Who’s the big winner in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal?
As smoke clears from the battlefields around Nagorno-Karabakh and the ink is drying on the three-page peace deal aimed at halting the worst fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in decades, one thing seems increasingly clear:
The Kremlin has won.
At the very least, Moscow has snatched what looks like a victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s further increased its clout in a region where a flare-up of fighting between two former Soviet republics and a more robust Turkish role threatened to shrink the Kremlin's influence.
“Russia did well in this,” said Matthew Bryza, a former co-chair of the Minsk Group, a long-standing diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict. “Putin has dominated. He’s the kingmaker in the situation.”
Yes, the Minsk Group is dead. Seems so."-- Matthew Bryza, former Minsk Group co-chair
At least 2,000 soldiers and civilians, likely more, have died since September 27, when the latest round of fighting erupted over Nagorno-Karabakh, a small, mountainous territory that is legally part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by ethnic Armenians for 26 years.
In the years since the 1994 cease-fire that ended all-out war, Azerbaijani and Armenian forces have regularly skirmished, exchanging sniper fire and mortar rounds, but stopped short of another full-on conflict.
The region’s unresolved status put it in a category known to experts as a “frozen conflict”-- hot spots around the former Soviet Union where Russia plays a central role, both perpetuating and mitigating the tensions.
Others, with varying levels of tension and violence, include Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions and Moldova’s breakaway Transdniester region. And then there’s eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed forces hold parts of two provinces and a simmering war has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.
As in some of the other places, Russia sought to deploy troops on the ground in or near Nagorno-Karabakh as peacekeepers, but had previously failed on that front. That was due in part to a lack of confidence in Yerevan and Baku that Moscow was an honest broker.
Russia has substantial economic ties with both countries; Azerbaijan is a major purchaser of Russian weaponry.
But Moscow’s most prominent diplomatic effort has been through the Minsk Group, an initiative headed by France, Russia, and the United States under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The subtext to the Minsk Group was that Western nations -- NATO allies France and the United States -- had a strategic role to play in a region that Moscow still considers part of its historic sphere of influence.
With the new peace deal, Russia gets its troops on the ground -- and potentially pushes Paris and Washington out of the picture once and for all.
And according to the text published by the Kremlin, as well as remarks from Putin’s spokesman, Turkish peacekeepers will not be deploying, something that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev suggested would be happening.
“Yes, the Minsk Group is dead. Seems so,” Bryza, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2010-12, told RFE/RL. “Russia has filled the vacuum. As did Turkey, for that matter.”
Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, said the deal was very much a Russian one, a fact that further imperiled the Minsk Group.
“The terms of this new agreement grant Russia the most important of Moscow’s objectives: a dominant military presence on the ground,” Giragosian said.
“The prior lack of any direct military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the most distinctive aspects of the Karabakh conflict, standing in stark contrast to every other such conflict within the former Soviet space. And that absence was a long-standing irritant for Moscow,” he told RFE/RL in an e-mail.
The deal cements major battlefield gains by Azerbaijan’s forces and will leave Baku in control of about 40 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, as well as nearly all of the surrounding territory that had long been held by Armenian forces.
Prior to the outbreak that started in late September, Armenian-backed forces controlled the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, plus parts of the seven surrounding districts -- territory that collectively amounted to around 13 percent of Azerbaijan.
Now, the deal means Azerbaijan will control a sizable chunk of the territory it lost in the early 1990s.
Moscow also achieved another objective, Giragosian said: pressure on Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
Pashinian’s independent foreign policy streak has vexed the Kremlin since he came to power in 2018 in a popular uprising known as the Velvet Revolution -- the kind of political change that makes Moscow uneasy.
"This enhanced Russian leverage will not only keep Armenia well within the Russian orbit, it will only further limit Armenia's options and orientation in seeking closer relations with the West," Giragosian said.
Some analysts said there were potential pitfalls for Russia.
Mark Galeotti, a London-based political observer and expert on Russian security agencies, said Russia deploying its troops to the region isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk win for Moscow.
“This is an additional burden on its military and treasury. It does bake a role for itself into the geopolitics of the region, to be sure, but this was a part of the world in which it was already meant to be dominant?” he wrote in an opinion first published in The Moscow Times. “When you have to escalate your commitment to retain your position, that does not seem a sign of progress so much as laboring to hold back decline.”
Steven Mann, who was a co-chair of the Minsk Group in the mid-2000s and retired as a U.S. diplomat in 2009, said the clear winner in his mind is Azerbaijan, given its battlefield victories.
As for Russia, its leading role in cementing the peace deal was no surprise, and the deployment of peacekeepers not a major coup for Moscow, given its long-standing dominance in the region, he said.
“Russia has always been the predominant military power, so I don’t think the deployment of the peacekeepers changes that overarching fact,” Mann told RFE/RL.
“I reject the idea that Russia has any special rights over its former republics. They’re independent countries. They have the right to choose their own policies,” he said. “But frankly, if you wanted peacekeepers on the ground, it’s hard to see where they would have come from but Russia.”
Carey Cavanaugh, a former U.S. diplomat who helped organize the 2001 talks in Key West, Florida, where the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents came close to reaching a resolution, said the deal was a clear victory for Azerbaijan, given its military gains. But he disagreed that Russia was a clear winner, suggesting that Moscow had been forced by the circumstances to find a way to avert a major escalation.
The danger that Moscow had faced, Cavanaugh said, was a continued fight by Azerbaijan, which could have threatened Armenia and potentially sparked desperate military acts -- for example, a missile attack on Baku, or targeting the Caspian-to-Mediterranean oil pipeline -- that would then have sucked Russia and Turkey into a deeper conflict.
The deal was a way “to staunch the bloodletting,” he told RFE/RL. “They had to stop it from going any further, over the precipice, where it would have been ‘desperate-times-call-for-desperate measures’.”
And while the Pashinian government’s policies may have irked Moscow, Aliyev has been more careful, said Aleksandr Baunov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Among the former Soviet states, Azerbaijan has always been an example of how to follow a foreign policy that is entirely independent from Russia, while maintaining a good relationship with Moscow and Putin,” he wrote in an analysis published on November 8.
“This example is also important for Russia itself, as it shows that good relations with Moscow don’t have to come at the cost of submission or signing up for Russia-led integration projects,” Baunov said.
One of the most important Russian-led integration projects throughout the former Soviet Union has been the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-led alliance with a mutual defense provision similar to that of NATO’s Article Five.
Armenia is a member. Azerbaijan is not.
But the peace deal may hand Baku gains without making it more subservient to Russia -- even though it will have Russian troops on its territory.
Whatever its potential downsides for the Kremlin, the deal “in many ways addresses core Russian interests in the conflict, and is perhaps the best outcome (at least in short term) Moscow could get out of the situation,” Aleksandr Gabuyev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote on Twitter.