When the Second Karabakh War ended in 2020 with Azerbaijan’s victory and Russian peacekeeping forces being brought into the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, it seemed that Russia had retained its status as the key mediator in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. Within just a few months, however, the situation had changed beyond recognition. The West is now once again part of the peace negotiations and moving ever closer to being the main intermediary, pushing Russia out.
Until September, the lead in the mediation process went back and forth, but the gradual weakening of Russia’s position was noticeable. The military escalation in March around the settlement of Farukh led to the ethnic Armenian forces of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh having to give up their positions and local Armenians having to abandon their homes. In August, continued military action forced the handing over of the Lachin corridor between Armenia and Karabakh to Azerbaijan, with the Armenians living there having to leave.
All of this demonstrated that the Russian peacekeepers are no longer inspiring the opposing parties with fear or respect, and sounded alarm bells for Yerevan and the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, who at present see the Russian peacekeepers as their only guarantors of security. In the region’s capital Stepanakert, many are convinced that Baku’s aim is ethnic cleansing, and their fears have been confirmed by the fact that there are now no Armenians on the territory of the Nagorno-Karabakh towns of Shusha and Hadrut, which came under Azerbaijani control in 2020.
The gradual weakening of Russia’s position turned into a collapse in September, when the Azerbaijani forces crossed not only the line of contact with the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, but also the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Artillery strikes reached cities and villages deep within Armenian territory. In two days, according to the Armenian Defense Ministry, over 200 Armenian soldiers were killed and in the days that followed, evidence of the murder and torture of Armenian prisoners, including female soldiers, appeared online.
According to the official Azerbaijani version, the border in this region has not been delimited or demarcated and so there are no grounds for maintaining that the military action took place on Armenian territory. Yet wherever the border may be, towns such as the Armenian resort of Jermuk, or Vardenis on the shores of Lake Sevan, are internationally recognized as being Armenian.
It’s possible that the main reason that the military action unfolded specifically in the southern part of Armenia is down to communication links. With the border between Russia and Europe effectively closed, the South Caucasus route to Turkey, Iran, and beyond has gained a new significance. The three-party agreement that ended the war in 2020 stated that “Armenia guarantees the security of transport links” between the western regions of Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhichevan.
Baku interprets this as meaning that the road from western Azerbaijan to Nakhichevan, which will run through the southern Armenian region of Syunik (Azerbaijan prefers the term “the Zangezur Corridor”) should have the same status as the Lachin Corridor from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. That is to say that it should be extraterritorial and shouldn’t be controlled by the Armenian authorities, with, for example, Russian border guards doing the job instead. For Russia, this is also an entirely acceptable option, as it would give Moscow control over the road linking Russia and Turkey: a convenient alternative to the current communication links through pro-Western Georgia.
Armenia, however, sees this interpretation of the issue as a threat to the country’s sovereignty, especially as the corridor could impede Armenia’s transport links with Iran, which also pass through Syunik. Yerevan is supported on this issue not only by Tehran, which doesn’t want to lose control of its links with Armenia, but also, it seems, by the West, which would prefer not to hand over important communication links to the Russians.
The most important thing about the September escalation was who stopped it. If in the war of 2020 the conflict was stopped by Moscow, now the laurel wreaths of peace go to the West. What’s more, it was done without the involvement of the military: a few calls from Washington to Baku were sufficient.
Moscow and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) were either unable or unwilling to help their ally, from the point of view of Yerevan, even though the military action was now taking place in Armenia itself. The CSTO answered a direct request for assistance with a promise to send observers, causing indignation even among pro-Russian Armenians. In addition, in explaining their refusal to intervene, Moscow and the CSTO essentially repeated Baku’s arguments about the absence of delimited borders.
Even the rhetoric of Moscow and the CSTO was toothless compared with that of NATO, though the U.S.-led alliance doesn’t officially owe anything to Yerevan, unlike its ally Russia. Against this backdrop of Russian passivity, the West’s actions appeared far more beneficial. Active contact between Washington, Yerevan, and Baku was begun within the first hours of the military action, and fairly strong-worded statements were made by U.S., French, and EU representatives.
Many saw the visit to Armenia by the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, as clear evidence of the West’s support for Armenia. In addition, Western bureaucrats condemned Azerbaijan’s alleged war crimes, despite previously having preferred more general rhetoric and appeals to both sides. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the West has gone over to Armenia’s side, simply that it is trying to help the two sides to achieve peace through diplomatic pressure.
The West’s mediation efforts peaked at the European Political Community summit in Prague in early October, where the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in person and agreed to send a mission of EU observers to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border: another unprecedented step that would have been difficult to imagine several months ago. The most striking statement to come out of the summit, however, was that the signing of a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia was expected by the end of the year.
Although Armenian officials insist that the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh was never territorial for Armenia, and merely concerns issues revolving around the population’s rights and freedoms, it is clear that Baku will interpret the agreement as a recognition by Armenia that the region is part of Azerbaijan. Following its defeat in 2020, however, Yerevan’s ability to influence the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has been severely limited.
In late October, Moscow attempted to regain initiative, when Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Sochi, but the summit yielded little. Still, even under Western mediation, there’s no guarantee that the treaty will be signed, since the parties have very different concepts for the future of the region, and there is a lack of trust. They may be voicing their agreement at this stage in order to be seen as taking a constructive approach, while counting on the other side to ultimately refuse to sign the deal.
Whatever the case, even if the peace agreement is signed, it’s unlikely that Baku will be able to immediately establish control over the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh, since that depends not only on Yerevan, but also on the Armenians who live there, as well as on Russia, which still has boots on the ground.
It seems that the fate of the region will be decided at talks between Stepanakert and Baku with the mediation of Russian peacekeepers, although both Azerbaijan and Armenia, for the time being, prefer to keep quiet about this.
The obvious explanation for the West’s return to the South Caucasus is that the war in Ukraine has weakened Russia’s position in the post-Soviet arena. Yet Armenia and Azerbaijan have more profound reasons to look to the West for an alternative to Russian mediation.
Those reasons are to be found in the political philosophies advocated for by the West and Putin’s Russia. The West continues to defend what is known as a “liberal, rules-based order.” Russia, meanwhile, relies on realpolitik, where the strong do as they wish, and the weak put up with it.
The multipolarity declared by Moscow as the ideal world order can only be of interest to relatively strong regional powers such as Iran or Turkey. Small countries such as Armenia, and even the relatively more powerful Azerbaijan, are doomed to navigate their way between regional powers. The best that they can hope for is a role as a satellite, and at worst they could lose their sovereignty.
The liberal world order, on the other hand, though it strengthens the West’s leading role, benefits smaller countries as it at least provides some rules, allowing them to survive and even resolve conflicts.
Still, breaking off relations with Russia completely would be risky for both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and for now, the outcome remains unclear. The Kremlin, of course, still has the convincing argument that is military force. But in a situation where Russia is itself being beaten on the battlefield, it doesn’t make quite the same impression as it did just a few months ago.
- Mikael Zolyan