- Armenia and Azerbaijan signed an agreement last week to end six weeks of bloody fighting over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
- The agreement is widely seen as a win for Russia, which has regained substantial influence in the region, and for Turkey, whose military support to the gains made by Azerbaijan.
Armenia and Azerbaijan signed an agreement last week to end six weeks of bloody fighting over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russia-brokered deal requires Armenia to give up much of the territory it controlled prior to the recent hostilities, and calls for Moscow to maintain a peacekeeping force of just under 2,000 soldiers.
The agreement was widely seen as a win for Russia, which has regained substantial influence in the South Caucasus region, and for Turkey, whose military support for Azerbaijan was critical to the gains it made on the battlefield.
Western powers were largely left out in the cold, including the United States and France, the co-chairs with Russia of the so-called Minsk Group, which was created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during the 1990s to negotiate a settlement to the conflict. But Western countries might still be able to play a role in mediating a more permanent settlement in the future, according to Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow and chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Gabuev joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman on the Trend Lines podcast this week to discuss the implications of the peace deal for the balance of power in the South Caucasus.
The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
World Politics Review: What does Russia stand to gain from this deal?
Alexander Gabuev: Russia has shown that it’s an indispensable power when it comes to bringing Armenia and Azerbaijan together to sign a deal. It’s not a formal peace agreement yet, but it’s a cease-fire with a framework to maintain peace and stop hostilities at least for the short term, and probably the medium term. Only Russia has the trust of both sides and the means to enforce this deal.
In a situation where there have not been many good options, Russia managed to insert itself in the conflict and dispatch peacekeepers to the region. That has always been the desire of Russia going back to 1994, but hadn’t happened because of Azerbaijani objections and the very cautious attitude of France and the United States. Russia thus managed to achieve one of its long-term goals while also becoming an indispensable player in the effort to resolve the conflict in the future.
WPR: What is the role of Turkey in this agreement? Does Turkey have much of an ability to maintain its influence now that the agreement has been signed?
Gabuev: Turkey’s influence is far broader than its role in signing the agreement, which was not very visible. We don’t know much about the diplomacy between Moscow and Ankara. There have been numerous phone calls between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a lot of communication between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Defense Ministries of their countries.
Turkey is not mentioned in the agreement, but Russian and Turkish defense ministers have signed a separate agreement on a conflict-monitoring center, where there will be unarmed Turkish military members to help observe the implementation of the deal with their Russian counterparts. We don’t know whether that will mean using remote-controlled drones or if there will be physical visits of Turkish officers to the conflict area.
But Turkey’s role is far bigger, both in this conflict and in the South Caucasus. Turkey has shown that it has military capabilities and that it’s ready to provide for its partner and ally to achieve a military goal. Russian media reports say that Turkish officers have been operating drones that have helped the Azerbaijani forces. These reports have been denied by Ankara and Baku, but it’s definitely clear that Turkey played a very visible role in both the military and diplomatic aspects of this conflict.
Turkey is a large economic player in Azerbaijan, but also in Georgia, and it is increasingly using various soft power tools in this region. It’s clear that Turkey is part of the neighborhood. It’s been there for centuries and it will be there for an indefinite time. Once the Soviet Union broke up, Russia lost its monopoly to control the South Caucasus. All of the countries in the region had interest in developing ties with their giant neighbors. These giant neighbors include not only Russia and Iran, but also Turkey, first and foremost. Basically, this conflict was a clear demonstration of Turkey’s growing role in the region, which is very likely to continue.
WPR: I would imagine the fact that the US and Europe — the Minsk Group powers that don’t include Russia — are absent from this process is pleasing to both Putin and Erdogan.
Gabuev: I think so. We’ll probably see an emergence of a new regional security framework where the West is absent and the presence of the Russian peacekeepers has not been sanctioned by the UN. Instead, it’s just an agreement between Russia and the two parties to the conflict, with Turkey in the background.
The problem going forward is that the peace deal is pretty fragile. There is a scenario where Armenia and Azerbaijan would be able to negotiate a solution and address the core issue, which is the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Unfortunately, I think this scenario is very unlikely given the level of emotions in Armenia. The recent bitter defeat has been very hard to swallow for Armenia, and I think the balance of power has completely changed.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev mocked Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan a couple of times in his victory address, and said that as long as he’s president, there is no question over the special status for Nagorno-Karabakh. Before the war, Armenia wanted independence, and Azerbaijan was ready to grant expansive autonomy for the region. Now, the best Armenia can get for Nagorno-Karabakh is a form of autonomy that is of far worse quality than what it could have gained if it engaged in more serious diplomatic efforts.
So, after five years, when the deal expires, both Armenia and Azerbaijan will have the right to ask the Russian peacekeepers to withdraw. Here, we can imagine a scenario where after five years with no progress, Azerbaijan will say, “Thank you, Russia, for providing your peacekeepers. Now they can return home and we’ll handle the situation.” So what will Russia do? There is one scenario where Russia can say, “Excuse me, Azerbaijan, we have a moral and legal obligation to stay, regardless of what the deal says, because we know very well what will happen. We cannot allow the ethnic cleansing of thousands of innocent Armenians, so we’ll stay here regardless.”
Or Russia can try to broker a deal with Azerbaijan and Turkey in order to let the Russian peacekeepers stay. It could also rely on help from the European Union and the West, including the US, because they also have a keen interest in preventing the resumption of hostilities. So, I think the West has a role to play in the future. It will depend on the state of Russia’s relationship with the West, as well as proactive diplomacy on the part of the European Union and the US.
WPR: Russia’s desire to have peacekeepers on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh is interesting to me, because a lot of countries might see sending their own troops to serve as peacekeepers as a burdensome requirement. But for Russia, it’s something that seems to signify a return of influence in the region. What are they seeing as the value of putting these peacekeepers on the ground?
Gabuev: To Russia, this conflict has shown that hard military instruments are still instruments of power. Skillful diplomacy matters, but unless your words are supported by very credible military force, those words are empty. Imposing these tools of power in the conflict zone is a very clear demonstration of Russia’s status, and that can be used to influence the situation.
Once Russia’s peacekeepers are there, the resumption of hostilities and a new attack by Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh is unimaginable. I think that Baku took lessons from the 2008 war in Georgia, where president Mikheil Saakashvili tried to liberate the breakaway South Ossetia region and shelled the Russian peacekeepers, which gave Russia very good pretext to invade Georgia. This is one layer.
The other layer is that Russia sees its peacekeepers as part of a more complex plan to establish a military footprint in the key regions where Moscow has interests. Russia hasn’t had a military presence in Azerbaijan since the withdrawal from its radar station in Gabala. Now the Russian military is back. Russia is positioning its military in Syria, and it has now signed a deal with Sudan to position a small naval base there. So it’s a broader plan involving the return of limited military infrastructure that could help Russia project power.
I think that the peacekeeper contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh will be limited, and the power projection capability of this force will be limited, so it’s more of a peacekeeping mission in a traditional sense. But it’s informed by the broader logic of Moscow’s return to the global stage as a powerful regional actor, with some elements of global reach that don’t match US capabilities, but are still far superior to what Russia used to have just 10 years ago.