Updated: Mar 4
The dust has seemingly settled with the end of Second Karabakh War in the South Caucasus when a trilateral agreement between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia was signed. What Prime Minister of Armenia called a “painful settlement” was a victorious document for Azerbaijan who managed to liberate its occupied territories after almost 27 years. Yet, the agreement also brought another winner to the table: Russia which has long played a role in the conflict (both in its solution and also ironic enough in its sustainment).
The clause 4 of the armistice allows the deployment of the Russian “peacekeepers” to the region for at least 5 years initially. This can be renewed unless one of the sides (meaning Azerbaijan or Armenia) gives a six-month notice to cease the operation. Consequently, the deployed 1960 personnel now to Nagorno Karabakh notes the presence of Moscow’s troops in all three protracted conflicts of the South Caucasus. They will not only ensure peace and stability in the region but will also protect the communications lines and transport links.
The initial responses to the peacekeepers varied in the region. Some called it a desperate attempt by the Moscow to retain a foothold in the region when it is losing influence in the Post-Soviet states. Yet others pointed out to the publicly unannounced Lavrov Plan which for almost three years offered the withdrawal of Armenia from the territories that it occupied and proposed stationing of the Russian peacekeeping troops. The question still persists: Are Russian peacekeepers welcomed in the region?
Generally speaking, the mistrust to Russia is rife in the region. This is first because Russia and “peace” are hardly compatible words (cases of Transnistria and Abkhazia/South Ossetia to remind). Second, it is also because Russia, particularly in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, has played so many roles that it is hard to keep up with, let alone have confidence. These roles range from wearing the cap of a weapon seller (to both sides simultaneously) to being a peace broker, one of the three co-chairs of the Minsk group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), security preserver of Armenia, or an "humanitarian actor".
Indeed, Moscow’s multiple roles and positions gives a reasonable scepticism to any person from the region to think twice about its role. Even more interestingly, Russia’s peacekeeping operation, in essence, violates the norms put out by the UN for peacekeepers which call for the impartiality of the peacekeeping troops and also advises against the troop contributions from the neighbouring states.
Nevertheless, although mostly the guns have fallen silent in the area, in the last month a few incidents have been testing the patience and stirring the emotions of both nations. The fighting incident in Taghlar and Caylaggala villages on December 11 was followed with peacekeepers’ unilateral attempts to expand the area of operations and change the contact line. This was reflected in the controversial maps that the Russian Ministry of Defence published which caused a huge discontent in Azerbaijan. Such map games on top of peacekeepers cooperation with the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s leaders (even publishing photos of these demonstratively) has further spread anger, regret and dissatisfaction for Azerbaijanis.
Furthermore, the announcement that the peacekeepers will be involved in building the infrastructure and even residential buildings has brought to the minds the question of the limits and nature of the peacekeepers’ mission. For Armenians living in Karabakh, however, the perception of Russia has shifted from a “scapegoat” who did not come for help during the war and betrayed them, to a “saviour” in the past months who visit schools, provide humanitarian help, ensure the return of the people to the area and more.
While the opinions vary in the region, what is interesting is that the rest of the world seems not to be bothered or even content with Russia’s peacekeeping mission. The European Union’s (EU) role has long been more frozen than the conflict itself and its stance has been lacking clarity as always. The United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres has welcomed “Russia’s role in achieving armistice”, with such statement carefully limiting the UN’s possible engagement to only providing humanitarian assistance. Yet, the US and France as the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have demonstrated an inexistent role at best and a biased one at worst.
Going forward, the next five years will be challenging as well as determining with regards to how the regional dynamics and power balances will be shaped. On the one hand, peacekeepers’ arbitrariness in Karabakh might push the process into a darker turn. On the other hand, Russian-Turkey monitoring centre to be set up in Aghdam city, shows that Russia does not have all of the leverage in the region. However, the actual ability and effectiveness of the peacekeeper mission to sustain the peace and security will unfold as the Azerbaijani Internally Displaced People will start returning to their villages and the two nations will go back to co-existing together.
Arzu Abbasova is Editor of APRA's Think Tank Team.