After brokering a November 10 peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia and ending their lopsided war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia would seem to be in the geopolitical driver’s seat in the strategic and contested South Caucasus.
But any assessment that Russia is the net winner of the conflict and its aftermath would be rash in sight of the various important and now pressing issues that are left unresolved.
The Moscow-crafted agreement, by any measure a certificate of Armenia’s humiliating defeat, will see the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces that will act as a buffer between the two belligerents for the foreseeable future.
Those forces will effectively protect the still Armenian-dominated sections of Nagorno-Karabakh, which will be partitioned into two zones, north and south, per a map produced by Russia’s Ministry of Defense.
It will also open two transport corridors, one from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh and the other from Azerbaijan through the Armenian territory to the autonomous enclave of Nakhchivan.
The tripartite agreement, excluding Turkey and Minsk Group members the United States and France, represents a new milestone in Russia’s hegemonic sway in the region, reversing the pro-NATO momentum in both Yerevan and Baku before the conflict. The deal will also likely impact neighboring Georgia’s plans to become a NATO member in the near future.
Significantly, Russia rebuffed Turkey’s bid to join the Nagorno-Karabakh peacekeeping force, limiting it instead to an observer role. Close to home, Russia is less willing to tolerate Turkish competition as it has been in faraway Syria and Libya.
Azerbaijan is well-aware of Moscow’s limits of tolerance, cognizant that any misstep or overreach by Baku that favors Ankara may well result in Moscow tilting heavily in defense of Yerevan.
Now suddenly thrust into a post-conflict political crisis, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has no option but to backtrack on his government’s previous pro-West leaning and increase its already strong dependency on Russia – despite strong misgivings about Russia’s underperformance in assisting it during the six-week bruising conflict.
Russian support will be crucial for the survival of Armenians remaining in Nagorno-Karabakh, one-third of which including the geostrategically-important city of Shusha has fallen into Azeri hands.
Russia’s intervention has prevented a complete Azerbaijan victory while saving Baku from the future headache of an insurgency in the Armenian-populated parts of Nagorno-Karabakh.
At the same time, Russia will now have a new military base situated directly in Nagorno-Karabakh, adding to the other bases it maintains in the Transcaucasus including Armenia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But Russia is now directly entangled in a complicated theater of conflict that will be both costly and may last many years with uncertain outcomes. In several ways, the war has damaged Russia’s credibility and prestige and it’s not clear yet Putin’s post-conflict mediation will be enough to make up for the geopolitical capital lost in the war.
Indeed, the agreement on paper will not necessarily translate into an agreement in reality. Russia will protect the crucial Lachin corridor, but will the promised road connecting Nakhchivan to Azerbaijan materialize anytime soon?
That will be a hard road to pave given popular Armenian resentment against the deal, already expressed in the streets of Yerevan against the Russia-brokered agreement, and Moscow’s own wariness of Turkey’s possible exploitation of the link to enhance its presence in the region.
More clearly, the agreement is a step backward for the Minsk Group-promoted “Madrid Principles”, which aimed to allow Nagorno-Karabakh’s population to determine their status through a referendum.
Russia’s agreement effectively recognizes the enclave as Azerbaijani territory. As such, the moment Russia terminates its peacekeeping operation Nagorno-Karabakh will fall under Baku’s control.
In that case, Armenians will lose faith in Russia and likely try to turn to the West. There is already strong Armenian discontent over what they see as a tilted peace agreement that hands to Azerbaijan, among others, the district of Kalbajar, a vital route to Nagorno-Karabakh.
In other words, there is a strong feeling on the Armenian street that Russian President Vladimir Putin could and should have displayed greater will and used more force in backing Armenia, a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and that he has in the aftermath conceded too much territory to Azerbaijan.
Such criticisms, however, could be premature. Russia’s activation of its Long-Range Aviation – a branch of the Russian Air Force tasked with the long-range bombardment of strategic targets akin to US Strategic Air Command – for combat patrol over the Caspian region likely played a direct role in Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s decision to suspend operations after capturing Shusha, a stone’s throw from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s largest city.
Historians will weigh whether Putin’s delayed reaction in the conflict, one that cost Armenia the prized city of Shusha, showed weakness in his leadership. There is no doubt, however, that Armenia miscalculated, particularly in its underestimation of the role of Azerbaijan’s Turkish-made drones.
Armenia’s reliance on an “active deterrent strategy” spearheaded by Defense Minister David Tonoyan that scrapped an obsolete “trench strategy” in favor of a mobile counterforce, whereby any Azeri aggression would be met with a “new war for new territory”, proved to be fatally flawed.
A bulk of Armenian military hardware was destroyed while in movement by Azeri drones in the six-week war, clearly showing the terrible price a country can pay by relying on a dubious and outmoded defense strategy.
Any objective assessment of Russia’s role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will inevitably land on a mixed review citing the pros and cons of Moscow’s “waiting game” followed by active mediation and muscle-flexing.
The final assessment will be judged in terms of the peace agreement’s implementation, already decried by Armenians including the national president, who has questioned Prime Minister Pashinyan’s decision to sign the deal without “debate and discussion.”
Indeed, the lack of a clear political consensus on the Armenian side could mean that the Russia-brokered agreement is merely a stop-gap prelude to the next war.