Commentary: Putin wins the Karabakh War

This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of

The 2020 six-week Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended as abruptly as it started at 00.00 Moscow time on 10 November 2020, after Russia brokered an agreement following a number of video meetings held by President Putin separately with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least five thousand people died in this war, most of them young conscripts. On both sides, there were also several hundred civilian casualties.

The agreement is a bitter pill for Armenia, which was militarily defeated in the war due mainly to the technological superiority of the Azerbaijani side. Armenia not only had to accept the loss of the territory that Azerbaijan had regained during the fighting, including within the boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, but also agreed to hand over by 1 December two remaining districts around Nagorno-Karabakh that it had captured in the 1992-94 war. Militarily the decisive moment came once the Azerbaijanis captured the town of Shusha, which is atop the capital of the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Stepanakert, at the same time as their troops were poised to capture the Lachin Corridor which links Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

However, the agreement is much more than a ceasefire. In its nine articles, it provides for the deployment of an all-Russian peacekeeping force of around two thousand troops with light equipment, but it also envisages the supervision by these troops of transport corridors linking Karabakh to Armenia, and the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan to the Azerbaijani mainland.

Read an informal translation of the agreement in full here

The winners

This war has one clear winner. Vladimir Putin. He is the only one who ended the war achieving all his objectives. Russia's decline in the Caucasus region evident ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, has now been completely reversed. Politically, Russia becomes the one and only arbiter between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and the only one with boots on the ground to enforce its call. Russian troops started being deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh within minutes of the sides signing the 10 November agreement. Militarily the Russian army is now back at the heart of the Caucasus in its thousands, controlling strategic corridors, and providing the thin white line of security for civilian populations, present and future in the southern part of the South Caucasus.

Recip Tayyip Erdoğan takes second place. To be fair, he came in from behind - a dark horse whose appearance changed the dynamic of the conflict. He switched Turkish support for Azerbaijan from rhetoric, where it had been for decades, to reality, where it showed what tangible pan-Turkic solidarity could achieve. Turkey is also back to the heart of the Caucasus after this war, even if the Russians managed to exclude the participation of Turkey in the peacekeeping force, and from any mention in the 10 November agreement at all. However, a parallel agreement between Russia and Turkey recognises the role of Turkey in a "peacekeeping centre" whose mandate remains opaque, guaranteeing plenty of controversy further up the line.

Of course, in battle it was Azerbaijan that emerged as the winner. It achieved some, though not all, of its objectives: it regained most of the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh that it lost in the 1990s and is set to get the rest as a result of the new agreement; it has taken Shusha and a number of other settlements within Nagorno-Karabakh itself, all at a high cost in human lives and equipment. The joy and elation of President Aliyev, and all Azerbaijanis, was genuine. Honour had been regained. But the notion, "Karabakh is Azerbaijan", now appears even more distant than it did when the war started on 27 September. Karabakh is now, de facto, a Russian protectorate, and the Russians are not going to be in a hurry to leave. By accepting a Russian peacekeeping force in their midst, the Azerbaijanis have also compromised their own independence, although to what extent is yet to be seen.

The losers

Armenia lost this war, and there will be fallout from this defeat for the Armenian state, for the current Armenian government, and even for the Armenian diaspora overseas, all of whom have in the past six weeks had to come to terms with the realisation of the limitations of their own powers and resources. Many Armenian soldiers fought heroically, although it appears that many also fought reluctantly. Myths about the invincibility of the Armenian army were easily broken. In the end, superior forces and superior technology became a game-changer. But there was one major weakness in the Armenian strategy over the last decades that finally came to roost. Nagorno-Karabakh and the other territorial gains from 1992-94 have never been recognised by the international community, which, without exception, continues to see them as de jure at least, part of Azerbaijan. This meant that whilst the war was ongoing Armenia could not trigger its various military alliances with Russia and within the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Both politely told Armenia that when the fighting reached Armenia proper, they will intervene, not before.

This defeat will destabilise Armenia for some time. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, rightly or wrongly, is being blamed for the defeat and faces the genuine anger of those who lost relatives and friends in the fighting or otherwise suffered, and the hate of his many political opponents who have long built their opposition on the premise that Pashinyan could not be trusted with the defence of Armenia and Karabakh. That many of Armenia's problems had been there for a long time, and were not of Pashinyan's making, makes little difference in the current emotional and fluid situation on the streets of Yerevan. According to many observers of the Armenian political scene, Pashinyan's days in power are numbered. He may yet be able to survive if he manages to widen his power base, bringing in perhaps elements of the opposition in the government, and if he maintains the loyalty of the army chain of command. But even if he does, it will be a different Pashinyan from the brazen man who walked himself into Armenia's power in the spring of 2018.

The other loser in the war is the West, particularly the European Union. For long ambiguous in its engagement with the South Caucasus, the European Union appeared taken by surprise at the turn of events, despite being warned often that war in the Caucasus was not only possible but probable. Over the last weeks, it was relegated to the role of a distracted watcher. The statements coming out of Brussels in the last two months will be studied for many years to come as examples of diplomatic fudge and inconsequence - how an emperor looks when it is naked, and when the last leaf hiding its virility (in other words the OSCE Minsk process) finally drops. Distracted by its own election, the United States was even less engaged, despite its role as co-chair of the Minsk Group. It is unlikely that a Biden White House will prioritise the South Caucasus, which leaves Western engagement with this strategic region mainly up to Europeans.

Has anyone seen the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair?

What happens now to the OSCE Minsk Group, and it's co-chair trio that brings together France, Russia and the United States?

Russian cynicism should not be underestimated. The Russians may decide they want to keep the Minsk Group in some form or other, as a semblance that they are operating within a multilateral framework, or to have someone else to blame if things go wrong with the peacekeeping operation. On Wednesday, Russia briefed the United Nations Security Council on developments. It was a closed meeting. There has been no sign and no word from the three co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, and with the OSCE itself in the middle of an institutional crisis, it appears that the Russians are not hurrying to inform the Permanent Council in Vienna of what they are up to - although they will sooner or later.

The immediate challenges

The 10 November agreement will be put to the test soon enough. By 1 December Armenia is obliged to vacate Aghdam, Kelbajar and Lachin. Given the ongoing political turmoil in Yerevan, nothing can be taken for granted, and this will be the first test of the sustainability of the agreement.

For the Armenian people, and for the future of the region, the stability of Armenia is a priority. The country needs time to heal and to rebuild. It needs some time and space to think through its next steps. There is still victory that can be snatched from adversity, but it is not a military victory. If Armenia turns the current agreement to its own advantage by exploiting the economic potential that the opening up of new transport corridors provide it may yet do so. Wisdom is now required in Yerevan and the diaspora communities, not chauvinism and hysteria.

Azerbaijan should also make the best of this moment. The military success has turned Ilham Aliyev overnight into a genuinely popular leader. He needs to use the moment to finish what he had hesitatingly started at the beginning of the year and implement deep and comprehensive reforms. The victory offers Azerbaijan an opportunity for revival and renewal.

For the West, especially for the European Union, there need to be many lessons learnt about how to manage a crisis like this in the Union's immediate neighbourhood. The debate on turning the EU into a geopolitical player risks turning into a farce, if, when faced with a crisis like this, the EU appears incoherent and inconsequential.

For thousands of families across the South Caucasus, now is the time to bury their dead - the thousands of mostly young men who have died in this short and terrible war. In doing so, they should not swear revenge. They need to swear, never again!

source: This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of

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