A cold winter for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh?

On Monday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev signed a Russian-brokered agreement that is expected to end the six weeks of open hostilities between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous region, known as Artsakh to Armenian, has been at the heart of their enduring rivalry for decades.

“The one thing that won’t change is the need for peace talks, regardless of what happens on the ground. The Azerbaijanis may feel now that they have the upper hand in the fighting that they can avoid making any compromise, much like the Armenians felt in 1994. The reality is, that without peace talks and real compromise on both sides this conflict will remain,” Marc Behrendt, the director for Europe and Eurasia programmes at Freedom House, told Ahval.

Three limited ceasefire agreements failed to hold in October, but with Azerbaijan taking the strategically and historically significant city of Shusha on Sunday, Pashinyan was compelled to make significant concessions to prevent the complete loss of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azeri, also referred to as Azerbaijani, forces.

The new agreement allows Azerbaijan to keep the territory it took by force, including Shusha and Hadrut, within the historic boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh. It also requires Armenian forces to turn over other territories they have occupied for the last 26 years, including the so-called Lachin corridor, which is Nagorno-Karabakh’s primary link to Armenia proper.

The deal sparked outrage in Armenia. In the capital, Yerevan, protesters stormed the main government building and called for Pashinyan’s resignation.

“I made the decision as a result of a deep analysis of the military situation,” Pashinyan said in a statement announcing the agreement. He said the decision was very difficult, but that it was the “best solution in the situation”.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, newly independent Armenia seized control of the majority ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and other surrounding Azeri districts in its 1992-1994 war with Azerbaijan that claimed 30,000 lives and displaced upwards of 1 million people.

In the intervening years, hydrocarbon-rich Azerbaijan improved its military capacity including the purchase of a fleet of drones from its close ally Turkey. Baku used its drones to devastating effect, helping it make offensive territorial gains even in difficult mountainous terrain held by well-established Armenian defensive positions. Turkey also contracted Syrian mercenaries to fight on the front lines.

While Ankara played a key role in enabling the outbreak of heavy fighting, Russia proved it remains the key power player in the South Caucasus.

Russia initially appeared caught off guard by the renewed conflict, leading to speculation about Moscow’s ability to shape events. Given that Russia has collective security treaty obligations to Armenia, and Turkey backs Azerbaijan, the fighting was also frequently framed as a new front in a Russian-Turkish proxy war that also spans the civil wars in Syria and Libya.

However, the Russian-brokered deal with Turkey’s clear cooperation suggests neither analysis is accurate. Since Azerbaijan launched its offensive on September 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken several times with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Although there are important nuances to the settlement between Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan as it concerns Turkey, Ankara sees the development as a success for Turkish foreign policy.

On Tuesday, Erdoğan reportedly told Putin the agreement was a positive step towards a lasting resolution to the conflict. He also emphasized the importance of creating a transport corridor, as stipulated in the agreement, between the semi-autonomous Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan that is separated from the rest of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory.

The corridor will establish a land link between Turkey and Azerbaijan proper. Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, told Ahval in a podcast interview: “The potential is there in the future five to ten years to become the main corridor linking Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Central Asia. So that’s a major win for Turkey.”

The Russian-brokered deal also guarantees a transport corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh via the Lachin corridor. A force of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers will be tasked with enforcement of the two transport corridors, but there remain ambiguities about how implementation will work.

Russia was able to negotiate terms that meet many of its objectives. Unable to secure a role for Russian peacekeepers in 1994, it will now have a troop presence in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. The agreement also leaves Pashinyan, whom Moscow dislikes, severely weakened, creating the possibility of a change to Armenian leadership that is more favourable to Russian interests.

Facing a narrative that it is losing influence over its near abroad, with various forms of instability also occurring in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, Russia will highlight the Nagorno-Karabakh deal as proof that it remains an effective arbiter of affairs on its periphery.

Moscow will further be pleased that a role for Turkish peacekeepers was excluded from the signed deal and that its diplomatic success eclipsed the disengaged United States.

Putin said he hoped the agreement would “set up necessary conditions for long-lasting and full-scale settlement of the crisis over Nagorno-Karabakh”.

But does the deal accomplish that feat? Despite offering the best opportunity so far to halt the fighting and prevent further tragic loss of life, the agreement leaves many open questions.

On Tuesday Aliyev said that both Russian and Turkish peacekeepers would deploy to Nagorno-Karabakh, arousing the existential fears of Armenians who hold vivid collective memories of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Turks a century ago.

“Not a single word is said about this in the published statement,” Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters in response to Aliyev's claim. “The sides did not agree on that. The presence of Turkish soldiers in Karabakh was not coordinated.”

The agreement also does nothing to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. Formally recognized by the international community, including several U.N. Security Council resolutions, as a part of Azerbaijan, Baku has never been willing to accede the region to Armenia and will be less likely to do so now that it has recovered large swaths of the surrounding territory by force. For its part, Armenia has also always withheld formal recognition of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, in hopes of preserving the possibility of peace negotiations.

The juxtaposition of jubilant celebrations across Azerbaijan and ferocious protests in Armenia in reaction to the agreement further highlights the enduring animosity between the two sides that have made peace an intractable goal for decades.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think the sides are particularly ready to talk to each other. The feelings, rhetoric and the potential internal political ramifications on both sides are so charged that it will be hard to go back to the negotiation table,” Behrendt told Ahval.

It also remains to be seen whether Moscow can build on its diplomatic victory with a serious peace process or indeed whether it will even want to. It could determine that the reshaped status quo alone satisfies Russian interests.

“There have been scenarios where external great powers would dictate the terms of the conflict before and they have always failed,” Behrendt also cautioned.

“In reality, it is the actual stakeholders of the conflict that need to decide (including the Karabakh) Armenians, displaced Azerbaijanis, other affected people and to a much lesser extent Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. They may not have the power to broker a peace, but they have it to scuttle one. Any long-term solution will involve them,” he concluded.

In the near term, there is a need for international observers to set up monitoring missions to ensure the just treatment of civilians and for international donors to assist with the resettlement of people displaced by the conflict. International Crisis Group notes that with winter setting in and the rapid spread of COVID-19 among internally displaced people, Armenia should be open to such assistance.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.