Nagorno-Karabakh: and the winner is… Russia

by Giuliano Bifolchi

After over 10 hours the foreign affairs ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia supervised by Russia agreed on the cease-fire which should precede the peace negotiation between Baku and Yerevan on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are claiming their ‘victory’ in the conflict, even though in Nagorno-Karabakh the real winner is the Russian Federation.

Everything began at the end of September when the frontline between the so-called Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh in Armenian) and Azerbaijan registered military operations on a large scale. From the military escalation to the conflict the step was quick and for around two weeks Armenians and Azeris fought each other (The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict might destabilise the entire Eurasian region).

Several foreign actors were directly or indirectly involved in the conflict. Turkey has always supported Azerbaijan against Armenia playing an ambiguous role and we are still trying to understand if Ankara truly helped Baku with military personnel and hardware as the Armenian has claimed or not. The French President Emmanuel Macron was the more active among the European leaders and started a media confrontation with Erdogan, supporting Yerevan as the French Armenian Diaspora requested and accusing Turkey of exploiting the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for its geopolitical gains. In the last days, also Iran tried to play the peacekeeper role in the Caucasus, although Baku – Tehran relations have always been swinging. And the United States? Trump was so busy with his presidential campaign to taking seriously what was happening in the Caucasus. Moreover, as US media has always highlighted, Trump has always been more absorbed in domestic economic policy and ‘make America great again’ than in international issues. Last but not least, Trump’s business interests in Azerbaijan and Turkey have ‘undermined’ the US involvement in the Caucasian dynamics.

In conclusion, there was only one international actor who could have taken care of the situation: Russia. There are many reasons the Kremlin still matters in the Caucasus and the entire blizhneye zarubezhye (near abroad) which find their roots in the historical, cultural, political, economic, and social process that has invested the post-Soviet space since the 19th century. If we look at the past and what has happened in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia (with Abkhazia and South Ossetia), Armenian and Azerbaijan (with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict), Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, Russia has always played a decisive role and showed its ability to manage the situation having meetings with regional leaders and all the parts involved.

These days of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh have shown us that:

  • Azerbaijan conquered territories, which Baku has permanently considered part of its sovereignty. Did Azerbaijan win? Even though Azerbaijan is claiming its victory we should consider that Baku’s vast amount of investments in the military sector to improve and upgrade its army did not result in the complete defeat of the Nagorno-Karabakh forces and the conquest of Stepanakert. Azerbaijan has more human, economic and military resources than Armenia and, as members of the government have often claimed, could have destroyed easily any military resistance in Nagorno-Karabakh, something that has not happened until now. And we are still waiting for the report on Azerbaijani lost and casualties, which probably will underline Azerbaijan’s human sacrifice for a small territorial victory.
  • Armenia cannot easily face a modernised Azerbaijani army backed by Turkey. In the 1992 – 1994 conflict, the Armenian forces reported a victory against a bigger Azerbaijani army thanks to their discipline and strategy. In fact, Armenia not only defended Nagorno-Karabakh but even conquered seven Azerbaijani districts creating a buffer zone to protect Stepanakert from external attacks. Nowadays the situation is different because the Armenian army has shown its limit in fighting against an army equipped with modern hardware. Yerevan should learn the lesson and go back to the military market, diversify its import and purchase modern equipment from different international sellers because relying mainly on Russian military export might become a limit.
  • Pashinyan completely failed in domestic and foreign policy. In 2018 Pashinyan became the Prime Minister of Armenia and began his personal campaign against ‘the hold establishment’ accused of being corrupted. When Pashinyan took the leadership of the country, the Armenian population had big expectations and hoped that the government could have been capable of fighting corruption and crime and improve economic development. After two years of Pashinyan’s government not only Armenia still faces the same problems which had in the past but was involved in a new conflict with Azerbaijan which this time resulted in the land loss. Someone in Yerevan and Stepanakert is probably missing Robert Kocharyan or Serzh Sargsyan, and Pashinyan’s political future is uncertain and depends on the Nagorno-Karabakh’s negotiations. No Armenian will accept an agreement that sells off Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh because Pashinyan’s government could not contrast another Azerbaijani military offensive.
  • Turkey is a threat to Caucasian stability. Erdogan aims at creating the ‘new Sultanate’ following the steps of the past Ottoman empire. This is clear and no one can deny that in the last years Ankara has conducted an aggressive and indiscriminate foreign policy in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Until now the European Union has not been capable of stopping Erdogan’s policy because Ankara has in its pocket the card of migrants with whom can blackmail Brussels. Trump Administration sometimes tried to stretch its muscle with Ankara, especially last year when Turkey purchased the first batch of the Russian missile system S-400, but the result was not so impressive.
  • Russia still controls the regional Caucasian dynamics, albeit the West, since the collapse of the Soviet Union has tried to play a major role. The Caucasus is vital in the EU Eastern Partnership and EU Energy Security Strategy and Brussels still hopes to play a decisive role into the Caucasian dynamics but democratic slogans, the promises of economic-financial aids, and frequent meetings are useless if the European Union is absent when things get worse in the region. In Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia is the most influential actors not only because the Kremlin has chaired the Minsk Group with France and the United States, but because Moscow has constantly been ready to organise meetings between the parties to deescalate the conflict notwithstanding the Russian government has always supplied weapons to Baku and Yerevan. Yesterday meeting was not an exception of Kremlin’s management of the Caucasian ‘frozen conflict’ and underlines that if Moscow can influence the Caucasus (this is incontrovertible) the Russians are also worried that a further escalation of the conflict could have caused a bigger regional conflict with Turkey or pushed Armenia to ask for help from the entire Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Could the truce last longer? We hope so, albeit everything can happen in a land where anger, death, information warfare, and psychological operation have been driving local behaviours. In the era of Internet where people sign petitions against or to support a cause, Facebook groups organise online events, and we can like or comment a picture or a piece of news, Russia applies the old rule of diplomacy and geopolitics: be ready when they need you. Unfortunately, neither Brussels nor Washington were and are ready for Armenian and Azerbaijani people who have been suffering the consequences of the war losing their homes, relatives, hopes and life.

If the ceasefire won’t last long we should expect a conflict whose consequences will affect also the European Union. If the truce underlined the Kremlin’s role, the resumption of the conflict will show us that in diplomacy a late strategy means destabilisation, humanitarian crisis,  and socioeconomic problems.