- Alexander Gabuev
- Carnegie Moscow Center
A bloody six-week war in Nagorno-Karabakh has ended after the leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a peace agreement negotiated by Moscow. As the dust settles, Azerbaijan appears to be the clear winner, while Armenia has suffered a bitter defeat.
However, there are two other powers that have benefited from the conflict and the resolution effort: Turkey and Russia.
For Turkey, the war in Karabakh was a showcase displaying Ankara’s growing role in the strategically important South Caucasus.
The Turkish army supplied, trained and supported the victorious Azerbaijani army. Some reports suggest that Turkish officials played a key role directing drone strikes that played a decisive role in this conflict, although Ankara has denied this.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan he also openly expressed his diplomatic support for Azerbaijan. The victory shows that Turkey has gained significant influence in the region.
At the same time, the outcome of this war and, in particular, the way the peace agreement came about, it’s a victory for Russia.
Just a couple of weeks ago, with major Azeri advancements and videos of modern drones destroying Soviet-era Armenian tanks, Moscow’s position seemed pitiful.
A great power that once exercised undisputed regional hegemony seemed incapable of saving Armenia, the only ally with whom it has a military defense pact in the southern Caucasus.
But the Russian calculations turned out to be more sophisticated and subtle.
Why Russia left Armenia on its own
Over the past two decades, the Kremlin has been clear that, with an Azeri defense budget fueled by petrodollars three times that of Armenia, the balance of power has shifted inexorably towards Azerbaijan.
Moscow tried to pressure Armenia to accept a diplomatic agreement brokered by Russia, the United States and France, but the Armenian authorities refused to make concessions.
When a democratic revolution in Armenia brought Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power in 2018, Yerevan’s public stance on Nagorno-Karabakh became even harsher.
This is why for years Russia has made it clear to the Armenian government that the military treaty between Yerevan and Moscow covers only the internationally recognized territory of Armenia, and not Karabakh. Thus, when the Azeri attack began, Armenia was alone.
How Russia benefits from the peace agreement
When the Azeri army took Shusha (Shushi in Armenian), the second largest city in Karabakh, Russian diplomatic efforts intensified.
With a mixture of diplomacy and pressure, Moscow reached a peace agreement that turns a conflict in which there were no good options for the Kremlin into a situation that helped boost Russia’s influence.
The agreement has prevented the final defeat of Nagorno-Karabakh and the probable expulsion of its Armenian inhabitants.
Russia is sending around 2,000 peacekeeping troops to protect the remaining Armenian population, separate the two adversaries, and patrol a corridor that will connect Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh: something the Kremlin has wanted since 1994, but that before this war could not get on the negotiating table.
Moscow also managed to marginalize Ankara.
Beyond the leaders of the two warring states, Russian President Vladimir Putin is the sole signatory to the peace agreement and Russian troops will be the only forces monitoring the deal’s implementation, with no Turks or other boots on the ground, although Turkey says it will send observers.
Russia’s border and customs services will control and operate a newly created route connecting Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan.
Finally, Moscow has shown that it remains an indispensable power in the region and was able to preserve its ties with both Azerbaijan and Armenia, while successfully competing with Turkey.
Why Russia has not been totally successful
Moscow’s diplomatic victory has a price. The war has demonstrated the growth of Turkish influence in the Caucasus and Russia no longer appears to be the only major power in the region.
But the region had been opening up for the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and no one in Moscow believed that Russia could dominate the region indefinitely.
Then there is the anger and the feeling of betrayal that Armenian society feels.
But Moscow believes that Yerevan has no realistic options but to continue to trust Russia to ensure your safety. A possible consequence of the Armenian defeat could be the fall of the government of Nikol Pashinyan, but in the Kremlin he will not be missed.
The risks on the horizon
The greatest risk for Russia in the future is the precariousness of the peace agreement that Moscow has negotiated.
The treaty ensuring the presence of the Russian peacekeepers will expire in five years, after which both Azerbaijan and Armenia will be in a position to call for their withdrawal.
The window of opportunity to negotiate a resolution of the conflict is very narrow and, given the emotions on both sides and the the status quo shattered, getting Baku and Yerevan to agree on something seems like an impossible mission.
This could be the point at which Moscow will need the cooperation of the United States and Europe, which – having been completely absent from the picture this time – can for the moment also be seen as placed in the losers’ camp.
Alexander Gabuev is principal investigator and head of the Russia program in Asia Pacof the Carnegie Moscow Center.
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