November 30, 2020
The last round of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan started on July 12, 2020. During the war between 1988-1994, Armenian forces had occupied not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also the seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan before a Russian-brokered ceasefire was declared. Thereafter peace talks were mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Since all three co-chairs are long-time supporters of Armenia, the Group only served to preserve the status quo. i.e. continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the seven Azerbaijani districts.
Once the fighting broke out it became clear that this time Azerbaijan had the upper hand. Because Baku, thanks to its oil revenue, had substantially upgraded its military capabilities. Armenia sought Russian support.
However, in an interview with Interview with Rossiya TV channel on October 7, President Putin said:
“As you know, Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, and so we have certain obligations towards it under the treaty. It is deeply regrettable that the hostilities continue, but they are not taking place in the Armenian territory.”[i]
As of the first day of the fighting, Ankara expressed unreserved support for Azerbaijan. The peoples of Turkey and Azerbaijan call themselves “one nation, two states”, despite differences between their governments’ world outlook, support to Baku was only to be expected. Yerevan seized on Turkey’s strong language as an opportunity to claim that its principal adversary in the conflict is Turkey and turn Ankara’s troubled relations with the West to an advantage in the conflict. The Armenian attack on the Ordubad region of Nakhchivan was, more than anything else, an attempt to drag Turkey more into the conflict.
By contrast, Russia remained on the sidelines, let things take their course but only up to a point. Following two failed ceasefires, President Putin invited President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan to Moscow and had them sign a Statement on a “complete ceasefire and the termination of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone as of midnight, on November 9, 2020.”[ii]
Paragraphs 3 and 9 of the Statement read as follows:
“3. The peacemaking forces of the Russian Federation, namely, 1,960 troops armed with firearms, 90 armoured vehicles and 380 motor vehicles and units of special equipment, shall be deployed along the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin Corridor…
“9. All economic and transport connections in the region shall be unblocked. The Republic of Armenia shall guarantee the security of transport connections between the western regions of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic in order to arrange unobstructed movement of persons, vehicles and cargo in both directions. The Border Guard Service of the Russian Federal Security Service shall be responsible for overseeing the transport connections.
“As agreed by the Parties, new transport links shall be built to connect the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and the western regions of Azerbaijan.”
With the Moscow Statement Russia:
- Brought the conflict closer to what a final agreement may look like, i.e. restoration of Azeri sovereignty over the seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, with the status of the latter to be settled through further negotiation;
- Guaranteed a secure corridor (Lachin corridor) linking Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh;
- Guaranteed unhindered traffic between Azerbaijan and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic over Armenian territory; and,
- Secured the deployment of Russian forces in the conflict zone.
After the Statement was announced, President Putin said Russia proceeds from the assumption that the agreements reached will create the necessary conditions for a lasting and full-scale settlement of the crisis over Nagorno-Karabakh on a fair basis and in the interests of the people of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Thus, Russia stopped the fighting and achieved its long-sought aim of deploying troops in the conflict zone. Peacekeeping forces have for long been deployed in world’s conflict areas through the agreement of the parties involved or under resolutions adopted by international organizations, mostly the UN. But a deployment under paragraph 4 of the Azeri-Armenian Statement for “five years, a term to be automatically extended for subsequent five-year terms unless either Party notifies about its intention to terminate this clause six months before the expiration of the current term” is unprecedented. For example, the UN Security Council extends the mandate of UNFICYP (United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus) every six months. United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was initially established for period of 90 days. United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) was established for a period of six months.
Armenia is already a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization with a Russian military base in Gyumri; Azerbaijan and Georgia are not. After a five-day war with Georgia in 2008 Russia formally recognized the break-away republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. In brief, Russian diplomacy has taken advantage of the recent conflict to reassert once again that it is the dominant power in the Caucasus.
It seems that Turkey’s peace monitoring role in the conflict zone has not exactly met Ankara’s expectations. Because only two days after the Moscow Statement was agreed upon, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in an interview with Russian and foreign media in Moscow said, “A memorandum to this effect was signed yesterday between the defence ministers of Russia and Turkey… The boundaries of the Turkish observers’ mobility will be limited to the premises that are to be set up on the territory of Azerbaijan, not in the zone of the former conflict… I have read the statements made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar to the effect that Turkey will be working on the same conditions as Russia. This refers exclusively to the centre that is to be deployed in Azerbaijan, will be stationary and will not conduct any on-site missions. It is true that Russian and Turkish observers and specialists will be working at this centre on equal conditions. But no Turkish peacekeeping units will be deployed in Nagorno-Karabakh. This is clearly stated in the three leaders’ statement.”[iii]
Obviously, Moscow wishes to have exclusive authority over peace monitoring in the conflict zone. If Turkey were allowed a role beyond what Mr. Lavrov has defined, the US and France would be next in line to push for deploying peacekeeping troops in the area. After a telephone call between Presidents Putin and Erdogan at the initiative of the Turkish side on November 24, the Kremlin said they exchanged views on the continuing efforts to establish a center to monitor the ceasefire and to prevent hostilities in the conflict zone.
When ground conditions allow the launching of peace talks, the US and France, the other two co-chairs of the Minsk Group with large Armenian diasporas would no doubt emphasize the Group’s “central role”.
France, disregarding UN Security Council resolutions, would spare no effort to make Nagorno-Karabakh part of Armenia. But France is far away and unlikely to have an impact.
The US would appear restrained in its support to Yerevan and try to balance the interests of the parties. As a major power it would not write off Azerbaijan like France. It would not overlook the fact that a sizable portion of Iran’s population are Azerbaijani. And Washington would value Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel.
The war has come at a time when Tehran has a host of other worries like a series of high profile assassinations, US sanctions, the future of the JCPOA and the imperative for restraint until Mr. Trump’s departure from the White House.
Over the years Tehran and Yerevan have enjoyed a close relationship. However, Iran may find it hard to openly side with Armenia. In early November, “Territories seized by Armenia must be returned and liberated,” Supreme Leader Khamenei said in a televised address.
One element of the Moscow Statement which would upset Tehran is a corridor which would allow Azerbaijan to link with Nakhchivan across southern Armenia. Because until now Azerbaijan could only connect to Nakhchivan through Iranian territory. On this point, Iran may find a likely partner in France.
Moscow, the major power bordering the region with troops on the ground holds the trump card. The five-year term for Russia’s peacekeeping force stipulated in the Statement shows that it might even prefer the terms of the Moscow Statement becoming the new status quo. All things considered, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would be test case for Russia’s capacity and sincerity in peacemaking.
Turkey’s military training support over the years has no doubt helped Azerbaijan achieve victory in the recent conflict. Ankara, also a member of the Minsk Group, would probably try to strike a balance between the Group and working with Russia with emphasis on the opening of a “Nakhchivan corridor” which would only balance the “Lachin corridor”.
Peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia have been fighting each other for decades and decades. A gung-ho Mikheil Saakashvili, encouraged by the West, led his country to disaster. Turkey and Armenia remain adversaries. So, the fundamental question is whether the countries of southern Caucasus would display the courage to bury the hatchet and take a step toward healthier relations with Russia or keep proving that making peace is harder than fighting a war.
Last Wednesday, the French Senate passed a resolution calling on the government to officially recognize the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”, 305 senators out of 306 present voted for the resolution on Wednesday. The French Senate is made up of 348 Senators. Moreover, the resolution urged the government to pursue a tougher European response toward Turkey.
President Macron’s visit to Lebanon after the Beirut explosion in August was a domestic policy stunt of no consequence. In a similar vein, he is now reaching out to Yerevan. Without doubt, Presidents Macron and Erdogan agree hardly on anything. But constant presentation of Turkey as an enemy is appalling. If the mission is to destroy the future of Turkish-French relations, Paris is getting dangerously close to accomplishing it.