The republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a peace deal brokered by Russia on November 9, 2020, following the 44-day war, based on which the seven occupied regions surrounding the self-claimed Nagorno-Karabach republic that had come under the Armenian forces between 1991 and 1994 and parts of which had swithed under the control of Azerbaijan during the recent war , fully came under the control of Azerbaijan. This deal was made while during the past 25 years, after the 1994 ceasefire, despite long negotiations between the two parties which were brokered by Russia, America and France , heads of the Minsk group, no outcomes were obtained. The point of the recent negotiations is the pivotal role of Russia and absence of other powers, especially America and France, which is the subject of this text.
A Short Overview of the Karabach Developments
The republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia entered a war, due to the Armenian forces’ support for the independence of the self-claimed republic of Artsakh, whose process had begun since 1988, the result of which was killing of over 35,000 people and displacement of hundreds of thousands until a ceasefire was established in 1994. During the war, seven regions surrounding the mountainous Karabach were occupied by the Armenian forces and following the signing of the Bishkek ceasefire deal, the crisis froze and the three countries of Russia, U.S., and France as the heads of the Minsk group of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe took up to mediate and solve the crisis. From then on, a number of plans and proposals have been presented to settle the dispute, none of any avail. Also, during short periods in 2016 and July 2020 some military clashes broke out between the two sides.
Failure of the Minsk group mediating efforts for solving the crisis and continuing Armenian occupation of the Azeri territory coupled with the republic of Azerbaijan’s people’ demands for retaking the regions facilitated a new war between the two countries on September 27, 2020, which was different than the previous clashes. The Azeri forces’ superiority on the ground and their swift success in liberating parts of the occupied lands laid the ground for a declaration or peace deal on November 9, between the two countries which was brokered by Russia and was an important achievement for Baku.
No doubt, one of the most important factors in this victory was the military, economic and political superiority of the republic of Azerbaijan. Over the last 25 years, the Azeri government has strengthened its economic and military capacity- whose indexes are far higher than those of Armenia- as well as improved its international and political bilateral cooperation, especially with neighboring countries. One more important factor for this success was the change of the political and international conditions in the world and region, including Russia’s approach toward the South Caucasus. While from the perspective of many analysts, the Russian strategy was maintaining the status quo in the South Caucasus, Russia’s positions and behavior during the recent war showed that Russia’s approach to the situation in the region has, to some extent, changed, regarding the realities on the ground and the international developments. In this text, the reasons why Russia’s approach toward the Karabach developments changed are examined and its impacts on the regional geo-politics are probed and the question of how does this policy affect the geo-political status of the country will be answered.
Russia’s Positions and Developments Toward Karabach Crisis
In Russia’s foreign policy strategy, the South Caucasus is considered an integral part of its vital interests and its developments have a direct connection with the Russian national security and interests. In the post-Soviet era, the greatest threats posed to the Russian national security have emanated from this region and the most crises from the post-Soviet republics which had obtained their independence have come from this region. The centrifugal tendencies in the Caucasus and Nato expansion along with being situated on the eastern front of the west are among security concerns of Russia. On the other hand, the South Caucasus region enjoys a special status in the eyes of Russia due to the energy-centered policies of Russia and its importance in the energy sector and transport of energy to Europe, a point always considered in Russia’s economic and geo-political calculations. As a result, it can be safely said that playing a superior role in the South Caucasus region’s developments is among Russia’s priorities and the county is trying to handle this region’s developments according to its national interests; a fact evident during the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In analyzing Russia’s behavior toward the crisis, several stages can be witnessed. First stage was the stated positions by Russia which were based on impartiality toward the warring sides and emphasis on the urgency of an immediate ceasefire. Second stage was practical efforts through diplomatic contacts which took place by continuing negotiations with the Armenian and Azeri officials, holding meetings with the foreign ministers of the two warring countries, holding talks with the French, Turkish and Iranian officials and backing a meeting among the foreign ministers of the US, Armenia and Azerbaijan in Washington on October 26. Third stage was independent mediation, reaching an agreement for peace; and eventually the fourth stage was deploying peacekeeping forces to the region after the clashes stalled. The important thing in Russia’s behavior was maintaining a balance in treating Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result of this policy, Yerevan quickly picked on the fact that, despite presence in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between Russia and Armenia, it could not expect much of Russia.
During the early days of the war, the president and officials of Russia made it clear that the treaties were meant for defending the mainland Armenia and did not include the occupied regions inside Azerbaijan. Putin’s statements on the matter made it clear that Moscow’s policy of balanced relations with Baku and Yerevan had no other substitute. In an interview with the Russian TV on October 7, pointing to his country’s commitments to Armenia as a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization , he stated: “We, as a part of this treaty, have specific commitments. Russia always keeps its side of the commitments and continues to meet them. It’s unfortunate that clashes are ongoing; but (the clashes) are not inside the Armenian soil. ” Later on, these statements were also repeated by the foreign minister and the speaker for the foreign minister, Dmitry Peskov.
Russia’s performance in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a sign of setting Russia’s behavior in proportion to the developments occurred in the status of the two countries and the region; some of its indexes are as follows:
- Shift of the military and economic balance in favor of Azerbaijan against Armenia and the resolve of the country for changing the status quo in relation to Karbach and Armenia
- Turkey’s effort for exploiting the differences between the U.S. and Russia and taking larger parts and more concessions in the region
- Iran’s priority for establishing sustainable peace and stability along the northern borders according to the international law and importance of the Karabach crisis as an impediment to regional cooperation
- Continuation of Russian problems and differences with Ukraine and Georgia, and the Belarusian situation after the elections, ramping up of the US and EU sanctions and the perspective of Biden’s victory and likelihood of intensification of the Russia US differences
- America’s engagement with its domestic issues and presidential elections and the US not being prepared to seriously enter into the South Caucasus issues during Europe’s crisis and inability to play a US-independent role in the region
On the other hand, as mentioned, Russia has tried, over the last years, to strike a balance in its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. What stands out in Russia’s behavior is simultaneous sale of arms to both countries; a matter which did not comply with the Armenian expectations which is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. likely, it was based on this expectation that Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, in his letter of October 31 to the Russian president while briefing him on the regional situation , the terrorists presence in the Karabach war who were transferred from Syria, and the war getting closer to the Armenian borders, demanded that the Russian side , according to paragraph two of the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance determine the type and amount of assistance it would provide for Yerevan.
Generally it can be said that Russia’s actions during the Karabach crisis were influenced by the developments on the ground as well as the international and regional political environment which had their specific consequences and messages. First, the peace deal was brokered solely by Russia, the US and France being absent, although the two countries have always over the last 26 years been a fixed part of the Karabach peace negotiations which had not yielded any outcome up to November 9. The message this situation sends to Russia’s world geo-political rivals is an accurate and clear one. Second was Turkey’s effort to be a part of the peace negotiations which Russia denied from Ankara. Although Ankara , due to its political and military support for Azerbaijan, expected to be included in the political process of the peace negotiations by mediation from Baku, this with was not met ( given Turkey’s claim to deploy its peace keeping forces along the contact lines, there was no hint at such a thing in the Karabach peace deal). Third was improving Russia’s image in Azerbaijan’s public opinion, which prior to this, was seen as a supporter of the status quo in Karabach. Fourth was the Russian security officers entering into the Azeri soil which will last until everything is sealed. According to paragraph three of the deal, in the corridor allocated to the transfer between Armenia and mountainous Karabach, some 1960 Russian peacekeeping forces will deploy with the related military equipment. The duty of these forces is to control and patrol the region. Russian forces’ presence in Azerbaijan is a complement to the deployment of its forces in the Gyumri military base in Armenia that completes the Russian military foothold in the South Caucasus.
The question now hanging is which direction will the trend of the regional geo-political developments take after the Karabach peace? Can Russia, after this, include Azerbaijan in the regional organizations like the Eurasian Economic Union or the Collective Security Treaty? A matter so far resisted by Baku. Considering Russia’s political and security clout over Armenia, which direction will the country’s political tendencies take? What difference does Azerbaijani invitation of Turkish forces to have presence in the country(out of the framework of the peace deal) make in the competition and cooperation equation of Turkey and Russia from the Caucasus to the northern Mediterranean ? By regard to the Moscow and Tehran cooperation on various regional and international issues and Tehran’s friendly relations with Baku and Yerevan, where will the regional cooperation be heading for?
Ali Akbar Jokar, Top Expert at the Caucasus and Central Asia Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)