turkey failed to dissuade Baku from allying with Turkey in their mutual, vital interests.
With its inactions and flawed actions, Western diplomacy unwittingly helped to prepare the ground for this major deal between Baku and Moscow. For its part, Baku paved the way to this deal by securing Turkey’s protection vis-à-vis Russia, absent Western engagement. The sum total of these realignments—to wit, Western disengagement, a seeming entente between Moscow and Baku, and the blossoming alliance of Azerbaijan and Turkey—point the way to a regionalization of security arrangements in the South Caucasus, reducing the West’s role and clout.