Online Commentary

November 12, 2020

The Nagorno-Karabakh Agreement and Its Outcomes

Reconfiguring Power in the South Caucasus

The ceasefire agreement of November 10 cemented the Azerbaijani military gains achieved in the war, but it does not regulate the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. While the agreement – particularly its deployment of Russian peacekeepers – decisively increases Moscow’s influence in the region, it completely sidelines both the OSCE Minsk Group and EU. Hence, the EU needs to try to reinvigorate the OSCE’s role in the sustainable settlement of the conflict and offer a robust humanitarian assistance package.

Photo of military vehicles and a plane of Russian peacekeepers for deployment in Nagorno-Karabakh
Russian troops prepare for peacekeeping deployment in Nagorno-Karabakh
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Please note: To facilitate better readability, the versions of geographical names that are used in this text are those used most commonly in English-language discourse. Consequently, the choice of these names does not reflect any political or other preference.

After forty-four days of heavy fighting and three unsuccessful truce attempts, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia signed a ceasefire agreement on November 10. By that time, the Armenian army was on the brink of collapse. Hence, although the war ended with Armenia’s decisive defeat, the ceasefire at least prevented its armed forces from being destroyed completely.

While the ceasefire agreement stopped the fighting, it did not solve the conflict at its heart. Not only does the agreement not regulate the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh, but it also empowers Russia, giving it stronger influence over the governments of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Therefore, the European Union needs to strive to reactivate the OSCE Minsk Group in order to bring about a more robust and lasting settlement. Besides, if the EU wants to avoid getting sidelined in its own neighborhood, which is being increasingly militarized by other players, it needs to rethink its approach to the Eastern Partnership region and conflict resolution there.

Territorial Aspects of the Ceasefire

The November 10 agreement cements the changes in territorial control as they existed on the day it was signed. At that point, Azerbaijani forces had recaptured significant parts of the seven regions adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh that had previously been under Armenian control. They were also close to cutting off the Lachin corridor, the most important land connection between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, Azerbaijani forces had taken Shushi, a city of strategic and symbolic importance that is located a mere six kilometers from the Karabakhi capital of Stepanakert.

According to the November 10 deal, Armenian forces have to conduct a phased withdrawal from those parts of the seven adjacent regions that still remain under Armenian control. The territory of Nagorno-Karabakh itself will be divided according to the status quo – thus, Azerbaijan keeps Shushi as well as the other parts it had already taken. The sides are to be separated from each other by a Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed along the line of contact. Russian peacekeepers will also control and secure the Lachin corridor, keeping Karabakh connected to Armenia.

It is important to note that the agreement does not say anything about the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. The unclear status of the territory, combined with extensive war damage and questionable economic sustainability, does not offer any bright perspectives for the Armenians who decide to stay in the region.

In addition to territorial changes in and around Karabakh, the ceasefire agreement also prescribes that a land corridor through Armenian territory needs to be opened between Azerbaijan’s western regions and the Azeri exclave of Nakhichevan on the border with Turkey. Consequently, a direct connection will be established between the two parts of Azerbaijan – and thereby also a direct transport link to Turkey. The corridor is to be managed by the border guards of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

Russian Peacekeepers

Deployment of the Russian peacekeeping forces started immediately on November 10. The speed of the operation indicates that preparations for their deployment had already been going on for at least a week. According to the agreement, nearly 2,000 soldiers supported by 90 armored personnel carriers, as well as 380 cars and other vehicles, are to be deployed. Photographic evidence suggests that Russia is also moving in tanks.

The peacekeeping mission will be headquartered in Stepanakert. Commanding the operation is Major General Rustam Muradov, a highly experienced officer who had previously been the deputy commander of Russia’s Southern Military District.

According to the agreement, the mandate for the peacekeeping mission is five years, which will be automatically extended for another five years if none of the parties object. This setup opens the theoretical possibility of Azerbaijan objecting to the continuation of the mission five years from now. If that happens, Russian troops would be obligated to move out, allowing Azerbaijan to almost effortlessly take over what is left of the Armenian-held territories in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Previous experience with Russian peacekeepers in the post-Soviet region shows, however, that once they get deployed, they never leave. Hence, the mission HQ in Stepanakert could easily be transformed into a Russian military base in the future.

Together, the peacekeepers in Karabakh and the FSB forces controlling the corridor to Nakhichevan empower Russia, giving it strong leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Turkey: Victorious, but Sidelined

The military, intelligence, political, and logistical support provided by Turkey was critical to Azerbaijan’s near-complete victory on the battlefield. Despite this fact – and although Ankara had been persistently pushing to become part of the ceasefire agreement both directly and through Baku – Russia brokered the agreement alone. Thus, Russia largely managed to keep Turkey’s regional power ambitions at bay.

The final outcome, however, is still positive for Turkey – from both a foreign and domestic policy perspective. Though there will be no Turkish peacekeepers along the line of contact, Ankara is likely to delegate observers to the Russian mission. It will, therefore, be able to at least monitor the implementation of the agreement. Turkey will probably also further strengthen its military ties with Azerbaijan.

The victory over Armenia clearly strengthens the domestic position of not only Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, but also Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The corridor to Nakhichevan constitutes an important achievement for Erdogan because – in addition to the economic and trade benefits the new connection will bring – it may well serve as a symbol of reuniting the “Turkish nation.” In exchange for these gains, Ankara is apparently ready to accept that Russia could potentially choke off this corridor.

De-Westernizing Conflict Resolution

The November 10 ceasefire agreement was negotiated and brokered by Russia. The United States – occupied by its presidential elections and complicated transition – was absent from the process. Yet, due to the region’s strategic importance as well the presence of an influential Armenian diaspora in the US, the new administration will need to pay plenty of attention.

While Moscow kept negotiating with its co-chair partners in the OSCE Minsk Group, the ceasefire agreement itself was designed and concluded on a completely separate track. The document does not even contain a reference to the Minsk Group, which is a serious setback for the OSCE. In fact, the new realities on the ground leave the Minsk Group with little significance. Its main responsibility – conflict resolution – was instead shaped by military force.

The agreement is also a blow for the European Union from both a prestige and policy perspective. Though the EU is not member of the Minsk Group itself, France is one of its co-chairs. Several other EU countries, including Germany and Italy, are members. Hence, sidelining the Minsk Group is not only a loss for these EU countries, but also for the image of the EU as an able manager of crises in its neighborhood. Moreover, the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy has been weakened in the region due to Russia’s growing influence over Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The only international presence stipulated by the agreement is that the return of refugees and internally displaced persons is to be supervised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, though the relevant details are yet unclear. While the document prescribes that dead bodies are to be collected and prisoners are to be exchanged, it does not name the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has long been responsible for this task.

A Possible Role for the EU

The current situation on the ground in the region rapidly emerged as a fait accompli despite the still unregulated status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Taking this into account, the EU needs to continue supporting the involvement of the OSCE Minsk Group in the settlement process. Such support is in line with the statement made by High Representative Josep Borrell on November 10 in which he welcomed the ceasefire and indicated the need to elaborate a sustainable settlement. Incentives of the Eastern Partnership policy – financial and otherwise – could also be used to motivate the sides, giving the European External Action Service (EEAS) a significant opportunity to play a role.

In addition, the EU needs to offer a robust humanitarian assistance package – primarily to Armenia, but also, if Baku requests it, to Azerbaijan. Tens of thousands of Karabakh Armenians were driven to Armenia to escape the war. A decisive majority of these people are unlikely to return in the near future, also due to the extensive damage to housing and civilian infrastructure. The EU and its member states could provide much-needed humanitarian assistance, both directly and via the United Nations and other international organizations. In addition, the European Union needs to seriously reconsider its own role in security and conflict resolution in its eastern neighborhood; otherwise, the increasingly militarized policies of other regional powers will further sideline it.