December in the Caucasus: Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh—a band-aid solution3 min read
December editorial. As 2020 comes to a close, Armenian military forces continue to withdraw from regions of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh—and Russian peacekeepers file in.
Stationing peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh has long been a solution floated by diplomats to help establish tranquility in a region plagued by fierce violence and ethnic cleansing. However, as was the status quo for so long, any solution involving the slightest concession was firmly rejected by those with power in both Baku and Yerevan—to the detriment of themselves, their citizens, and the region.
Finally after much cajoling and an ever increasing death toll, Moscow policy makers have achieved a long-held dream. Through the terms of a Russian-brokered agreement, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh is a strategic victory for Moscow but with uncertainty still abound, the South Caucasus is on edge.
Since the beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Georgia has been placed under a magnifying glass for any perceived favoritism toward either Armenia or Azerbaijan. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili praised the resolution of the war and called on the states of the South Caucasus to “launch together a new chapter of cooperation.” In the spirit of cooperation, for the first time in 12 years Georgia allowed Russian military aircraft, carrying peacekeepers and equipment, to pass through its airspace. While the end of the war may provide relief in Tbilisi, some analysts openly worry about the risks posed by the ceasefire.
Other analysts believe Russian presence in the South Caucasus “is already a fait accompli.” Indeed, Russia already occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory and has a military base in Armenia numbering up to 5,000 soldiers. Additionally, despite many ill-fated efforts against the fact, Russia maintains an almost hegemonic influence on the economies of Armenia and Georgia. Moreover, the Kremlin has entrenched itself in all three states of the South Caucasus through soft-power tools. So, what are 2,000 more Russian soldiers?
The presence of peacekeepers is sure to stir strong emotions in Armenia and Azerbaijan for years to come. Armenians may feel more at ease with peacekeepers stationed at cultural heritage sites such as the Dadivank monastery, but human security questions linger. Correspondingly, Azerbaijanis may express jubilation in the streets but distrust of Moscow’s intentions is rife. Russia has played so many roles in this conflict, it’s hard to keep track. Having donned multiple hats, from weapons salesman (and to both sides at that) to diplomat and humanitarian actor, the sort of skulduggery emanating from Moscow would give any reasonable person pause.
This may indeed be a new chapter in the Caucasus, but there is no telling how long the chapter will last. Many have labeled what was achieved on 9 November a peace deal, but this would be a misnomer. Ultimately, a long-lasting peace is not guaranteed by the agreement, it merely puts a hold on wide-scale bloodshed. This pause in violence is in part secured by the presence of Russian peacekeepers, but after 5 years both Yerevan and Baku retain the right to veto an extension of the peacekeeping mandate.
Historical precedent may give clues as to what happens next. Armenia and Azerbaijan routinely violated the 1994 ceasefire ending the first Nagorno-Karabakh war. Awarding veto power to the mandate means the current solution will only be a band-aid.