The Russian-brokered ceasefire deal on Nov. 9 that ended 44 days of warfare in Nagorno-Karabakh appears to be holding. That’s in large part because the dominant power this time, Azerbaijan, achieved significant gains, and because at least some Armenian-majority areas will get protection secured by the rapid deployment of 2,000 Russian forces to implement the military terms of the agreement.
But is the agreement (in English translation here and here) sufficient to create a bridge to a lasting peace, or will its weaknesses reignite the fighting?
Strengths of the Deal (For Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia)
Armenian forces had been poised to lose the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabakh by the end of November. Accepting the deal allowed continued habitation of the remaining areas under their control under Russia’s security umbrella. With the deal, Armenians in the region preserve autonomy and protect some local civilian populations despite military defeat, so that they retain the opportunity to rebuild and pursue more favorable conditions in the areas they control.
Armenia also secures an end to Azerbaijan’s economic blockade that has been in place since 1991. Cutting its losses allows the Armenian government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to survive domestic backlash to fight another day instead of facing total defeat and certain loss of power at home. However, amid calls from opposition parties in parliament and from protesters for the government’s resignation and even an alleged assassination plot, Pashinyan, 45, appears unlikely to last without significant offsetting action to meet demands of the opposition, such as appointment of hardliners to his cabinet or a unity government.
In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev now believes he has secured sufficient gains to call for peace and reconciliation on his terms, having led his nation back from humiliating losses in the last Karabakh war in the 1990s. As Azerbaijani forces advanced, the cost of the offensive in lives and resources had been rising, with thousands of their troops and hundreds of civilians believed to have been killed (Azerbaijan has refused to release casualty figures). If the conflict had proceeded into Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, the resulting brutality could have damaged Azerbaijan’s political position even further, especially among Azerbaijan’s gas customers in the West, who had expressed concern about Aliyev’s human rights abuses and were already contemplating sanctions on arms exports to Azerbaijan.
With Russia’s brokering of the ceasefire and the broader terms it contains, Russian President Vladimir Putin reasserted his country’s centrality in the conflict as the undisputed power-broker in the region, becoming Armenia’s best and sole ally willing to act tangibly on the ground, if only in defense of Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. Russia also sidelined Turkey, which is not party to the agreement, forcing Ankara to negotiate its role as a security guarantor for Azerbaijan with Russia in ongoing follow-on negotiations regarding a joint Russian-Turkish ceasefire monitoring center.
Russia also retains its position as a strategic partner for Azerbaijan, giving Aliyev a win that neither he nor Azerbaijani citizens will soon forget – as Azerbaijan has long based its post-Soviet identity around its loss of, and desire to re-capture, Nagorno-Karabakh. Most critically, Russia and Turkey’s shuttle diplomacy sidelines the United States and France, co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s “Minsk Group” that previously had largely managed diplomacy over Nagorno-Karabakh. That upended the diplomatic order established in the region following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Even though Turkey wasn’t central in the ceasefire deal, the regional behemoth’s support remains critical, and that makes it the ultimate powerbroker; it was, after all, the catalyst of the renewed fighting in supporting the Azerbaijani leadership’s decision to commence offensive operations in Karabakh in September. Turkish diplomatic backing, arms, and military advisors were relatively low cost, and secured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a win with his domestic audience amid Turkey’s worsening economic outlook.
The Nov. 9 deal also includes a profitable corridor between Baku and Ankara that does not pass through Georgia or Iran. Turkey will immediately leverage this as a transportation and energy passage, as well as an opportunity for Erdoğan-aligned construction and military technology companies to secure contracts related to the reconstruction of the areas of Karabakh captured by Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the military prowess of Turkish weapons – specifically Bayraktar TB2 drones and electronic warfare systems it had supplied Azerbaijan in recent years that strengthened that side’s hand – likely will increase demand for Turkish drones and arms.
Erdoğan’s role in the conflict also demonstrates continued willingness to internationalize his military power to simultaneously counter Russia and cooperate with Putin to secure shrewd agreements reshaping the region’s geopolitics based on a populist-nationalist outlook that aims to push aside the United States and the European Union. Aliyev put a fine point on his readiness to disregard the United States — unthinkable even a decade ago — by refusing to end hostilities following the U.S.-brokered ceasefire on Oct. 30. In a Nov. 1 speech explaining his position, Aliyev noted that he sends “delegations to negotiate…but relies on his fists to change the status quo.” As such, ongoing negotiations between Russia and Turkey — nations willing to use force in the region — will continue to shape the conflict, absent efforts by the Minsk Group to commit resources to the conflict zone.
Weaknesses of the Deal
Armenia and Azerbaijan likewise remain willing to use force once again if the terms of the deal are not implemented, interpreted differently, or if redlines such as the targeting of civilians or widespread destruction of cultural heritage are crossed on the ground. Now the question remains whether the leadership in both countries can avoid crushing nationalist pressure to continue pursuing prosecutorial, xenophobic, and maximalist positions in any negotiations stemming from the Nov. 9 deal. Should those talks collapse, the ceasefire may yet fail. Many of the flashpoints that existed before continue to be a source of animosity.
Russia and Turkey, too, are likely to pursue their own maximalist interpretations of the text. That may set up conflicts over personnel and equipment deployed to the region, over the operations of the Russo-Turkish joint ceasefire monitoring center (“Joint Rus-Türk Center”), and over the legal status of Karabakh itself. Overland transportation and energy corridors to Karabakh through Azerbaijani territory from Armenia and through Armenian territory to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan, to be established by 2023, will also become points of contention.
Additionally, Azerbaijani nationalists continue to argue that Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani) and the remaining areas controlled by Russian forces and local Armenians are part of Azerbaijan. Khojaly, the site of a massacre of Azerbaijanis by Armenian forces in 1993, is set to be controlled by Armenians, a dynamic that is sure to generate militaristic calls by Azerbaijanis for its “liberation.” As such, Azerbaijan will continue to press its military advantage and disregard the autonomous status of Armenians in Karabakh, issuing Azerbaijani passports and citizenship status while enforcing trade and finance with the region in the Azerbaijani currency, the Manat, over time. Azerbaijani and Turkish nationalists are also deeply suspicious of having Russian forces within areas they believe should be controlled by Azerbaijan alone, recalling the massacres of Azerbaijanis in Baku by Soviet troops in “Black January” in 1990.
On the Armenian side, the military defeat may spur some nationalists to exploit the situation with an attempt to overthrow Pashinyan, who Putin and Aliyev label in their state propaganda as “weak, naive, and close to the West.” Armenian nationalists likely will press to enhance the country’s military strength, and some may attempt to conduct asymmetrical, paramilitary attacks aimed at raising the costs of Azerbaijan’s presence in strategic areas such as the Nakhichevan corridor in southern Armenia and in ethnic Armenian villages that Azerbaijani forces captured in October. Skirmishes are likely to occur between Armenian forces in Karabakh and new Azerbaijani positions there, as well as between the Armenian military in Armenia proper and the Azerbaijani units newly repositioned along its eastern border. Armenian information operations will be designed to take advantage of fault lines in Azerbaijani society related to energy infrastructure, the presence of Russian troops, corruption, or ethnic and religious minorities.
Armenia also is likely to seek an expanded role for Russian peacekeeping forces and a minimalist interpretation of the territories it agreed to cede. That tendency is already evident in Armenian requests for protection of the Dadivank monastery in Kalbajar, which will continue to host a detachment of Russian peacekeepers despite the region being transferred to Azerbaijan on Nov. 25, 10 days after the original date noted in the ceasefire deal. As Armenian nationalists reject the deal, they will seek to expand security corridors and limit Azerbaijani access to the land bridge to Nakhichevan, as well as support leadership that restores Armenia’s military and international standing.
In Azerbaijan, Aliyev, who is 59, is likely to see his domestic political position as increasingly unassailable as he seeks to keep the presidency in his family for decades to come. His position becomes insecure only if he fully resolves the conflict and no longer retains a security-hardened case for his continued authoritarian rule. In future crises, if the conflict with Armenia becomes less central to domestic politics, Aliyev may find himself once again facing opposition protests against his harsh civil rights record and kleptocratic regime, like the demonstrations he suppressed in 2011. Pro-war protests in Baku that occupied parliament in July 2020 likely encouraged his authorization of the war.
The Minsk Group, Iran, and the Biden Administration
Negotiations ongoing between Russia and Turkey will continue to shape dynamics in the region – and the extent to which the Nov. 9 ceasefire deal is implemented. If Russia and Turkey fail to reach agreement on key issues, conflict could reemerge.
The sidelined Minsk Group will likely attempt to reassert a role in the conflict, and the conflict zone requires humanitarian aid and funding for demining and reconstruction from international organizations, as neither Russia nor Turkey will want to bear these costs on their own.
As Russo-Turkish geopolitics have reshaped the region, it has often come at the expense of other regional players, such as Iran, which has recently found itself on the margins in discussions regarding the future of its own northern border. Iranian leaders called for a ceasefire, fearing widening conflict. But they found themselves with little to offer at the negotiating table amidst U.S. sanctions, a pandemic, and leadership that may have also feared alienating Iran’s ethnic Azerbaijani population, many of whom remember waves of Azerbaijani refugees from the last war in Karabakh.
The Nov. 9 deal leaves Iran fearful that an eventual Turkish land-bridge between Turkey and Central Asia could constrain Iranian access to its land border with southern Armenia. As a result, Iran is likely to support Armenian efforts to reassert sovereignty over this southern border zone and Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran may also use its existing outreach programs and extremist networks aimed at spreading pro-Iran sentiment within Azerbaijan to increase its leverage for negotiations with its northwestern neighbors. That will be especially true as Iran prepares for negotiations with the incoming Biden administration that may ease the ability of Iran to do business in the South Caucasus.
The Biden administration will likely seek to re-engage multilaterally, leveraging U.S. allies in the region and Minsk Group Co-chair France. The U.S. may also make foreign aid contingent on anti-corruption and democratization efforts in Armenia and Azerbaijan as the two nations seek closer relationships with the EU and stronger partners abroad to counterbalance Russia’s newly enlarged presence in the region.
But overall, Russia and Turkey, absent efforts to challenge their actions or leverage disagreements between them into strategic de-coupling, will continue to use proxy conflicts like this one to violently reshape conditions in their favor. After all, both have demonstrated they are willing to disregard international norms and enact high-risk policies to reshape regional and global order.