Author: David Batashvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War ended late on the night of 9 November 2020 with a ceasefire brokered by Vladimir Putin. Like most wars, it was a decisive geopolitical event. Azerbaijan has won back most of its lost territories – partly retaken during the war and partly to be surrendered by the Armenians under the ceasefire conditions. Turkey has increased its involvement and influence in the affairs of the South Caucasus. Another actor that has increased its influence in the region, probably in a more substantial way than Turkey, is Russia.

Russian troops are being stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh by the terms of the ceasefire that Moscow brokered as its guarantors. In fact, Russian forces started to move to Karabakh immediately after the announcement of the ceasefire in the early hours of 10 November. These are about 2,000 troops of the 15th Mechanized (‘Motor Rifle’) Brigade from Roshchinsky, Samara Oblast, which belongs to the Russian Central Military District’s 2nd Army. Russians have announced they will also use the army aviation and drones for their mission. They have also said that “practically all” of the involved troops have the experience of serving in Syria.

Russians will be deployed at observations posts in various parts of Karabakh that remain under Armenian control, divided between two commands (“responsibility zones”), designated North and South. Russian military police will conduct regular patrols. The Lachin corridor connecting Karabakh to Armenia will be under the control of Russian troops. Russians are to stay in Karabakh at least for five years but, in fact, indefinitely unless either the Armenians or the Azerbaijanis request their withdrawal at the end of the five-year term.

Russian Defense Ministry’s map from 15 November 2020 showing locations of the Russian forces’ observation posts and headquarters

Thousands of Russian troops comprising three mechanized brigades and other forces had already been based in the South Caucasus – in Georgia’s two occupied regions and in Armenia. Now, Azerbaijan joins the other two South Caucasus nations in having Russian troops on its soil. This gives Russia new leverage on both Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The existence of a portion of Karabakh as an Armenian enclave outside Baku’s actual control now depends on Moscow alone. Prior to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Armenians believed they were able to repel a potential Azerbaijani offensive due to their own warfighting ability helped by their prepared defensive positions and the region’s mountainous nature. They can rely on none of these factors anymore. Not only have they lost the war with Azerbaijan but, most importantly, they have also lost all of the geographical buffers that they relied upon for the protection of the ethnically Armenian part of Karabakh. Moreover, Azerbaijani troops now stand near the entrance of Karabakh’s main ethnically Armenian city and administrative center, Stepanakert/Khankendi. The only connection to Armenia will exist through the narrow Lachin corridor with Azerbaijani-controlled territory on both sides.

This new strategic configuration renders the Armenian-controlled part of Karabakh utterly indefensible in the case of a renewal of hostilities. The only reason why Azerbaijan will not be able to just take the whole place over is the presence of Russian troops. In terms of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia has lost all remnants of strategic autonomy.

Blackmail is a standard tool in the Russian diplomatic inventory. There should be no doubt that it will be applied by Russians whenever Armenia hesitates to comply with Moscow’s wishes in any serious geopolitical matter. Disobey and things might get worse for the Armenians remaining in Karabakh. Persist in your obstinacy and you might lose all of it, forever. This is the new reality Yerevan will now have to face in its interactions with Russia. The Kremlin does not like Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government very much. Perhaps it would be glad to be rid of them through a political upheaval in the wake of a military defeat. Still, Pashinyan retains a lot of public support and might be able to survive for now. If he does, however, he, too, will have to take into consideration this additional and critical lever that Moscow has gained to influence Armenia’s behavior.

Karabakh’s new strategic reality. Source: Asia Times

Azerbaijan, too, will have to deal with unsavory aspects of the new situation. It has won the war. Crucially, it will be able to return Azerbaijani population to most of the areas from which it was expelled in the early 1990s during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War – an undeniable triumph for Baku. Russian military presence in Karabakh, however, can give Moscow new opportunities to influence Azerbaijan.

In Karabakh, Azerbaijan will not be facing just the 2,000 Russian troops. That force will have the full backing of Russia and its military machine. This means that Baku will not dare violate lines of the no-go zones imposed by the Russians. Despite the total local strategic superiority Azerbaijan has gained by military victory and ceasefire agreement, the part of Karabakh remaining under the Armenian control will, in fact, be unreachable for Baku due to the Russian protection.

In the case of a serious deterioration of relations with Azerbaijan in the years ahead, for any reason, Russia will have the option of renewing its active support for Armenians and their territorial objectives in Karabakh. This is the game at which Russians excel as they have demonstrated on various occasions. They could also organize military incidents and encourage Armenians to act against the Azerbaijani troops on the line of control, perhaps including the city of Shusha. When Azerbaijan begins to return civilian residents to the lands it has retaken, this vulnerability will only grow. Azerbaijanis would be severely limited in their responses to such actions because of the presence of the Russian troops within the Armenian-controlled territory. Shortly after the ceasefire, Russians have already indicated to Baku that their troops are untouchable. When Azerbaijan’s ambassador in Moscow, Polad Bülbüloğlu, said that “anything can happen in war” regarding the accidental downing of a Russian helicopter by the Azerbaijani forces, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded with a drastic criticism of the ambassador, saying that if Moscow had shared such an attitude, its response to the incident would have been “devastating.”

The Russian contingent in Karabakh is a key that Moscow can use to allow or forbid Armenians and Azerbaijanis to hurt one another. There should be no doubt that this crucial lever will be employed by the Russians in their relations with both sides. Russia’s quest to dominate its neighborhood has not gone anywhere and the South Caucasus is a part of it.

There probably will be resentment towards Russia from both sides of the conflict. After all, Moscow has refused to help its ally Armenia during the war while Turkey actively supported its ally Azerbaijan, contributing to the Armenian defeat. On the other hand, while Baku has gained a huge victory, Russians have now frozen the conflict indefinitely and, also indefinitely, have stationed their troops on Azerbaijan’s territory. When the present elation passes with time, Azerbaijanis will find faults with the new situation. But resentment on either side will not change the grim reality of their dependence on Moscow’s good will in Karabakh.

It is ironic that a historical reconciliation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis would deprive Russia of its means to influence both. Armenians would not have to worry about their population having to leave Karabakh. Azerbaijanis would not have to be wary of Russia’s potential renewed active support of the separatism. It is sad that this seems unlikely to happen in the near future. Meanwhile, Moscow has found a new way to correct the behavior of Baku and Yerevan and has military bases in all three nations of the South Caucasus for the first time in dozens of years.