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11 November 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 12:42pm

How the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire signals a new regional order

The controversial peace deal underscores Turkey’s new role in Russia’s traditional backyard.

By Ido Vock

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed a ceasefire deal late on Monday 9 November to end six weeks of brutal fighting over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The agreement should put an end to a war that has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 100,000 since late September. But it has also raised questions over the influence of an increasingly interventionist Turkey in the new regional order – one in which Europe has found itself powerless to mediate.

Under the terms of the agreement, nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers will be deployed to the region. Armenia will surrender all the land that has been conquered by Azerbaijan since the war broke out. Several additional regions previously controlled by the breakaway Armenian-sponsored Republic of Artsakh will also be given up over the coming weeks.

The agreement is a significant win for Azerbaijan. Its Baku-based government had the upper hand militarily and had been making steady progress into the enclave, which is Azerbaijani land under international law. Under the deal, Azerbaijan regains substantial portions of the territory it had lost to Armenian forces during the 1990s, as well as a land connection to Nakhchivan, an exclave of Azerbaijan separated from the mainland by a sliver of Armenia. Baku has also said that it plans to relocate thousands of ethnic Azeri refugees of the wars of the 1990s back to their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Territorial changes in Nagorno-Karabakh (approximate)
The self-declared Republic of Artsakh has lost significant territory

In allowing Azerbaijan to keep the territory it has gained during the war, the ceasefire can be seen as approval for President Ilham Aliyev’s campaign of conquest. In a victory address to the nation on 9 November, Aliyev said: “The people of Azerbaijan have repeatedly heard from mediators and leaders of some international organisations that there is no military solution to this conflict. I said that I do not agree with this thesis, and I was right!”

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The anarchy of countries waging war for territory at will is precisely what postwar international organisations such as the UN were designed to prevent. As a European diplomat with experience of the region told the New Statesman: “The main lesson from these past six weeks is that you can change the situation by military means. For all dictators, this is fantastic news.”

[See also: Watching the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, I think of my Armenian ancestors]

Turkey, which supported Azerbaijan’s campaign, has also had its prestige in the region enhanced. The Azeri operation was conducted in close coordination with Turkey; hundreds of Turkish military advisers were reportedly situated in Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijani forces used Turkish and Israeli-made drones.

The terms of the deal represent a near-total defeat for Armenia. The country’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, said the concessions were “unbelievably painful for me and my people” but were necessary due to the worsening combat situation. Riots erupted in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, as news of the agreement broke on Monday night, with protesters storming several government buildings and reportedly assaulting the speaker of the parliament, Ararat Mirzoyan.

The future of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh is in doubt, as it is unclear how the breakaway government with all the trappings of a state will function with such a diminished territory and Russian military presence.

For Russia, the region’s traditional hegemon, the picture is mixed. Moscow has expanded its footprint in Azerbaijan, the last country of the South Caucasus where it did not have a significant military presence. It has also salvaged some of its influence over Armenia, which, it will argue, was saved from a total military defeat by Russian mediation.

Yet for the first time for more than a century, Turkey’s role in the settlement signals major influence in the South Caucasus of a third party other than Russia, further exposing the limits of Moscow’s power in the former USSR. Russia thus finds itself playing a diminished role, after the onset of hostilities left it caught between two countries it has had fairly close relations with and therefore unable to assume its traditional role of arbitrator in the conflicts that dot the former Soviet Union.

[See also: How unrest from Belarus to Kyrgyzstan is challenging Russia’s Soviet legacy]

The EU and US have been shown to be ineffective, despite being co-chairs of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group, the body charged with mediating a peaceful resolution to the conflict (Europe is represented in the group via its leading military power, France). Carey Cavanaugh, a former co-chair of the Minsk Group, told the New Statesman that the deal leaves the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh unresolved – and is therefore unlikely to provide long-term certainty for either side.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is what a world without US leadership looks like: regional hegemons – Russia, but also an increasingly assertive Turkey – imposing their will in what they perceive to be their spheres of influence. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen’s so-called geopolitical Commission looks like a dangerous fiction as Europe found itself powerless to mediate in a military conflict on its doorstep. The European diplomat put it bluntly: “It’s blatant how humiliating this whole thing is for Europe.”

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