Nagorno-Karabakh: the end of Armenian control7 min read
Against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, on 27 September 2020, Azerbaijan launched an offensive to reclaim the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. After Azerbaijani success on the battlefield, Armenian and Karabakh leaders were forced to sue for peace, or risk losing control over the entire region.
A significant development in the most recent flare is that Azerbaijan’s main strategic ally, Turkey, has become directly involved, supplying Azerbaijan with military and political support. Armenia, on the other hand, maintains a very deep strategic partnership with Russia through the Common Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Economic Union. But Nagorno-Karabakh is not recognized as a part of Armenia as it remains outside of the strategic partnership and Moscow was not called upon to provide military support. Moscow also has close economic and political ties to Azerbaijan.
While the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict now seems to be settled, it stems back to when Armenia and Azerbaijan were Soviet republics. Nagorno-Karabakh was an Autonomous Oblast (region) within the Azerbaijan SSR but was populated with an ethnic-Armenian majority. As the USSR dissolved, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the territory resulting in Armenia gaining control over most of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding Azeri-populated territories. After a large and bloody population transfer, this territory eventually became the Republic of Artsakh, an Armenian-populated de facto state that has never been internationally recognised, not even by Armenia. Ever since, the region has remained in Armenian hands, with only occasional skirmishes between Azerbaijani and Armenian border forces. Until now, outside powers were seldom brought into the conflict.
On 8 November, Azerbaijani forces captured Shusha (Shushi in Armenian), Nagorno-Karabakh’s second largest settlement and only 15km away from the capital, Stepanakert. As Azerbaijani forces broke through Armenian-held territories and into Nagorno-Karabakh itself, the Armenian and Karabakh leaders were forced to negotiate a ceasefire. Two days later the parties agreed to a peace deal, brokered by Russia. The deal is broadly seen as a victory for Azerbaijan, while in Armenia many perceive the deal as a complete humiliation. Others believe that Russia is the real winner from the settlement, and while Russia will play a key role in Nagorno-Karabakh’s security, the growing Turkish influence in the region could threaten Russia’s dominant role in regional affairs.
In the agreement, all Armenian-occupied territories outside of Nagorno-Karabakh are to be returned to Azerbaijan before the end of 2020, while Nagorno-Karabakh itself will be completely surrounded by Azerbaijan. Only the Lachin Corridor, a 5km wide strip of land, will connect it directly to Armenia. Azerbaijan will also retain control over the territories it has conquered, including Shusha and other large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, Armenia will have to allow the construction of a transport corridor between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan through Armenian territory, which will be guarded by Russian peacekeepers. Overall, the de facto Republic of Artsakh has lost most of its territory, being now reduced to an area even smaller than the old Soviet Oblast.
News of the brokered deal was not received well in Armenia. Violent protests erupted in Yerevan, during which the Armenian Parliament was ransacked and the Speaker of the Parliament, Ararat Mirzoyan, was attacked by a crowd of furious demonstrators. Nikol Pashinyan’s leadership may not survive the crisis as the sense of betrayal among Armenian society could lead a Karabakh-hardliner to step into Pashinyan’s position and prevent Armenia from moving on. The consequences this would have on Armenia’s already vulnerable democracy make for sad ponderance. A small concession is that some of the traditional lands of Nagorno-Karabakh will remain populated by ethnic-Armenians, and their security and physical connection to Armenia will be guaranteed by Russian forces. However, it will now be far more vulnerable to Azerbaijan, being surrounded on all sides with only one road link to Armenia.
The rise of Azerbaijan and Turkey
The Azerbaijani victory, gained with the support of Turkey, marks a key shift in the geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus and has brought a number of things into question. Fundamentally, the alliance between the two Turkic countries has surely been reinforced by this victory. The power of their alliance has brought Armenia to bear over Nagorno-Karabakh and has shown its military and diplomatic effectiveness. Backing up Turkey and Azerbaijan with “brotherly” rhetoric has been the Turkic Council, a forum of Turkic-speaking nations in Eurasia (of which Turkey is the largest and most powerful member), as well as a number of other Islamic countries.
The increase in Turkish influence in the South Caucasus marks a diversification of regional power. Russian hegemony is no longer uncontested in the region, and Turkey under Erdoğan has been carving out a sphere of influence in its neighbourhood. Although Turkey is a NATO member and strategic ally of the west, in this conflict it has openly and strongly rejected the calls of the OSCE Minsk Group (chaired by Russia, France and the United States), which has been the primary platform for conflict resolution in the South Caucasus over the last 30 years. Thus, under President Erdoğan, Turkey has proven its willingness to reject western calls for peaceful negotiation and to act in its own interest in the South Caucasus.
The outcome of the conflict also demonstrates the diminishing influence of western countries in the region. While western audiences were preoccupied with the pandemic and the American election, their governments offered little support to either party, leaving the conflict to be resolved largely according to the interests of regional powers. The OSCE Minsk Group has also proven to be ineffectual in this conflict, with its calls for a ceasefire and a return to its negotiating table largely ignored. Indeed, the Turkish President openly bashed the organisation for its failure to solve the conflict, stating the “US, Russia and France, for nearly 30 years, have not managed to solve this problem. And now they all are giving advice.” Moreover, the European Union has been quiet on the conflict and its settlement, only welcoming the cessation of hostilities and hoping it would lead to a sustainable solution. With waning western influence, regional powers like Russia and Turkey have more freedom to assert their own agendas in the South Caucasus.
Armenia has lost to Azerbaijan all the territory around, and much of, Nagorno-Karabakh. The de facto state of Artsakh has been reduced to a rump, surrounded on all sides by Azerbaijan. Its security is now provided by Russia, not Armenia. It is clear that Armenian society is distraught not only by the military defeat, but also by their leadership for making the agreement. The cultural importance of the conflict, which runs like a seam through Armenian society and history, cannot be overestimated. The national narrative of suffering at the hands of Turks will certainly have been reinforced by this defeat, and many Armenians may never accept the loss of so much territory.
Cultural reconciliation with Azerbaijan could thus be further away than ever. While the news of painful losses and great resentment against Armenia’s Turkic neighbours may continue to permeate Armenian society, its inability to match Azerbaijan’s military strength means that Armenia could be stuck in this position for a very long time to come.
Finally, what remains unclear is the status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. For now, it seems Azerbaijan is content with agreement, which leaves much of Nagorno-Karabakh still in Armenian hands. The question thus arises of whether this part of Nagorno-Karabakh will be incorporated into Armenia, be recognised as an independent state, or retain some kind of de-facto state status. As it stands, Nagorno-Karabakh will be secured by Russian peacekeepers. Whether or not Azerbaijan decides to take back all of the region at some point is not off the table, but for now President Aliyev has achieved something that he and his predecessors couldn’t through regular diplomacy which, according to him, “puts an end to the years-long occupation.”