Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
The trilateral Armenian-Azerbaijani-Russian agreement may succeed in finally ending the war, but it does not resolve issues at the core of the conflict.
12 November 2020
When all-out war between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out, the three potential outcomes were a decisive military victory, a revived multilateral diplomatic effort, or a regionalization of the conflict under Russian and Turkish influence.
The accord now signed by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan reflects the third scenario, with Russia pre-eminent and Turkey in a secondary albeit significant role. With nine bullet points, the document constitutes more than a mere ceasefire, but it is much less than an actual peace agreement.
Azerbaijan has much to celebrate as it regains the seven districts around Nagorny Karabakh which, after extensive rehabilitation, means thousands of displaced people can return home. And it retains the areas recaptured over the last six weeks, including the strategically-located and hugely symbolic city of Shusha (known as Shushi in Armenian sources).
But crucially, there is no mention of the status of Nagorny Karabakh itself as a subject of ongoing dialogue, an omission given extra weight by Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev saying there will be no such discussion as long as he is president.
Russia’s speedy deployment
Armenians met news of the agreement with shock and anger as, within hours, Russian peacekeepers entered Nagorny Karabakh in a stunningly swift fait accompli. Details remain unclear but an Armenian entity in Nagorny Karabakh itself will continue to exist in a truncated form, effectively as just the areas left under Armenian control at the end of the war.
These areas will be patrolled by a force of almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers with a corridor connection to Armenia across the district of Lachin. Whether Russia’s peacekeeping mission will be shared with Turkey is also still unclear, as Turkey is not mentioned in the agreement.
But a subsequent memorandum signed between Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar establishes a joint ceasefire monitoring centre on Azerbaijani-controlled territory.
The only outside actor actually mentioned in the trilateral accord is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, under whose aegis the return of displaced communities will take place.
The accord also stipulates opening up communications, new infrastructure across southern Armenia and the Lachin corridor, and a safe transit route connecting western Azerbaijan with the exclave in Nakhichevan, and hence with Turkey. This is a related but distinct idea from the land swap concept discussed in 1999-2001 as no formal ceding of sovereignty seems to be implied, only an Armenian guarantee of safe freedom of movement.
Euro-Atlantic neglect and passivity throughout the war are reflected by the deal’s sidelining of France, the US, the Minsk Group, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). All have lost immeasurable standing during the conflict. The Basic Principles — the peace proposal constituting the principal artefact of Minsk Group mediation — are either already enacted as a result of the war or, in the case of interim and final status mechanisms, now taken off the table.
The new agreement does bring a devastating war that has killed thousands to an end, but it leaves too much in doubt to provide a basis for lasting peace. Even for a jubilant Azerbaijan, the new status quo leaves a sense of unfinished business. The return of Russian boots on the ground in Azerbaijan opens a new page in geopoliticized peacekeeping in the South Caucasus.
The accord stipulates the Russian peacekeeping mission will last five years with an automatic renewal after that unless one of the parties withdraws consent. The possibility that Azerbaijan might withdraw that consent is bound to affect any effort at genuine post-war reconstruction and normalization over the next five years.
Whether the Russian mandate is renewed or extension is refused could be an irritant in Azerbaijan-Russia relations, effectively creating a five-yearly audit of the relationship based on unpredictable dynamics. This has serious implications as a non-renewal of the mandate would be received in Armenia as a prelude to more violence.
Peacekeeping without peace
Few countries would commit peacekeepers to police a violent, polarized context where the conflict parties have no apparent desire to commit to a political process. This is high risk as the peacekeepers themselves may be targeted by dissident factions. Large, heavily-armed peacekeeping operations are also expensive to maintain.
Furthermore, without an exit strategy, a peacekeeping deployment soon starts to look like an occupying force. Exit strategies depend on robust agreements and commitments to new kinds of politics. That is missing from the Armenian-Azerbaijani context.
Robust agreements depend ultimately not on the scale, or longevity, of a peacekeeping mission but the political authority underpinning them. This can only come from a process addressing root causes of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, as well as the many new divisive issues proceeding from the recent war, from new forced displacements to possible war crimes and the fate of cultural heritage in transferred territories.
Failure to do this only hardens grievances and ‘what about’ arguments poisoning future Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue, and risks the internalisation of victor and victim identities, but in reverse roles compared to the 1990s — continuing the cycle of conflict into another generation.
Russia’s regionalization of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict does save lives right now, and also assures its own interests in the South Caucasus in the short-term. But this extremely thin agreement does not provide for peace in the long-term.