After 43 days of fighting, thousands dead and wounded, the creation of a new humanitarian crisis and a major geopolitical shift in a longstanding frozen conflict, a full ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh came into effect at midnight on Nov. 9.
Brokered by Russia and signed by Azerbaijan and Armenia, the deal also received the support of another key regional power in the conflict: Turkey.
Yet while the world welcomed the ceasefire, it still leaves many questions unanswered.
“In particular, it leaves unresolved the underlying issue of Nagorno-Karabakh itself,” Jonathan Katz, senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, told The Washington Diplomat.
That issue has bedeviled the region for decades. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over the mountainous territory. Armenia eventually prevailed in 1994, taking over not only Nagorno-Karabakh, but also seven adjacent, largely ethnic Azeri districts, while also displacing nearly 1 million Azerbaijanis.
Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has been a self-governing, ethnic Armenian-majority enclave that lies almost entirely within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders.
The OSCE Minsk Group — co-chaired by the U.S., France and Russia — was formed in 1992 to mediate a resolution between the two sides, but negotiations bore little fruit. Instead, there were multiple clashes over the years.
This most recent bout of fighting was the deadliest since the 1990s — and the most consequential since then as well. After nearly three decades of failed diplomacy, Azerbaijan’s military campaign — backed by Turkey — finally changed the status quo, ending a quarter century of Armenian military control over the territory.
Azerbaijan recaptured large swathes of land while Russian forces — possibly joined by Turkish troops — will now guard Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders, including a critical road that connected Armenia to the territory.
The conflict clearly boosts the standing of Azeri leader Ilham Aliyev and his Turkish ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while Russia has reasserted — for now — some of its authority in the South Caucasus.
It has also largely sidelined the OSCE, particularly the U.S. and the European Union.
Meanwhile, for Armenia, it is a clear defeat — one likely to reverberate throughout the country’s already-turbulent domestic politics for some time to come.
The recent conflict was nothing if not well signposted. Since a ceasefire in 1994 left Armenian forces in control of of Nagorno-Karabakh, there have been frequent flare-ups in fighting.
This summer saw another of these, with a short exchange of artillery and other weaponry north of the enclave.
This came after Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, appeared to be drifting away from the basis of a negotiated solution, as outlined by the OSCE Minsk Group in its 2009 “Madrid Principles.”
Among other things, these principles call for the return of surrounding districts to Azerbaijan; giving Nagorno-Karabakh an interim status that would provide “guarantees for security and self-governance”; determining the territory’s final status “through a legally binding expression of will”; allowing refugees to return; and installing a peacekeeping operation.
“While Pashinyan … ran for office armed with a democratic discourse, he quickly revealed his populist side and started making nationalist statements that were more damaging than those from the previous two administrations,” professor Gerard Libaridian, a historian and advisor to former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, told The Washington Diplomat.
In August 2019, Pashinyan declared that “Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenia, and that’s it,” essentially disregarding the Madrid Principles.
In January 2020, he also opposed the return of the seven adjacent Azeri districts — again, contrary to the agreement.
Then in September this year, Arayik Harutyunyan — the leader of the self-proclaimed, Armenian-backed “Artsakh Republic” that until recently ran Nagorno-Karabakh — announced he would move the unrecognized territory’s capital from Stepanakert to Shushi, a neighboring city that had long been ethnically Azeri.
“It’s an open insult to us,” Aliyev declared on hearing the news. “Do they think we are just going to take it?”
Indeed, the moves underscored a growing sentiment in Baku that years of negotiations had led nowhere — and, in fact, were going backward.
A few days later, on Sept. 27, Azerbaijan attacked.
Shushi was to become a central feature of that conflict, too.
Overlooking Stepanakert and controlling a strategic highway, the city’s capture by Azeri forces on Nov. 8 proved decisive in ending the fighting.
The next day, Pashinyan announced he was ending the war, a decision that he called “unbelievably painful for me personally and for our people.”
Elements of a Deal
Throughout the six-week war, proxy powers jockeyed for influence, with Turkey and Russia emerging as the clear winners.
There were periodic ceasefire agreements, although few lasted long. Neighbor Iran — which has good relations with Armenia and also has a large ethnic Azeri population — unsuccessfully attempted a broker a deal. Two previous Russia-brokered deals and one negotiated by the U.S. also failed to take hold.
Turkey, meanwhile, was notable throughout for backing Azerbaijan and encouraging its military campaign. Indeed, in October, Turkish President Erdoğan praised the Azeri offensive as a “great operation both to defend its own territories and to liberate the occupied Karabakh.”
Russia’s position was initially less clear. It has a defense pact with Armenia but also maintains good relations with Azerbaijan, a key global provider of oil and gas.
Moscow reportedly grew cool toward Pashinyan, who’d criticized Armenia’s dependence on Russia and who came to power in 2018 via the kind of street protests reminiscent of other color revolutions that challenged Russian hegemony.
On that note, Russia’s ultimate aim was to increase its influence in the region.
It did just that, putting together a deal that ended hostilities and allows it to put boots on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, expanding its military footprint in what Russia considers its strategic backyard.
Under the deal, Armenian forces will stage a phased withdrawal from the Azeri districts still under its control. They will also gradually withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh itself, with Russian peacekeepers patrolling a corridor between Stepanakert and the Armenian frontier.
Another corridor will also be operated by Russian peacekeepers between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, a semi-autonomous Azeri exclave that lies next to Turkey and along southern Armenia.
This will effectively give Turkey a direct corridor through Armenia to Azerbaijan that could eventually become a new trade route for Ankara that extends all the way to Central Asia.
Some 2,000 Russian troops will be involved in the operation, giving them a base in Azerbaijan for the first time since its independence.
“The change in status quo generally favors Russia,” Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group’s program director for Europe and Central Asia, told The Washington Diplomat. “It now has troops on the ground in Azerbaijan as well as Armenia, which gives it tremendous leverage.”
The Long-Term Picture
Yet Moscow’s presence may also be problematic in the longer term.
“Many here are concerned about the Russian peacekeepers,” Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations, told us. “There is a perception from Soviet times that Russia solves things with tanks, rather than diplomacy.”
Under the recently signed deal, Russian peacekeepers will have a five-year mandate to operate in Nagorno-Karabakh, although they be obliged to withdraw from either corridor if given six-months’ notice by Azerbaijan.
Yet, “if Azerbaijan says it wants the Russians to go, the question is, would Moscow leave?” Katz of the German Marshall Fund asked.
Likewise, implementation of the deal by Armenia may be complicated by the political fallout from the conflict, with Pashinyan hanging onto power by a thread after his surrender was met with widespread anger at home.
There are other questions, too. Many Azeris were displaced by the conflict in the early 1990s — the country has the highest proportion of internally displaced persons in the world, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Many wish to return — and theoretically now could under the deal — yet it is not clear how this would be managed.
“We will have to rebuild cities and towns destroyed in the fighting and during the Armenian occupation of the last 26 years,” Shafiyev said. “This will take time.”
Allegations of war crimes have also been flying on both sides, although demands to hold combatants accountable are unlikely to be met.
Financing the rebuilding might provide a role for the U.S. and European powers such as France, however, given that they “have not played a role in the resolution of this conflict to date,” Oliker said. Indeed, “the deal makes no mention of the Minsk Group process,” she noted.
Yet for all the question marks, the deal has stopped a terrible tragedy — and may even create a window of opportunity in a long-frozen conflict.
“There are still unresolved issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey,” Katz said, “and it would be good to see some forward thinking now about these broader issues.”
For years, the border between Turkey and Armenia has been closed, largely because of the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate.
“If the blockade of Armenia is actually lifted,” said Oliker, “and we see real economic growth in the region, with Turkey playing a large part, I think that could make a real difference.
“We’re still quite a ways off from that,” she added. “But watch that space.”
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a freelance journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs.