November 16, 2020

Russia and Karabakh: A Diplomatic Triumph and Dubious Victory

An ethnic Armenian woman waits to board a bus returning to Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Yerevan, Armenia, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to halt fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan under an agreement signed with Russia that calls for deployment of nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers and territorial concessions.
An ethnic Armenian woman waits to board a bus returning to Stepanakert, the capital of the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Yerevan, Armenia, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to halt fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan under an agreement signed with Russia that calls for deployment of nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers and territorial concessions.

Ever since the oft-violated cease-fire accord of 1994, Russian interests have defined the art of the possible in Karabakh. Whether Russia connived in conflicts, acquiesced in them or prevented them, the protagonists understood that it would be their ultimate arbiter. Even Russia’s titular partners in the OSCE Minsk Group — perhaps the sole format of post-Cold War cooperation to preserve its relevance — never challenged its standing as first amongst equals. Whatever its ups and downs, this was a closed game.

To all appearances, the war that began on 27 September nullified this paradigm. То all appearances, the Tripartite Declaration (Azerbaijan-Armenia-Russia) of 10 November resurrects it, along with Russia’s role as guarantor of what might well be a precarious and provisional settlement. In territorial terms, it accords with a Russian blueprint, the so-called Lavrov plan, that was quietly composed more than three years ago but rejected for their own distinctive reasons by Armenia, Azerbaijan and the OSCE.[i]

In general correspondence with the Lavrov Plan, the 10 November Declaration returns to Azerbaijan the seven districts surrounding Nagorno (Higher) Karabakh that Armenia seized (and ethnically cleansed) after 1992; it also inserts a 2,000-strong Russian ‘peace-keeping’ contingent (the main bone of contention in the Lavrov plan)  on the new line of contact. But in contrast to the plan, the Declaration also introduces a Russian FSB Border Service contingent to protect the Lachin corridor, connecting Karabakh to Armenia; it establishes a new corridor, also protected by Russian Border troops, joining Azerbaijani with its exclave of Nakhchivan  (and hence to Turkey).  Finally, it partitions Nagorno-Karabakh, transferring to Azerbaijani jurisdiction the historical capital of Shusha, as well as other territories wrested from Armenia before the cease-fire. The nine-point Declaration is a statement of intent rather than a legally binding agreement. About the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh, it says nothing. It also omits any reference to the OSCE and the Minsk Group, which until this point has been the officially recognised format for conflict management and resolution. Yet the actor that hovers over this agreement, Turkey, is present only by implication.[ii]

Yet it is Turkey that has been the game-changer in this conflict. One can now say of Turkey what was said of Russia in 2008: it is ambitious and cynically pragmatic; it will unapologetically advance its own interests, and it will not be deflected by the disapproval of others.[iii] In recent years, Russia and Turkey have learned to live with an enforced interdependence maintained through accommodation, deterrence and trials of strength. But whilst a modus vivendi appears to have emerged, it is highly dynamic and far less solid than Moscow claims.

Over the past fifteen months Turkey rebuilt Azerbaijan’s army, supplied it with advanced weaponry (in parallel but not in cooperation with Israel), deployed perhaps 150 of its own military officers and in the conservative estimate of the Russian investigative newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, facilitated the deployment of 700-1,000 Syrian mercenaries in support of Azerbaijan.[iv]

There is a second, equally critical factor. Russia has begun to recalibrate, possibly reboot, its overall priorities and interests, especially in the so-called former Soviet space. After more than twenty years in which coercion, soft and hard, has produced little more than lose-lose outcomes, at last an audit appears to be taking place. At one level, it represents an overdue response to constraints on Russia’s capacity and threats to its template of stability at home (e.g. Khabarovsk) and on Russia’s periphery (e.g. Belarus). But it also is a response to the diminution of the threat that the West ostensibly poses. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, in this ‘new stage of instability…there are no clear, conspicuous external drivers’. In their totality, these changes signify that ‘the post-Soviet paradigm is exhausted’.[v]

The question is whether this is a premeditated, purpose-driven enterprise or the rationalisation of setbacks and improvisations into some kind of policy. Is it a retrenchment, an ‘optimisation of ambition’, or a retreat?

Russia’s conduct during the 44-day war can support either interpretation.  On the one hand, it demonstrates a more stringent, but also more harsh, understanding of Russian patronage. Moscow has let it be known that the Collective Security Treaty underpinning the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) means what it says and nothing more. It obliges Russia to defend Armenia against aggression. Over unrecognised territory, there is no obligation to provide anything, and Russia provided nothing. Almost one month into the conflict, Putin referred to Armenia and Azerbaijan as ‘equal partners’, neglecting to mention that Armenia is an ally and that Azerbaijan is not.[vi] Were this not all, voices in the foreign policy establishment have gone so far as to ask whether the CSTO itself still serves Russian interests and whether a country with territorial conflicts, like Armenia, should even be part of it.[vii]

Whoever has won this war, Armenia has lost.  It has emerged as a client rather than an ally, and its errant Europhile Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan has rudely been forced to relearn the old Russian adage: ‘Armenia can either live with Russia or not at all’. By the same token, a clear message has been delivered to others. Relations will be developed in accordance with a strictly utilitarian calculus, measured against a baseline of Russian interests rather than their own.

But in what respect is Russia a victor, and how easy will it be to share this victory with others? Publicly, Russia’s leaders usually speak about Turkey’s role in a tone of studied insouciance. But allegations of Russian-Turkish collusion, now popular in Pashinyan’s circle, are difficult to reconcile with facts on the ground. Consultations  have never been denied, (as Lavrov laconically noted, ‘we are in contact with our Turkish colleagues’), but consultations are not the same thing as agreement.

At the outset of the war, Russia’s pre-eminent expert on the South Caucasus, Sergey Markedonov expressed astonishment at ‘the scale of [Turkey’s] support, its focus and concentration’, and they very possibly astonished the Kremlin as well.[viii]  The introduction of Syrian mercenaries was not anticipated, and it earned a sharp rebuke from Moscow. In his radio interview of 14 October, Lavrov stated quite plainly, ‘[w]e do not agree with the position that has been voiced by Turkey…. We cannot share statements to the effect that there is a military solution to the conflict and that it is acceptable’.[ix] On 26 October, in an apparent message to Turkey, Russia launched an airstrike against its proxy in Syria’s Idlib province, Failaq al-Sham, killing 78 of its fighters.[x] Nevertheless, the Azerbaijani offensive into Nagorno Karabakh continued with Ankara’s backing for another 14 days. On 9-10 November, Moscow accepted the military solution that on 14 October it said it would not accept. That it did so on its terms is a tribute to its ability to turn the tables. But this is not a picture of collusion.

If there is little by way of common purpose today, how much of it can we expect to see between Moscow and Ankara over the months ahead? Turkey’s exclusion from the November Declaration preserves appearances in Russia, but it also absolves Turkey of responsibility. As human distress and local antagonisms inevitably resurface over the separation of people and territory, the establishment of new roads and corridors and the enforcement of new ‘lines of contact’, will Ankara counsel moderation or uphold its (and Baku’s) maximalist position?[xi] Like Putin, Erdogan knows how to reconcile his ambitions with the correlation of forces. He also understands that Russia has certain irreducible interests and red lines. But he has no intrinsic respect for its regional hegemony and rather like Putin’s attitude to Western hegemony, is inclined to believe that it is in inexorable decline. To paraphrase Zhou Enlai’s comment about Nixon and Brezhnev, it might be that Putin and Erdogan are sharing the same bed, but they are not dreaming the same dreams.

What conclusions should we draw? As noted by Ivan Preobrazhensky:

“In the logic of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, the Kremlin has…made strides. He will fully, and not partially, as before, control the Armenian-Iranian border, along which the “corridor” to Nakhichevan will run. Russian peacekeepers will be on the territory of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan proper. Now Moscow is the guarantor of security for both states”.[xii]

He might have added that the West, a part of the matrix for 26 years, has been removed from the scene.

For Konstantin von Eggert, what stands out is a different reality:

“Most of all, Turkey and China can draw the conclusion that in this very zone [of Russia’s ‘privileged interests’] it is possible to fight — and win wars — without sanction from Moscow, and that alliance with Moscow guarantees defence to no one”.[xiii]

Neither of these realities is illusory.  But it will take time to establish which of them is of lasting significance.

[i] Ivan Preobrazhensky, ‘Is There a Peace Plan for Karabakh?’, Riddle 27 October 2020.  Roman Goncharenko, ‘War in Nagorno Karabakh. What the experts say about the Restrained Reaction of Moscow [Voyna v Nаgornom Karabakhe. Chto govoryat eksperty o sderzhannoy reaktsii Moskviy], Deutsche Welle, 9 October 2020

[ii] ‘Declaration of the President of the Azerbaijan Republic, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and President of the Russian Federation [Zayavlenie prezidenta Azerbaydzhanskoy respubliki, prem’er-ministra respubliki Armeniya i prezident Rossiyskoy federatsii]

[iii] Compare, James Sherr, Russia and the West: A Reassessment, UK Defence Academy (Shrivenham, Shrivenham Papers No 6, January 2008), p5.

[iv] Vadikh El-Khayek, ‘Mercenaries Enter the War’ [V boy vstupaiut nayemniki], Novaya Gazeta 2 November 2020

[v] Fedor Lukyanov, ‘Why an Arch of Disorder has Arisen on Russia’s Border’  [Pochemu vokrug granits Rossii voznikla duga besporyadka], Russia in Global Affairs, 23 October 2020

[vi] ‘Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club’, President of Russia website, 22 October 2020

[vii] Vladimir Frolov, ‘Let it All Burn Down.  How Russia’s Policy has Changed in the Post-Soviet Space’ [Pust’ poliykhaet. Kak izmenilas’ politika Rossii na postsovetskom prostranstve], Republic, 29 October 2020

[viii] Sergey Markedonov, ‘War in Karabakh: Why Now?’ [Voyna v Krabakhe: pochemu seychas?]  Euronews, 29 September 2020

[ix] ‘Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with radio stations Sputnik, Komsomolskaya Pravda and Govorit Moskva’, Moscow, October 14, 2020’

[x] Farah Najar, ‘Russia’s strike on Syria’s Idlip fighters a “message” to Turkey’, Al Jazeera, 27 October 2020

[xi] For an inventory of actual and potential points of contention, see Thomas de Waal, ‘A Precarious Peace for Karabakh’, Carnegie Moscow Center, 11 November 2020 On the interplay of pro-Russian and pro-Turkish factions in Azerbaijan, see. David Stepanyan, ‘Lavrov in Baku discussed details of his plan on Karabakh’, ARM Information Company, 3 December 2019

[xii] Ivan Preobrazhensky, ‘Another fraught peace is brokered in Nagorno Karabakh.  What now?’ Riddle, 10 November 2020

[xiii] Konstantin von Eggert, ‘They have not betrayed but disillusioned. How Putin, Lavrov and Shoygu lost the war in Karabakh’ [Ne predali — razocharovali.  Kak Putin, Lavrov i Shoygu proigrali voynu v Karabakhe] Snob, 11 November 2020