From Ekspert, Sept. 25, 2023, p. 56. Condensed text:

Nagorno-Karabakh surrendered 24 hours after Azerbaijan launched its “counterterrorist operation.” This puts an end to another long-term territorial dispute that had been simmering since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In September 2023, Azerbaijan essentially wrapped up the 30-year process of regaining control over its breakaway territory.

All Armenia and Azerbaijan have to do now is make it official and put their agreements on paper by signing a peace treaty. According to Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, there is little doubt that we will soon see significant progress made in this direction.

Armenia and Azerbaijan will now have a border that both countries will recognize, and it seems that there is no more room on the map for Nagorno-Karabakh – or, in fact, its residents.

The Armenian leadership has made a point of distancing itself from Artsakh (the Armenian name for Karabakh), describing the Karabakh conflict as Azerbaijan’s internal matter and being very careful on the issue of refugees. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, is putting together lists of Karabakh residents who served in the Armed Forces of the breakaway republic, and demanding that they be handed over. Azerbaijan says they might be amnestied but it is not clear at this point what the terms for such an amnesty might be. The residents of Nagorno-Karabakh fear ethnic cleansing. The issue of people’s personal safety is more pressing right now than the territorial dispute.

Considering that after all these years, Armenia has neither recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state nor declared it part of its own territory, and, on the contrary, indicated last year that it was willing to make a peace deal, it is obvious that everything has been decided and there is no going back. Artsakh has ceased to exist as an independent, albeit unrecognized, state.

Would it be possible to work out some sort of compromise on some minor issues? It is now no longer up to Armenia and Azerbaijan alone to decide that; the answer will depend primarily on other players, especially Russia, even if the current Armenian leadership is determined to distance itself from Moscow.

Capitulation day.

The key phase of the Azerbaijani military operation kicked off on Sept. 19 and concluded by the end of the day on Wednesday, Sept. 20, when the Armed Forces of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic announced they were willing to lay down their arms and begin talks. . . .

For a long time, Stepanakert was left without water or electricity. Internet access has never been fully restored. People had to hide from artillery strikes in basements and shelters. Many people were forced to flee to safer neighboring towns and villages or to seek protection from Russian peacekeepers. . . .

According to Gegham Stepanyan, human rights ombudsman of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, thousands of people are still unable to locate their relatives or family members. A total of about 7,000 people from 16 towns and villages had been evacuated internally by Thursday. In the most dangerous areas, Russian peacekeepers helped evacuate civilians to safer places. The [Russian] Defense Ministry reported that by the morning of Sept. 21, the peacekeepers had evacuated 2,261 people, including 1,049 children.

Stepanyan also gave a preliminary number of people killed in the self-proclaimed republic in the course of Azerbaijan’s military operation: 32 people, including seven civilians, two of them children. More than 200 people have been injured, including 35 civilians, 13 of them children. Ruben Vardanyan, former state minister of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, claims that about 100 people have been killed in Artsakh.

It came out later that six Russian peacekeepers were also killed and a few more were wounded by Azerbaijani fire on Sept. 20. The vehicle carrying the peacekeepers was returning from an observation post near the village of Dzhanyatag. According to some media reports, one of those killed was Ivan Kovgan, deputy commander of the Russian peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani authorities said the servicemen who opened fire on Russian peacekeepers had been detained and two criminal probes had been launched into the incident.

In a telephone conversation with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev apologized for the incident and expressed his deepest condolences.

Azerbaijan did not report any losses on its side.

The territory and the people.

It seems that once artillery fire is finally over, Karabakh will enter the most difficult chapter in its history: It will have to address the humanitarian problem. The future of almost 120,000 residents of Karabakh is at stake. If they decide to leave, there will be a major humanitarian crisis, which no one will be able to ignore.

The first meeting of the delegations of Azerbaijan and Karabakh, which took place in the Azerbaijani town of Yevlakh on Thursday, Sept. 21, did not result in concrete agreements. But the Azerbaijani delegation presented the Karabakh representatives with the terms of the deal that will see Baku officially regain full control of the territory.

There were reports in the Armenian media that Azerbaijan had put together a list of former Karabakh leaders, government officials and military commanders whom it regards as terrorists. There are rumors that Baku will only provide humanitarian corridors for people to leave after all the people on the list are handed over.

Nobody knows how many names are on the list. Obviously, all those who used to be in Karabakh militias will now have to flee. However, many in Artsakh fear that all male residents without exception may be targeted. The residents of Karabakh do not really trust Azerbaijan’s conciliatory rhetoric. People are leaving before Azerbaijani forces move in.

In an effort to allay fears, Azerbaijan announced that it would be willing to discuss the possibility of an amnesty for former Artsakh fighters who have laid down their arms. It also announced it was sending two trucks with humanitarian aid – food and hygiene items – to Stepanakert. For his part, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that Armenia could receive up to 40,000 refugees at this point if they are unable to stay in their homes, adding, however, that Yerevan did not “view a mass exodus of Armenians from Karabakh as its preferred scenario.”

A perfect moment.

Nagorno-Karabakh was an old problem, and it should have been addressed a long time ago, says Yelena Suponina, an international affairs expert and researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council. “It’s a shame, of course, that the problem wasn’t resolved through diplomacy – even though diplomatic efforts continued for a very long time. Instead, Azerbaijan achieved its goals through sheer military force and political chicanery,” [she said.]

Baku has long been gearing up to retake Karabakh. It negotiated with various world leaders, getting them to endorse Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. It used UN resolutions for its propaganda purposes. Finally, and most importantly, it modernized its military, equipping it with drones and other new weapons.

In 2020, Azerbaijan decided that the time had come to apply force. Then it waited for another three years. Three years is not too long if you have been planning your revenge for three decades. Once the Armenian prime minister publicly acknowledged that Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan and described the conflict as Azerbaijan’s internal matter, Karabakh’s fate was sealed.

Azerbaijan picked the perfect moment, both politically and historically, to solve the Karabakh question once and for all. Russia was too busy sorting out existential issues on its western borders; the US was preoccupied with preparations for an upcoming standoff in Asia; Europe at long last decided to focus on its own problems. Finally, Baku knew it had a powerful ally in Turkey, which is very good at playing the multivector foreign policy game.

As for Armenia, its leaders openly sought to pin the blame on Russia. They organized rallies in front of the Russian Embassy and criticized Russia, even though they did absolutely nothing themselves, says political analyst Kirill Koktysh, professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “Basically, Pashinyan betrayed Artsakh and the Karabakh Armenians,” [he said].

Russia cannot protect Armenia’s interests if Armenia itself gives them up, says Koktysh. Russia simply doesn’t have any legal grounds to do so. “It makes no sense to blame Russia. Russia’s actions were regulated by its mandate. The status of the mandate changed because of what Pashinyan did. It was Pashinyan who admitted that Artsakh was not Armenian territory and that there were no Armenian forces there,” [Koktysh adds].

Thinking about the future.

Russia has remained neutral in recent years, and this is precisely why it was allowed to deploy its peacekeepers in the region, says Yelena Suponina. “Yerevan is making a grave mistake thinking it doesn’t need Moscow. The Karabakh problem is not over yet. It is still necessary to put everything on paper, work out a peace deal between all the parties involved and arrange security guarantees. When it comes to controversial issues, Karabakh isn’t the only problem.”

There is another unresolved problem, Suponina adds – namely Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan’s autonomous exclave that is not connected to the rest of the country by land. Officially, Azerbaijan hasn’t raised this issue, but tensions may still flare up, Suponina thinks. On the other hand, Azerbaijan looks like a country that has just scored a major victory, and there is no need for Baku to rush on the Nakhichevan issue, Koktysh says.

The latest developments look quite reasonable from the viewpoint of common sense and international law, Kirill Koktysh adds. It turned out that, at the end of the day, Russia played a key role in ensuring security in Karabakh.

“Basically, Yerevan refused to protect the Karabakh Armenians a year ago, admitting that the Karabakh conflict was Azerbaijan’s internal affair. Naturally, this changed the status of the Russian peacekeeping mission. Nevertheless, the Russian peacekeepers continued doing their job and proved to be very effective,” Koktysh says.

Given the new circumstances, Russia should focus on safety guarantees for the people of Artsakh and help address humanitarian issues. According to Koktysh, Moscow’s relationship with Baku is quite constructive, so it should be able to reach an agreement with Ilkham Aliyev on the status of its forces in the region and security arrangements.

The talks probably won’t be easy, given the new situation on the ground. But it is necessary for the peacekeepers to stay in place for now to prevent any clashes, Yelena Suponina says. Of course, there are clashes happening even today, but the situation would be much worse without Russian peacekeepers there. “Of course, the next logical step would be to sign some sort of a treaty or agreement. Also, Karabakh’s official, legal status is still unknown. How will the people of Karabakh become Azerbaijani citizens? Will they have other options to choose from? These and many other questions can only be negotiated with Russia acting as a mediator. Other players may also have a place at the table,” [Suponina says].

Alternative scenarios.

The fact that Russia is consistently being squeezed out of the South Caucasus, which historically has been in its area of interest, is deplorable, but the situation is far from disastrous just yet. Of course, it is jarring to hear Nikol Pashinyan criticize Russia and blame all the problems of the Armenian people on Moscow. But on the whole, all the players in the region are more or less happy with the way the situation is unfolding at the moment, Kirill Koktysh says. Pashinyan himself may be the only exception here. “The people of Armenia will have a lot of questions for Pashinyan now. Armenians have to decide once and for all whether they are happy with this kind of leader,” Kirill Koktysh says.

The most important point, the expert adds, is that the conflict did not escalate to a much higher level. “At this point, resumption of hostilities seems unlikely.” . . .

“It seems that Pashinyan and his European colleagues perhaps expected something different from this conflict,” Koktysh says. . . . They expected war to spread like wildfire through the South Caucasus. Their plan was to create a protracted, long-term conflict. In case of a major destabilization in the region, all the international organizations would get involved. Perhaps their plan was to pull in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as Turkey and others. They probably thought this would be a global conflict that would play out over a long period of time. Eventually, they thought, the US and the EU would have to get involved. And then Yerevan would not have to do anything; it would simply observe from afar, as if it had nothing to do with it. But we all know how ‘effective’ those international organizations are and what role they actually play. This became very clear when they sent their monitors to the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics,” Koktysh says.

Koktysh thinks Pashinyan expected Artsakh to show grit and put up stiff resistance. But Stepanakert simply did not have enough forces; its troops were badly outnumbered. “Besides, what could they do if even their own capital abandoned them? To the Armenians living in Karabakh, this was definitely a betrayal,” Koktysh said.

Now what?

At this point, it looks like Armenia stands to lose more than anybody else in this situation. Nikol Pashinyan’s policy of pivoting away from Russia may in the foreseeable future cause Armenia to withdraw from the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union. More than once, Pashinyan accused Russian peacekeepers of not doing their job and criticized Russia for its failure to provide security for Karabakh. He even went so far as to say that Armenia’s pro-Russian orientation was a mistake. But such a U-turn in Armenia’s foreign policy may have disastrous consequences. Armenia has lost Karabakh, but it may lose much more. Perhaps it may even cease to exist as an independent state.

The people of Armenia may have to take things into their own hands pretty soon. Nikol Pashinyan rose to power as the chief opponent of the Karabakh clan in Armenian politics. But now the same people will denounce him as a traitor. The current problems in domestic politics, plus the fact that Armenia will soon be flooded by tens of thousands of angry men with combat experience who feel betrayed by Pashinyan, spell trouble for the Yerevan authorities.

As far as Russia is concerned, we should certainly have a presence in the South Caucasus, Yelena Suponina says. “The security of our southern borders depends on this. It will be a tough fight, and it will last for at least half a century. There are forces that are seeking to undermine our presence in the region. These are primarily external players who are, nevertheless, very active – the US, the UK and, to a lesser degree, the EU. Turkey, too, has been quite active lately,” [Suponina explains].

Russia will certainly continue maneuvering between major centers of power. The only reason it is not as effective as it could be is the lack of soft power. This is the same problem we have encountered in our dealings with the Western world.

Let’s face it: Conflicts and losses are inevitable from time to time. The big question is, can you learn some lessons from your losses? The 30-year history of Karabakh shows that Azerbaijan has learned from its mistakes. The same goes for Russia and the conflict in the Donetsk Basin. The first year of the special military operation was not too great for us, but then Russian forces regrouped, rearmed, dug in and successfully repelled all attacks by the Ukrainians, so even their Western patrons are admitting reluctantly today that Ukraine doesn’t stand a chance against Russia. My intuition tells me that the same goes for the South Caucasus: Sooner or later, Russia will certainly come up with a plan on how to protect its interests there.

I only hope this happens sooner rather than later.