Putin creates conditions for ending bloodshed in Caucasus

Armenian soldiers ride a car passing the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia near Vardenis, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020.

The trilateral Armenia-Azerbaijan-Russia statement of November 10 on Nagorno-Karabakh is a major development in regional and international security. A daring attempt is afoot to tamp down an ethnic conflict with political overtones by redrawing territorial boundaries.

The agreement bears the imprimatur of President Vladimir Putin. Putin’s separate statement attests to it. Broadly, under the deal, Azerbaijan will hold on to areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that it has taken during the 7-week old conflict. Armenia has also agreed to withdraw from several other adjacent areas over the next few weeks. Nagorno-Karabakh stands truncated. Russian peacekeepers have taken charge of contact lines and communication arteries.

The deal can only be read as a victory for Azerbaijan and a defeat for Armenia. Importantly, though, it constitutes a diplomatic masterstroke for the Kremlin. Russia returns to the centerstage of Transcaucasian politics. 

A defining moment came on November 9 when Azerbaijan gained military control over the strategically important hilltop town known as Shusha, a natural fortress perched in the mountains and bordered by sheer cliffs, at a commanding height overlooking Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert (just 10 kms away), and considered a linchpin to military control of the region. 

The town’s capture effectively meant that Azerbaijan had overrun a main road (called the Lachin Corridor) connecting Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, which was critical for Armenia to send military supplies along switchbacks over a mountain pass. 

Simply put, the jingoistic Armenian leadership of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stared at the stunning reality that the fall of Stepanakert was imminent and understood that the judicious course would be to salvage a ceasefire with Russian help. 

The Kremlin was anticipating this to happen, as evident from the phone conversation Putin had with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on November 7, which was followed up with two calls with Turkish President Recep Erdogan. 

France is a co-chair of the Minsk Group (along with Russia and the US) and international legitimacy would be crucial for Moscow’s intervention in the conflict, whereas, Turkey needed to be “managed”, given its aspirations as a Black Sea power and its special ties with Azerbaijan. 

Erdogan keeps inserting Turkey as peacemaker in the Caucasus (which Moscow is unlikely to concede, given his sponsorship of jihadi groups.) The readout from Ankara following a phone call to Putin on November 10 said: 

“President Erdoğan noted that since Turkey will also carry out monitoring and overseeing activities for the ceasefire together with Russia through a Joint Center to be set up in a location, which will be determined by Azerbaijan on its lands that were saved from Armenian occupation, a great responsibility falls to the Russian side, too, at this stage.” 

But the Russian readout ignored the Turkish interpolation and simply recapped that Putin “informed” Erdogan of the November 9 agreement on a complete ceasefire and the related “arrangements” and “agreed to continue working together to implement the package of measures set forth in the Statement.” The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov subsequently denied any such Russian intention to partner with Turkey in peacekeeping.

Russian peacekeepers heading for Nagorno-Karabakh

The November 10 trilateral agreement heavily borrows from Iran’s peace plan. (See my blog Iran has a plan for Nagorno-Karabakh.) Tehran is plainly jubilant. The Iranian Foreign Ministry, while welcoming the agreement, has offered Tehran’s “readiness to assist in the deployment of peacekeeping forces of the Russian Federation along the contact lines in accordance with clauses 3 and 4 of the ceasefire agreement.”

With a Joe Biden presidency on the horizon, Moscow has a sense of urgency to bring the conflict to an end and take charge of peacekeeping. Moscow expects Biden to step up US engagement dramatically in Russia’s “near abroad” which could assume the complexion of a confrontation with major geopolitical implications.

Biden can be expected to be far more active than his predecessor in promoting democracy throughout the former post-Soviet space. Biden is deeply enmeshed in East European politics, having led the Obama administration’s policies toward Russia and Ukraine. An acrimonious relationship between the Biden White House and the Kremlin is on cards over issues of democracy.

Putin dwelt on this topic at the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on November 10. Putin said, “One more open challenge to our common security is the increased number of attempts of direct foreign interference in the internal affairs of states that are involved in SCO activities. I am referring to the blatant infringement on sovereignty, attempts to split societies, change the countries’ path of development and sever the existing political, economic and humanitarian ties that took centuries to develop.

“An attack of this kind has been directed by external forces against Belarus, an observer country of the SCO. Following the presidential election, our Belarusian friends have been put under unprecedented pressure and had to repel sanctions, provocations and an information and propaganda war waged against them.

“We regard this as unacceptable that external forces are trying to enforce any decisions on the Belarusian people. They must be given time to sort things out and take whatever steps may be necessary. The same is true of the recent developments in Kyrgyzstan and the unfolding internal political fighting in Moldova.” 

The chaotic situation over transfer of power in Washington has presented Moscow with a free hand in its highly strategic Transcaucasian backyard. Macron has been Putin’s key western interlocutor all though the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh since September.

In the case of Turkey, Putin kept Erdogan informed and consulted him in an implicit acknowledgment of that country’s aspirations as a regional power and its importance to Russia as partner in regional security and stability. 

Iran, indeed, falls in a unique category, given its growing convergence with Russia on regional issues. The level of mutual understanding is steadily transforming their relationship and imparting a strategic character to it. Tehran has unequivocally backed Putin’s initiatives on Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The agreement of November 10 is going to endure for sometime at least. The task ahead will be the return of the 100,000 Azerbaijanis who were displaced in the 1990s from the occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the return of upward of 100000 Armenians who have been displaced from Karabakh region in the latest round of fighting.

But it remains to be seen how many displaced people will want to move back. Then, there is the return of displaced Azerbaijanis to Nagorno-Karabakh proper. Shusha is regarded as a cradle of Azerbaijani culture and the resettlement of this town will be a highly emotive and political experience. 

The accord ends the bloody and devastating war but it doesn’t have anything on the politics of the conflict. On the other hand, it introduces a security architecture and stipulates communication measures to stabilise the ground situation. 

The ethnic polarisation is such that the two communities are far from ready to embrace each other. However, this is a 5-year agreement and will roll over for another 5 years. And time is a great healer.