Azerbaijani troops guard the border with Iran near the town of Midjnavan, in the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in November 2020. Photo: Alexey Kudenko / Sputnik via AFP

Russia and Turkey have tentatively agreed to a two-stage deal to end the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, a move that comes as Azerbaijan makes decisive gains on Armenia in the contested enclave. 

The deal, which reportedly will require Armenia to cede a large chunk of the enclave’s territory and deploy a Turkish and Russian peacekeeping mission in the area, comes on the heels of Azerbaijan’s announced capture of the strategic town of Shusha, situated at the end of the strategic Lachin corridor and the last defensible city in the Armenia-controlled enclave. As of Monday, Armenia had denied that Shusha had fallen.

Should Shushi fall, Stepanakert – the capital city of the so-called Artsakh Republic – is surrounded and cut off from Armenia. If the fighting continues, Artsakh would almost inevitably be taken and result in many more deaths. Already, thousands have been killed.

The proposed deal, attributed in reports to “Turkish sources”, does not address fully what the future holds for Nagorno-Karabakh. What is clear is that it would immediately award Azerbaijan with a number of areas it has already captured.

The most important are areas occupied by Armenia but that are not part of Nagorno-Karabakh, including areas along the Iranian border. A corridor would also be opened through Armenian territory to the isolated Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan. A second not-yet-specified corridor would give Armenia access to Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Other territorial areas in Nagorno-Karabakh would also later pass to Azerbaijan, but information on which areas and how the exchange will take place is not known.

A peacekeeping force made up of Russian and Turkish troops would secure the deal. The agreement is claimed to have been put together personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It is presumed that under the deal the Arsakh Republic will cease to exist. The Republic, a creature of Armenia, never received international support. In fact, the United Nations steadfastly held that Nagorno-Karabakh was legally Azerbaijani territory.

There is no information as yet on the disposition of refugees from the fighting or the settlement of claims of refugees from the 1991-1992 fighting, most of whom are Azerbaijani. Nor is there any information yet that Armenia has accepted the deal or even if the Armenian government will support it in the future.

People who fled the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region due to the ongoing military conflict rest on beds at a refugee support center in Yerevan on October 13, 2020. Photo: AFP/Karen Minasyan

The refugee problem is a big stumbling block on both sides. The current war has seen thousands of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh evacuated to Armenia. It’s unclear if they will be permitted to return once the peacekeeping force is in place. 

Similarly, no one knows whether the Azerbaijani refugees, many living in poor conditions inside Azerbaijan, will be able to return to their homes.

Nor is there any word yet on how any of this will be financed or whether any reparations will be paid by either side. Russia has made clear, as recently as last week, that it did not support Armenian claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. Putin did signal he would support a compromise.

Turkey’s entry into the conflict is a new factor and makes it a significant player equal to Russia in the region. The other players – part of the Minsk group – are the US and France. Neither seems to have been involved in the deal, but it is reported that President Putin telephoned France’s President Emmanuel Macron. 

It can be presumed Putin may also have called US President Donald Trump. Turkey is not part of the Minsk Group.

If Putin and Erdogan made a deal as reported, there are still tensions between the two that have to be sorted. The most significant is the presence of Syrian radical Islamic fighters imported into Azerbaijan for the Nagorno-Karabakh battle. 

Both Putin and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have warned about the presence of the Syrian radicals and made clear they want them out.

Russia also has a black eye because its modern equipment, especially it’s air defense systems situated at bases in Armenia, failed to stop Azerbaijan’s drone assault. Many of Russia’s air defenses were knocked out, including its S-300, by both Turkish Baraktar drones and Israeli Harop suicide loitering munitions.

Debris of a house hit by recent shelling in Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Photo: AFP/ Iliya Pitalev/Sputnik

Armenia lost a large number of tanks, rocket launchers, artillery and troop transports. A new weapon, the Israeli LORA, a highly accurate medium-range missile, was able to knock out a key bridge that denied access to Armenian forces trying to support Shusha. 

At least three Su-25s were downed by Azerbaijan in the fighting, one of them by a Turkish F-16. How the two others were knocked out is not clear, but it is notable that Azerbaijan has the Israeli “Iron Dome” air defense system. 

No one knows if the Armenian government itself can survive with its forces defeated on the battlefield and forced to swallow a deal it said it would never accept. The potential rise of an irredentist regime in Armenia could undermine any deal and threaten long-term peace in the region. 

Armenia has been looking for allies elsewhere, but the only one it appears to have found so far and only in a preliminary way is Iran. What the Iranians may or may not do in the future is not clear.

It should also be kept in mind that this deal may fail very quickly if the Armenian government backs out. The next few days will tell whether the proposed Russia-Turkey deal will work. Even if it does, the issues of territories, boundaries, refugees, reparations and the legal status of properties will need to be painstakingly negotiated.