Has Russia Ended the War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan’s success in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh means Putin’s peace deal is likely to last. It also rules out further diplomacy.
The cease-fire agreement signed on November 9 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev did far more than suspend hostilities. It had, in fact, many elements of a final peace treaty, with Azerbaijan the clear winner.
After more than six weeks of warfare in and around Nagorno-Karabakh—the largely Armenian enclave that is formally part of Azerbaijan but has been controlled by Armenia for three decades—big changes are underway. The parties are exchanging prisoners and war dead, Armenian forces are to withdraw even from territory not lost in the fighting, and Russian peacekeepers have arrived to protect a corridor between Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh for at least five years. The deal also calls for a second corridor between Azerbaijan and its own landlocked exclave, known as Nakhichevan.
How long will this partial peace last?
Because multiple cease-fire agreements collapsed in the course of the fighting, skepticism about this one is understandable. But there are reasons to think the deal will hold for a long time:
Russia’s military presence. With two thousand peacekeepers in place, it would be extremely rash for President Aliyev to order a new offensive, knowing his forces could end up fighting Russian troops. Putin made clear in October that Russia would not intervene to defend Armenia, its treaty ally, unless the territory of Armenia proper were attacked. But now that he has deployed Russian forces, it will not be so easy to dodge involvement should hostilities resume. (The public text of the November 9 agreement, it should be noted, does not allow Azerbaijan to demand the peacekeepers’ early departure.)
The scale of Azerbaijan’s triumph. Military success has given Aliyev what he wanted most. He has ended the Armenian occupation of all Azerbaijani territory other than Nagorno-Karabakh itself and made possible the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Azerbaijan also retook Shusha (Shushi, to Armenians), the Nagorno-Karabakh town that had the largest Azeri population thirty years ago. For Aliyev, this is no halfway success—it’s a gigantic victory.
Diminishing returns and rising risk. Trying to go beyond the victory to retake all of Nagorno-Karabakh would pose much greater problems for Azerbaijan, even if Russian troops could be avoided. Armenia’s military leadership will presumably do everything it can to fortify Nagorno-Karabakh, making another round of warfare less predictable. And because the remaining population of the enclave is almost completely Armenian, regaining it would force Azerbaijan to choose between ethnic cleansing and a potentially violent occupation.
Can diplomacy strengthen the peace?
Even if the November 9 cease-fire holds, it is unlikely to be followed by further rounds of serious diplomacy. In both Armenia and Azerbaijan, domestic political considerations will almost surely block any effort to pursue a final settlement.
For Azerbaijanis, the prospect of regaining the occupied territories used to mean that a peace agreement with Armenia could not be rejected out of hand, even if it meant the possible loss of Nagorno-Karabakh. But jubilation over their new victory will make it virtually unthinkable to let Nagorno-Karabakh vote for self-determination. “Having regained our lands by our own effort,” Azerbaijani officials will ask each other, “how could we justify new concessions to Armenia?” Aliyev has now publicly excluded the possibility of “autonomous status” for Nagorno-Karabakh as long as he remains president.
For Armenia, coming to grips with defeat will mean an intense and emotional political struggle. The leverage that once obliged Azerbaijan to take negotiations seriously has suddenly disappeared. Some might ask how such a huge diplomatic opportunity was squandered; some might even ask whether there’s anything else that Azerbaijan will seek in exchange for ceding Nagorno-Karabakh. (Aliyev’s interest in a corridor to Nakhichevan does hint at one possibility.) But the overriding theme of Armenia’s domestic debate will be different. It will be about fixing blame for military defeat, vilifying those who negotiated the November 9 agreement (the foreign minister has already resigned), and rebuilding Nagorno-Karabakh’s defenses. Even if the government survives, it will have little incentive to talk to Azerbaijan.
Nagorno-Karabakh was for decades one of the Russian periphery’s so-called frozen conflicts. After its brief and unexpected unfreezing, it is almost certain to become one again.