Nagorno-Karabakh: Winners and Losers

On the evening of November 9, Armenia and Azerbaijan agreed to sign a Russian-brokered war-ending deal designed to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh question. Previous Kremlin-backed diplomatic efforts failed but this time the conditions are right for an enduring peace because – almost – every belligerent party got what it wanted.

Details of the Nagorno-Karabakh Deal

The agreement came into effect at midnight Moscow time. It has been described “painful but necessary” by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. It is painful because Armenia is the great loser and necessary because the defeat may have been much heavier and bloodier if the war had lasted longer; in fact the Azerbaijanis were one step away from the conquest of Stepanakert after asserting their control over Nagorno-Karabakh’s second biggest city of Shusha.

The Kremlin-brokered deal stopped the Azerbaijani military advance towards Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital city, and towards the Lachin corridor, the geostrategically vital nine-kilometer road connecting Armenia and the disputed region known as Artsakh by Armenian residents. The eventual fall of Lachin could have worked as a casus belli between Yerevan and Baku, leading the former to call on Moscow to intervene directly under the terms of Moscow and Yerevan’s Collective Security Treaty Organizaion (CSTO).

The Deal Rewards Turkey and Azerbaijan

The deal has been designed to give Baku and Ankara what they aimed at, to punish Pashinyan for Yerevan’s pro-Western policy and to enable Moscow to become Nagorno-Karabakh’s true guardian. A look at the main provisions is the best way to understand the aforementioned points:

  • Russia is to monitor compliance with the clauses by the Armenians and the Azeris via the deployment of 2,000 peacekeeping troops at the line of contact and in the Lachin corridor;
  • The Russian peacekeeping operation has an initial five-year mandate plus the possibility of an automatic five-year extension;
  • Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to exist although it will be subject to a growing encirclement by Azerbaijan, due to some territorial concessions, and to the change of its de facto ruler, that is from Armenia to Russia;
  • Azerbaijan will be connected to its southwest enclave Nakhichevan by a road crossing Armenia, whereas the latter will granted the building of a new road connection from Yerevan to Stepanakert.

Carthaginian Peace or Checkmate? It’s a Matter of Perspective

The great loser is not Armenia, it’s specifically Nikol Pashinyan. He rose to power in 2018 in the aftermath of a color revolution but his name was already known in the Kremlin: seven years earlier he lobbied intensively and successfully to stop Yerevan’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Union, claiming it wasn’t in the country’s national interest; indeed, he said, it posed a threat to national security and sovereignty.

Russia opted for a risky strategy at the outbreak of the war: intervention through observation. Armenia couldn’t win and the Kremlin knew that, it was only a matter of time until Pashinyan would try to seek help after a number of defeats against the Turkish-supported Azerbaijian’s army. With the Nagorno Karabakh more and more Azeri-controlled and with Yerevan blatantly unable to stop Baku’s military advance, Moscow offered a “painful but necessary” last-minute solution that no one could ever refuse.

The deal is a big win for Azerbaijian, which has now reasserted control over a number of territories lost in the early 1990s. It is also a victory for Turkey, whose voice in the South Caucasus can no longer be ignored and whose pan-Turkic dreams look more and more real. The deal is also a boost for Russia, which will now officially enter Nagorno-Karabakh and become its de facto ruler while still stopping its complete fall into Turkish-Azeri hands. In addition the agreement increases Moscow’s overall reach in South Caucasus, posing a close threat to Baku’s oil and gas pipelines.

But Russia also managed to achieve something even more important than the control over the long-disputed region: Pashinyan’s political death. The current-serving Prime Minister has quickly become an object of great resentment as shown by the assault on the Parliament that occurred in Yerevan the late evening of November 9. Armenian public opinion is demanding Pashinyan to resign, which is exactly what the Kremlin aimed at for a number of years.

Whoever aspires to succeed Pashinyan must take into account the failure of his foreign policy: he worsened ties with Russia to befriend the West, and got nothing in exchange. Indeed, it was Russia in the end which came in to prevent Nagorno-Karabakh from ceasing to exist as an Armenian entity. Even if Pashinyan remains, he will be obliged to acknowledge the new reality and to design his domestic and foreign policies in accordance with the Kremlin’s interests.

Turkey’s Pan-Turkic Dreams Are Now a Reality

If everything goes as planned, the Kremlin is likely to reverse the effects of the 2018 color revolution and to re-assert control over the country through the rise to power of a Russian-friendly political class, whereas the Nagorno Karabakh will continue to be an autonomous region, although resized and more exposed to Azerbaijian’s hegemonic agenda.

The second big winner is Turkey. In the early 2000s it could have been unthinkable and impracticable such an intervention in Russia’s historic backyard, but the collapse of the Soviet Union has paved the way for the redrawing of territorial and geopolitical borders. Turkish leader Recep Erdogan is known to be a wise strategist who doesn’t accept half victories and this war is likely to push him to raise the stakes in the entire post-Soviet space and in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In this regard it is worth noting that Turkish media are spreading rumors about the deployment of Turkish troops in the disputed region, something that the Kremlin has quickly denied.

Russia Won the Battle but the Real War is Yet to Begin

Russia won the battle, but the war is yet to begin. Unlike the combat of this most recent fight, which was limited to Nagorno-Karabakh, the future war is set to be fought somewhere in the post-Soviet space, from Ukraine to Central Asia, or within Russia itself, where pan-Turkic and pan-Turanist revival is ongoing.

As regards the South Caucasus, it is easy to understand why Erdogan was very interested in backing Baku and becoming its new guardian under the motto “two countries, one nation”: control over Azerbaijan is the key factor to ensure the completion of the Trans-Caspian pan-Turkic corridor, whose eventual building may provide Turkey with access to energy resources, an outlet to the Caspian Sea and, ultimately an outpost for Ankara in Central Asia.

More importantly, Turkey is not going to fight alone for the making of the pan-Turkic corridor, whose transformation into reality is wanted in the same way by the United States as part of its Brzezinski-conceptualized chess game. Accordingly, everything seems to indicate that the post-Soviet space is about to be enveloped by a season of instability, of which Nagorno-Karabakh was just a prelude, as the South Caucasus has officially become a Russo-Turkish condominium – with all that it entails.