On Nov. 9, 2020, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia signed a peace deal to end the fighting over the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh, a region internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory but controlled by ethnic Armenians.
Since the war broke out on Sept. 27, 2020, Russian officials estimate 5,000 people have been killed and more than 100,000 civilians have been displaced. As the two sides reached an agreement, with Azerbaijan keeping several territories it gained control over during six weeks of fighting, there seems to be more than one winner and loser of this peace deal.
The ethnic and territorial conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh dates back to the 20th century. In 1920, when modern-day Armenia and Azerbaijan became constituent states of the Soviet Union, Armenians were the ethnic majority in Nagorno-Karabakh, but Moscow gave control to the Azerbaijani authorities. When the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional parliament voted to become a part of Armenia. This decision, backed by the Armenian government and opposed by Moscow and Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, sparked a fierce war that displaced around a million people, mostly Azerbaijanis, and killed tens of thousands. Ethnic cleansing and massacres by both sides were reported.
The war came to an end when Russia negotiated a ceasefire in 1994. However, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group, an establishment founded in 1992 by France, Russia and the United States, failed to get the two sides to negotiate on a comprehensive peace agreement. Since then, Nagorno-Karabakh has been controlled by separatist ethnic Armenians backed by the Armenian government despite remaining a part of Azerbaijan.
The 2020 armed conflict over the region extends beyond Armenia and Azerbaijan, as it has geopolitical and strategic implications for many other countries. So who are the winners and losers of the peace deal that ended the fierce fighting?
The peace deal consists of terms indicating a clear victory for Azerbaijan, which will hold onto several districts of Nagorno-Karabakh that it gained control of during the conflict, including the strategically important city Shusha. Additionally, a transit corridor will be established along the southern border of Armenia with Iran, which will connect Azerbaijan with its exclave – the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.
Since the conflict began, Azerbaijan’s battleground performance proved a significant military superiority. Deep cooperation and intelligence ties with Israel and overt support from longtime military ally Turkey played a key role in Azerbaijan making territorial gains.
Russia is traditionally seen as an ally of Armenia: it has a military base in Gyumri, Armenia, and both countries are primarily Orthodox-Christian. They are both members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which dictates that Russia is expected to send military assistance in case Armenia is attacked. But Nagorno-Karabakh is not considered a part of Armenian territory.
The terms of the three-way pact is far from favorable for Armenia. Although the country will keep Stepanakert, the de facto capital of Nagorno-Karabakh and receive a Russian-controlled corridor linking Karabakh and Armenia, it lost several key territories like Shusha. After the peace deal was signed, protestors rallied in Armenian capital Yerevan, dissenting to the agreement and demanding that Prime Minister Pashinyan resign.
As a political science Ph.D student at Northwestern University with a professional interest in International Relations, Miruna Barnoschi said that Russia threw Armenia under the bus for strategic gains and regional dominance.
“Although one would expect Russia to support Armenia, Russia wanted to get ahead in terms of having control over the South Caucasus region that is geopolitically strategic,” Barnoschi said.
Two oil pipelines, Baku-Tbilisi-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, as well as the South Caucasus natural gas pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum, were key to Russia’s decisions throughout the conflict.
“Russia wants to make sure it has control over this corridor that is the gateway to Europe and the world market in terms of energy, and it was willing to leave Armenia in the dust," Barnoschi said. "Armenia didn’t have the kind of economic development in terms of its energy like Azerbaijan has had.”
Not giving a military hand to either side, Russia’s diplomatic efforts to end the conflict increased when the Azerbaijani military captured Shusha – the second-largest city in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow got the two sides to agree on a peace deal that would boost Russia’s influence and control in the region, authorizing it to send about 2,000 peacekeepers.
Alexander Gabuev wrote in a BBC article that these peacekeepers will “protect the remaining Armenian population, separate the two adversaries and patrol a corridor that will connect Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh: something the Kremlin has wanted since 1994, but couldn’t obtain at the negotiating table before this war.”
Finally, Russia will also control the land corridor that will connect mainland Azerbaijan with its landlocked exclave Nakhchivan.
Turkey, the third-largest supplier of military equipment to Azerbaijan after Russia and Israel, has been training Azerbaijani military officers for decades. Soon after the conflict broke out in September, Turkey vowed to support Azerbaijan on the battleground if requested.
But the relationship between the two countries goes beyond military and economic cooperation. Azerbaijan and Turkey share strong ethnic, historic and cultural ties observed not only in diplomacy, but through the affinity they hold towards one another on the public level. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey was the first to recognize Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991. The transit corridor connecting Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, which borders Turkey, would provide Ankara with easier access to the strategically important South Caucasus. The territorial gains Azerbaijan made are also a victory for Turkey, signaling its rising influence in the region, particularly in Turkic Azerbaijan.
The United States had largely remained silent regarding the conflict except for two statements, one U.S.-only statement and one joint statement with Minsk Group Co-Chairs Russia and France calling for a ceasefire. For many, this attitude reflects international disengagement under the Trump administration. But with Russia intensifying its strategic gains and alliances in the region, the U.S. may get involved in the peacemaking process soon.
“Russian peacekeeping doesn’t have a check, and it is more about advancing the Russian interest, less about peace,” Barnoschi said, adding that this peace deal was a loss for the United States. “The U.S. doesn’t exert its political will and its global reach in a region that is super important economically and politically considering its proximity to the Middle East, to Russia as well as the energy market it can influence. Whoever has control of this region has political and economic gains and the U.S. doesn’t at the moment.”
Iran shares borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and is home to ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians, making the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict especially important for the Iranian foreign policy.
The Russian-brokered agreement poses a great threat to Iran’s foreign policy and its long-term interests in the South Caucasus. As Azerbaijan gains full control over its border with Iran along the Aras River, Tehran may be alarmed by the possibility of an increased Israeli military presence in the border.
The Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal was signed only by three parties, but the region’s strategic importance and the interests of several countries may bring further complications to the peace process. Barnoschi was pessimistic that the issue could be easily erased or solved.
“Frozen conflicts that relate to ethnic tensions are the worst in terms of being able to be solved,” Barnoschi said. “Memory lives on, and history is particularly important to the people living there and to the countries at war. There has to be a lot of mutual understanding of that history and recognition of each other’s respective memory, which may or may not happen in the future.”
*Article Thumbnail “Flag of Azerbaijan 1918 variant” by J. Patrick Fischer is licensed under public domain via Wikipedia Commons. “Flag of Armenia - Coat of Arms” by Sahakian is licensed under CC BY 3.0. Image edits done by Trent Brown.