A Russian army officer walks through dust during military exercises at the Prudboy range in Volgograd region, Southern Russia on September 24, 2020 during the 'Caucasus-2020' military drills. Photo: AFP/Dimitar Dilkoff

YEREVAN – After 40 days and 40 nights of often intense fighting, the latest war for Nagorno-Karabakh halted with an abrupt midnight posting early on November 10 on Facebook.

Couched in a confession of an “unspeakably painful” acceptance, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced his acceptance of a new agreement that effectively ceded territory to Azerbaijan.

The agreement to halt the war, which salvaged the remnants of Armenian-held Karabakh and saved the Armenian population from advancing Azerbaijani forces, raises only more questions about the status and security of the enclave.

The Russian-crafted plan, signed by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, is multi-faceted.

According to the agreement’s terms, a roughly 2,000-strong Russian peacekeeping force was immediately deployed to Karabakh, establishing a perimeter to protect and defend the vital Lachin Corridor, a lifeline connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Armenia is to withdraw its forces from districts of Azerbaijan beyond the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In a staged withdrawal, this initial disengagement is to be followed with a return of the two districts of Kelbajar and Aghdam by November 20, with a further Armenian pullback from the Lachin district by December 1. By that time, Russian peacekeepers are to ensure the Armenian use and control of a five-kilometer-wide corridor through Lachin.

In a seeming attempt at parity, a similar but much more vague “corridor” is also stipulated to connect Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhichevan, which borders Armenia, Iran and Turkey.

The agreement’s last point is one of the most potentially significant outcomes, as the nature of such an Azerbaijani connection through Armenian territory remains unclear and undefined, raising potentially dangerous questions over sovereignty, legal standing and policing.

Image: Facebook/TRTWorld

An additional concern stems from what is not stipulated or stressed in the agreement. For example, there is no clarity for the “status” of the remaining parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, with a disregard for earlier negotiations. And there is an obvious need for direct negotiations and further agreements on several other implications and issues.

Such diplomacy to come should also include and incorporate all parties to the conflict, including the democratically elected representatives from Nagorno-Karabakh. Otherwise, any further exclusion of Karabakh would only undermine the durability and sustaining power of this agreement.

Agreement under duress

Although all sides seem to have accepted the Russia-crafted agreement under differing degrees of duress or discomfort, for the democratically-elected leaders of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh there was little choice and no alternative.

The Azerbaijani capture of the strategic city of Shushi, the second-largest in Karabakh, was a pivotal tipping point. As the Karabakh Armenians lost the city, the magnitude of the disaster became clear.

Retreating to the Karabakh capital Stepanakert, leaders in both Karabakh and Armenia came to the painful realization that in order to save the remaining civilians and salvage what remained of Karabakh, there was little alternative but to accept the terms of the agreement imposed and demanded by Moscow.

Most armed conflicts and nearly every war eventually follow their own tempo, falling into a cycle of sustained force and suspended fighting. And like a wildfire, such clashes dictate their own intensity and determine their own pace before eventually burning out.

The ongoing war for Nagorno-Karabakh is no different and now seems poised to reach a final exhaustive end.

A man stands among the debris of a destroyed house hit by a rocket strike during the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in a residential area of Ganja, Azerbaijan, October 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tofik Banayev

Since the launch of a massive military offensive by Azerbaijan on September 27, the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into a sudden and kinetic war. With daily combat driven by a sweeping advance of attacking Azerbaijani forces, Armenian defenders were largely overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the onslaught.

Empowered with direct Turkish military assistance and operational support, the Azerbaijani offensive quickly expanded into an all-out war that quickly achieved substantial gains in territory. Militarily, this war was significantly different than the intermittent clashes of the past three decades, with an offensive that was decisive in several ways.

First, Turkey’s military support and direct engagement empowered and emboldened Azerbaijani forces, helping to seize a vast swath of territory to the south and a lesser area to the north and east of Nagorno-Karabakh.

At the same time, Karabakh Armenian forces suffered staggering losses of equipment, mainly as a result of precise targeting by Turkish and Israeli military drones, or UAVs, that overwhelmed their outdated air defense network.

Beyond the unexpected pressure from Turkish engagement, a second equally significant factor that made this war so decisive was Russia’s response.

Russia reasserts dominance

After a rather embarrassing public failure by Russia to conclude a basic and temporary cessation of hostilities that fell short of a full ceasefire, the sudden announcement of a Russia-backed “peace deal” for Nagorno-Karabakh represents a real win for Moscow for several reasons.

First, the terms of this new agreement grant Russia the most important of Moscow’s objectives: a dominant military presence on the ground. The prior lack of any direct military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the most distinctive aspects of the Karabakh conflict, standing in stark contrast to every other such conflict within the former Soviet Union.

That absence was a long-standing irritant for Moscow, reflecting the limits of Russia’s capacity for effective power projection and influence. But with this elusive goal now met, Russian peacekeepers are now central to the credibility and sustainability of the new peace deal, thereby granting Moscow an even more decisive role in the region.

A second dividend for Russia stems from its enhanced leverage over the Armenian government. Despite an uncharacteristically passive response to Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” in 2018, Moscow seems to have bided its time and now has seized an opportunity to maximize pressure on Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan and his government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan arrive at a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in St Petersburg, Russia in a file photo. Image: Sergey Guneev/Sputnik via AFP

Enhanced Russian leverage will not only keep Armenia well within Moscow’s orbit but will also greatly limit Armenia’s options and orientation in seeking closer relations with the West.

In this context, Moscow may push for more Armenian compliance, whereby Yerevan is in danger of mortgaging its independence and ceding sovereignty to Russia.

And third, the Nagorno-Karabakh agreement was very much an individual Russian initiative, meaning it was not pursued through the framework or cover of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by the United States, France and Russia.

This suggests that the Minsk Group’s format and structure is imperiled by these latest Russia-led developments. Although the military phase of the Karabakh conflict has ended, the diplomatic contest is only just beginning.

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