A Spectrum of Victory and Defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War10 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics
It has been two months since the most recent installment of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ended with an agreement signed on 9 November by heads of state of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. War discourse necessitates that there is always a winner and a loser.

Consequently, Armenia was declared the defeated party, especially by its own people reeling from the news of how big the losses were. Azerbaijan claimed absolute victory, based on its military advances and even more generous gains from the 9 November arrangement. Russia earned itself a victor’s label too for its elaborate peacemaking. However, as often happens in life, things are not just black and white. There is quite a spectrum of winners and losers of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.

To the victor go the spoils

Turkey emerges as a clear victor in the war. Most importantly, Ankara successfully involved itself in a military conflict in a Russia-dominated post-Soviet space. Not only did Turkey not face any retaliation from Russia, it actually played an important role in the diplomatic negotiations, despite not being included as a signatory to the 9 November agreement. It is safe to say that without Turkey’s political and material support Azerbaijan would not have scored such a decisive victory. It regained all its territories lost during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, while also gaining control of part of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, including the crucial city of Shusha/Shushi. Thus, Turkey demonstrated itself to be a very reliable and effective ally, something neighbouring countries will need keep in mind. 

See also | The Battle for Shusha: the cauldron of generational pain at the heart of the Nagorno-Karabakh war

The deal also brought some direct benefits to Turkey. To begin with, it will have its peacekeepers working alongside Russian forces at a monitoring center to be set up in Azerbaijan. While the Turks will only be able to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh remotely (which for once has nothing to do with the ongoing pandemic), they will obtain access to first-hand information, as opposed to fully relying on third parties’ accounts of the situation on the ground. Moreover, their presence will reinforce the notion that Turkey is now confidently involved in the region. In addition, the revival of a transport corridor between Azerbaijan proper and its exclave Nakhchivan provides Turkey with prospects of easier access to the Caspian Sea and the countries surrounding it.

Lastly, Turkey did not face any strong international backlash for its involvement in the war. Apart from solitary critical statements, such as those made by the French President Emmanuel Macron and the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the international community has largely remained silent on the matter. When asked for a reaction, Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said that “NATO’s not part of that conflict” and he expects “Turkey to use its considerable influence in the region to calm tensions”.

Winner with caveats

Azerbaijani people, and President Ilham Aliyev specifically, have a lot to be content about. In his address to the nation on 10 November, Aliyev hailed a “glorious victory”, an achievement of the goal Azerbaijan has been fighting for since the 1990s. Shusha, “Karabakh’s crown jewel”, will become part of Azerbaijan together with all territories occupied by Armenia after the first war. Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons will return to their long-lost lands. Nakhchivan will once again be directly connected with the rest of the country.

However, this “glorious” win comes with several caveats. Firstly, Azerbaijan is now subject to an even stronger influence of two major regional powers. Despite calling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “my dear brother” in his speech, Aliyev did not elaborate on Turkey’s contribution to the greatly positive outcome of the war. While Aliyev might not want to bring his people’s attention to it, Azerbaijan will remain indebted to Turkey and it is not clear if this debt might need to be repaid. Additionally, the war has further increased Azerbaijani army’s reliance on Turkish military support, which might turn into a precarious dependency. Moreover, Russian peacekeepers will now be present in the Nagorno-Karabakh region as well as in Azerbaijan itself. It is possible that tensions will arise should Russia try to overstep its mandate on the ground.

Secondly, while much has been achieved, the ball is back in Azerbaijani authorities’ court. The recovered/gained lands have suffered two major wars and a series of skirmishes over the past 30 years. Much of the housing and infrastructure is damaged or destroyed but the expectations will run high among Azerbaijan’s internally displaced persons wanting to move back to their native lands. The revitalization of these territories will require enormous financial investment and a functional local administration will need to be established from scratch. The clock is already ticking and lack of progress might quickly turn popular euphoria into an internal political struggle for Aliyev and his administration.

Lastly, Azerbaijan risks falling into the trap of assuming that its victory is final and its military superiority will continue indefinitely. A mutually acceptable solution to the conflict is crucial and Azerbaijan is now in a position to take the initiative to find it. So far, however, Aliyev did not shy away from humiliating Armenia and declared that Nagorno-Karabakh’s future status “went to hell”, thus demonstrating a dangerous lack of consideration for the issue which started the conflict to begin with. And so the wheels keep turning…

Ambiguous winner

At first glance Russia seems to be a clear winner. President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov managed to facilitate the (so far) successful ceasefire without getting Russia directly involved in the war, which could have been perceived negatively both at home and abroad. They exhibited restraint and leadership, thus enhancing their country’s status of a regional and global peacemaker. Juxtaposing its performance with the international community’s absence from conflict resolution efforts will no doubt constitute a handy argument for Russia during future international interactions on security-related matters. Moreover, in practical terms, the country will now have boots on the ground, in one form or another, in all three South Caucasian republics, plus in Nagorno-Karabakh itself.  

However, Russia’s dominant position in the region suffered several significant blows. Firstly, Russia allowed another major power to become successfully involved in a conflict in the post-Soviet space. By not opposing Turkish interference and by allowing Turkey to be engaged in the monitoring of the ceasefire implementation, Russia seems to have given up its position of the sole guarantor of peace in the region. And while it might hope that this was a one-off occurrence, Turkey might not be of the same opinion. There are more countries in the post-Soviet space, notably in Central Asia, with which Turkey has been strengthening its relations and whose interests it might be willing to defend in the future.

Secondly, Russia undermined its status of a military ally when it did not support Armenia in its time of need. Officially, Russia underlined that the obligations stemming from its 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with Armenia, as well as from both countries’ membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), only require it to provide military support in the event of a direct attack against Armenia. However, history has shown that if Russia wants to intervene in a conflict, it will find a way. Its restraint will thus serve as a warning call for other members of the CSTO – too much reliance on Russia’s potential support could have grave consequences and it might be worth looking for alternative allies.

Defeated but with opportunities

Armenia clearly lost the military confrontation. Hundreds of thousands are leaving their homes in the formerly occupied Azerbaijani territories, seeking refuge in Armenia. Many living in Nagorno-Karabakh are doing the same. The disputed region itself will now be divided into two parts controlled by hostile parties. Scores of Armenian soldiers who lost their lives during this war are thought to have died for nothing. 

Furthermore, Armenian authorities are facing an internal political upheaval. The population was not prepared for the scale of the losses suffered as a result of the 9 November agreement. Up until the last days of the war the political leadership maintained an excessively positive discourse, hailing the heroic fight and victories of the Armenian army. Once the brutal truth was revealed, outraged Armenians took to the streets. One group stormed the building of the National Assembly, vandalised some of its rooms and beat up its speaker Ararat Mirzoyan. There have been repeated calls for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation and while he himself has resisted thus far, his ministers seem to be jumping ship one by one.

However, the 9 November agreement also offers a chance for a new start. After the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, the initial attempts at reaching a mutually acceptable settlement failed, in large part due to internal opposition within the victorious Armenia. Since then, national political discourse in both countries has focused more and more on the righteousness of their respective claims rather than on seeking understanding and compromise. Armenia also relied heavily on the conviction that Russia would support it, should another war erupt. Now that this approach has proven flawed, an open national debate could be launched to discuss what went wrong, why and how to fix it. This would imply a great deal of strength to overcome the grief and anger caused by the conflict, which is easier said than done. 

However, it is clear that without a diplomatic solution the people of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to suffer. Improved relations with its neighbours would not only allow Armenia to truly protect the people and the heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh, but would also enable it to benefit from the revived transport and economic connections, such as the Nakhchivan corridor. 

You cannot win if you do not fight

The international community in general and the OSCE and the EU in particular are the hidden losers of the war, mostly from an ideological and reputational perspective. The OSCE Minsk Group, created during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, has not only failed to contribute to a peaceful settlement of the conflict during the times of relative peace, it has also not played a major role in bringing the recent hostilities to a halt. Despite a series of statements published by the OSCE and some words of appreciation from Sergey Lavrov, the organisation was effectively absent from the key negotiations. It seems that France and the US, co-chairing the Minsk Group together with Russia, were at best kept in the loop, at worst simply ignored.

The EU has equally been noted as an absent voice in the negotiations. Despite its relationship with both Armenia and Azerbaijan within the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership, the EU did not seem able and/or willing to get involved. Instead, it chose to rely on the Minsk Group achieving what it could not for the past 30 years. Notably, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was not even discussed during the recent conference marking the 10th anniversary of the European External Action Service. The EU also failed to call out Turkey, which remains a candidate for EU membership, for actively supporting Azerbaijan’s use of force in the latest installment of the conflict, despite a number of European Parliament members calling for a reaction.

See also | January in the Caucasus: is the EU concerned?

Naturally, there is only so much one can do if the hostile parties do not want to seek peace. Nonetheless, the facts are that an arrangement has been found and the fighting has stopped without the help of these international organisations which consider themselves to be unique platforms for dialogue and conflict resolution. If their claims and reputation are to be maintained, they should seize the opportunity brought about by the 9 November agreement, reevaluate their arguments and means of leverage and double down on finding a genuine and peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

Featured image: War and peace / Amanda Sonesson
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