An Azerbaijani service member and a Russian peacekeeper stand guard at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Shusha (Shushi) in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh on November 13, 2020 [Reuters]
On November 11, Russian troops took over the Lachin corridor connecting Armenia with the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Their deployment was the first step in implementing a peace deal reached by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia two days prior.
Under its terms, Moscow agreed to send a 2,000-strong peacekeeping contingent and set up 16 observation points around Nagorno-Karabakh. The deal also confirmed Azerbaijan’s recovery of seven districts around the region, including Shusha (or Shushi in Armenian), its historic capital, following six weeks of fighting with Armenia and the self-proclaimed republic of Artsakh.
Though the agreement is a crown achievement for President Ilham Aliyev, Russia has also made significant gains. Nagorno-Karabakh was the sole “frozen conflict” in the post-Soviet space with no Russian “boots on the ground”. That gave local parties, Yerevan and Baku, greater room for manoeuvre. Azerbaijan was also the only country in the Southern Caucasus without Russian military presence on its soil. This has now changed.
The new status quo today in Nagorno-Karabakh is reminiscent of the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova or South Ossetia and Abkhazia, splintering from Georgia, where Moscow emerged as the arbiter from the very start.
The war has played into Putin’s hands by diminishing Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, too. Propelled to power by street protests back in April-May 2018, the former journalist very much fits the profile of a “colour revolutionary” the Kremlin views as a threat.
Though Pashinyan, understandably, never challenged Armenia’s special relationship with Russia, he did take on individuals and clans connected to Moscow. Earlier this year, Serzh Sargsyan, the former president Pashinyan toppled, went on trial for corruption along with several of his ministers. Another ex-president, Robert Kocharyan, who happens to be a personal friend of Putin’s, faced justice over the violent suppression of protests in 2008.
As a result, Pashinyan’s overtures to Moscow, both before and during the war, were by and large rebuffed. In July, Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russian broadcaster RT and one of the Kremlin’s top propagandists, accused the Armenian leadership of anti-Russian activity and said they should not expect Russia’s help in the event of a war.
Now faced with popular anger over territorial losses Pashinyan’s political future hangs in the balance. The Russian leadership will not miss him in case he goes. Pro-Kremlin media are now trumpeting Russia’s role in guarding Armenian historic sites and protecting people on the ground, drawing a stark contrast with Pashinyan’s alleged failures.
But the big question that is on everyone’s mind concerns Turkey. What is its balance sheet in Nagorno-Karabakh? After all, it was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to give strong military support to the Azeris that tipped the scales.
While Ankara denies reports of Syrian fighters manning the front lines in Nagorno-Karabakh or Turkish officers embedded with Azerbaijan’s forces, Turkish-made Bayraktar drones wreaked havoc on Armenians, destroying hardware, notably Russian-made tanks, and inflicting casualties on large scale.
The limited military intervention did provide some political benefits. Turkey asserted its role as a top player in the South Caucasus. It overtook the West with US and France, members of the so-called Minsk Group managing Karabakh on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, appearing irrelevant.
In addition, the corridor through Armenian territory to the Azerbaijani Nakhichevan exclave agreed in Moscow sets a direct territorial bridge between Turkey and Azerbaijan proper. Political and commercial links between the two countries are set to flourish, which has been welcomed by much of the Turkish public.
Gains are partial nonetheless. Turkey was angling to gain influence in the South Caucasus. It envisioned a seat at the table negotiating a settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh, with Moscow, Baku and Yerevan and possibly a peacekeeping mission modelled on the Russian-Turkish joint patrols in Syria’s Idlib region. But this did not happen.
Turkey might obtain some symbolic role in peacekeeping, such as sending observers attached to the Russian force, but that will be Moscow’s call. Azerbaijan’s acceptance of Russia’s army is a setback for Ankara. Essentially, Ankara ventured on Russian turf and scored points. Turkey inserted itself into Russia’s presumed “near abroad”, just like Russia did back in 2015 by intervening in Syria. However, for the time being, at least, Moscow got the upper hand.
The case of Nagorno-Karabakh highlights the Russian-Turkish dynamic more broadly. The two states are partners as well as competitors across various theatres: in Syria, in Libya, the Southern Caucasus and the Black Sea, as well as the Western Balkans. They have learned their lesson and know how to manage their differences and focus on shared interests. Teaming up against the West helps keep a lid on mutual conflicts. But it is a complex balancing act for Putin and Erdogan.