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Nagorno-Karabakh: Lessons From a Peace Deal Brokered by Russia and Turkey

Nagorno-Karabakh: Lessons From a Peace Deal Brokered by Russia and Turkey
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

When Azerbaijani forces launched their offensive on Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of September, Baku received strong support from Turkey and at least implicit acquiescence from the Kremlin.

In retrospect, it is easy to say that a resumption of the conflict was inevitable. However, the power balance has been shifting for several years in favor of Azerbaijan, their finances swollen with oil proceeds and their arsenal modernized by purchasing sophisticated military equipment, including drones, mainly from Turkey but also from Russia. The poorly governed Armenians did not seem to appreciate that it was in their interests to make concessions, as long as the outcome was overall favorable to them.

Perhaps overly confident of Russian protection, they failed to see that Putin’s regime had more in common with the autocratic Baku government than with an Armenian leadership who had, after all, emerged from one of the "color revolutions." 

When it comes to timing, one can well imagine that Azerbaijan and its sponsor states were fully aware of how unlikely it would be for the West to get involved in this old Caucasian quarrel. This is particularly true during a divisive election campaign in the United States and as Europe struggles with many issues of its own. 

The November 10 agreement that concluded the six-week war - more than an armistice but less than a peace deal - confirms Russia’s role as the primary arbiter. A 2,000-strong Russian force will ensure that the lines of contact are respected. The agreement enshrines Azerbaijan’s status as the undisputed victor, as it recovers more than half of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the adjacent "seven districts" that Armenia had occupied since 1994. Baku also gained the creation of a corridor between the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan (in Armenian territory) and Azerbaijan itself.

Armenians have had to give up almost all of their gains from the 1990s, leaving behind the uncertainty of whether Pashinyan’s government can survive such a loss. Armenia considers itself betrayed by Russia, but now relies more than ever on Russian protection for its survival. It appears that a true existential crisis lies ahead for the Armenians. 

Turkey may not officially appear in the agreement but is certainly one of the major beneficiaries. Unlike Russia, it will not be able to deploy troops on the ground, as its Azeri allies would have wanted. But Turkey’s prestige in the region is growing from the operation, along with the reputation of its weaponry. What’s more, Moscow has also recognized Turkey as having de facto influence over these former Ottoman lands. 

Incidentally, the creation of the corridor between Nakhichevan, on Turkey’s border, and Azerbaijan provides a "Turkish-speaking corridor" linking Turkey to the Caspian Sea – and therefore, amongst other things, to China’s Belt and Road initiative. 

A new management arrangement for Russia’s sphere of influence 

As seen from Europe or the West more generally, two sets of interpretations are possible.

Russia remains the "referee" but recognizes the influence of Turkey and the need for a reassessment of Azerbaijan’s position in relation to Armenia.

The first reading, to some degree, minimizes the reach of the crisis. After all, no one has ever doubted Russia’s dominant influence in the Caucasus, as well as the fact that Turkey’s role in the region has been strengthening for years. It was also clear that Armenia’s relative position of strength could not last indefinitely while, under international law, the disputed territories were unquestionably under Azerbaijani sovereignty.

Therefore, some consider the November 10 settlement a mere adjustment in Russia’s management of its sphere of influence. From this perspective, Putin’s strength consists in adapting to the new realities, rather than trying to impose Russian domination by force. Russia remains the ‘referee’ but recognizes the influence of Turkey and the need for a reassessment of Azerbaijan’s position in relation to Armenia. Concerning Turkey, Russia has not gone so far as to accept that it is a party to the ceasefire agreement. Still, President Putin has made numerous conciliatory statements towards President Erdogan. 

Potential objections to this interpretation might suggest that tensions are inevitable due to the differences between Russia and Turkey’s strategic interests; it could also be said that the settlement is not sustainable in the long term. This is certainly possible, but Putin has been able to successfully establish new types of relationships with his allies Turkey and Iran, and also to some degree with China, particularly with respect to issues in Central Asia. These new relationships work on existing and assumed tensions, by emphasizing mutually beneficent compromises. 

It is worth adding that the Islamic Republic of Iran, Armenia’s traditional ally, took up the cause of Azerbaijan towards the final days of the conflict. Iran was undoubtedly anxious to take its share of the spoils, and also take into account the views of the country's large Azeri minority. Ironically, Israel has also been one of the main supporters – and arms providers – of Baku from the very beginning.

Another forceful change of the territorial status quo

However, a rather different interpretation of the crisis and its epilogue can certainly be formulated, albeit one which is not entirely contradictory to the first. 

In this second viewpoint, two elements are highlighted: the fact that the November 10 agreement endorses a change, through force, of intra-European borders. One can surely argue that there is no technical change of borders, but nobody can deny that we are facing a change of the territorial status quo. This is the second such event in seven years, after Crimea in 2013-14. Both changes are contrary to the principles set forth in the Paris Charter of 1990, with the West remaining almost wholly detached from the conflict itself, as well as lacking any involvement in the subsequent settlement. 

Furthermore, the Russians did not hide the fact that that one objective of their mediation was to keep the West at bay - more specifically France and the United States, who formally co-preside with Russia over the "Minsk Group" formed in 1992 by the OSCE, to encourage a solution to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As in Syria with the "Astana Process" between Iran, Russia and Turkey, Russia sought an ad hoc approach involving major regional actors as opposed to the existing processes and bodies recognized by the international community. 

It is possible that Putin is in fact miscalculating here. In the short term he’ll have to manage the complicated relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan, while in the long run, there is the potential for Russia to be overwhelmed by its near neighbors Turkey and China, whereas Europe and the United States would be partners with far less appetite for getting involved. The fact remains, however, that anti-Western solidarity is what matters most of all to Putin, including "Christian solidarity" (with Armenia) or further solidifying his reputation as someone who stands by his partners. 

There is the potential for Russia to be overwhelmed by its near neighbors Turkey and China, whereas Europe and the United States would be partners with far less appetite for getting involved.

Preliminary lessons 

What other initial lessons can be drawn from the above? 

  • On the part of the West, there was a political, diplomatic and—most likely— intelligence failure in the pre-conflict phase. Europeans and Americans should have used the means at their disposal to send firm warnings to Baku while there was still time; as for France, the most active Western nation, it must now accept the limits of processes such as the "Minsk Group."
  • The use of force, which is currently very much out of favor in the United States and has never been a possibility for the European Union as a whole, has now become the modus operandi for the major regional powers Russia and Turkey, as well as for smaller players such as Azerbaijan. 
  • The success of these enterprises should encourage Western governments to remain on guard. With these events, Erdogan’s Turkey has recorded its first undoubted victory in an external theatre (as in Syria, Libya and even Iraq, its record has been mixed), albeit an indirect victory achieved through the use of drones, air support, and Syrian mercenaries. Ankara was also able to gain a fuller understanding of the value that Moscow attaches to its partnership with Turkey. All indications are that the Turkish President will therefore be encouraged to continue his revisionist activities overseas, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

A final note to say that the increase in Turkey’s boost of self confidence is what will most concern France. Maybe the French would also need to reassess what can be realistically expected from their continuing dialogue with the Kremlin.




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