The 2020 Karabakh war was widely framed as breaking the preceding status quo of 26 years, but assessments of its transformative potential overlook the fact the war resulted in outcomes satisfying only a minority of stakeholders – Turkey and, to a considerable but ambiguous extent, Azerbaijan. Two false narratives have circulated widely which obscure this absence of consensus – that the war ‘ended’ the Karabakh conflict, and that Russia ‘won’ the war.
Two significant post-war dynamics contradict the notion that the Karabakh conflict is now resolved. The first is the widening of the spaces and issues in conflict. Azerbaijan’s restoration of sovereignty over territories it lost in 1990s surfaced the long-submerged issue of border demarcation between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani forces are now deployed across the border to occupy 40-100 square kilometres of Armenia’s territory.
Since no formal border has ever been demarcated, Azerbaijan maintains a ‘plausible deniability’ narrative about these deployments. Their purpose appears to be to compel Armenia to agree to Azerbaijani terms for a wider settlement, which include Armenia’s fulfilment of Article 9 – the final and most transformative clause of the 2020 ceasefire statement.
Article 9 commits both parties to opening borders and transport links, and additionally commits Armenia to guaranteeing safe transit connecting mainland Azerbaijan and its exclave in Nakhichevan. Publicly, Azerbaijan frames this clause as a geopolitical prize allowing Azerbaijani citizens, vehicles, and goods transit using the corridor without customs checks. But this assertion of what is effectively a sovereign right of use leaves the discussion of corridors mired in a competitive understanding of sovereignty.
The second dynamic is the narrowing of active mediation efforts to focus only on issues appearing since the ceasefire. The OSCE’s Minsk Group – mandated to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement – has struggled to reassert itself after being sidelined during the 2020 war.
Rather, the Minsk Group has become by default both the guardian of the most contested and difficult issue of all – the political identity of the Armenian population in Nagorny Karabakh – and the vehicle for this issue’s indefinite deferral to an uncertain future.
Russia is in charge, but not in control
It is instead Russia’s trilateral formats of summits and a working group on infrastructure convened by the vice-prime ministers that now take the diplomatic centre stage but, despite feverish speculation, these did not result in the anticipated agreements to coincide with the end of the war’s first anniversary.
Russia’s diplomatic calendar is haphazardly subject to renewed frontline violence and competitive summitry, asserting a performative diplomacy and Russia’s dominance over other outside actors rather than a substantive diplomacy generating new agreements.
Russia’s intervention to bring the war to a close, and whether that was driven by grand strategy or tactical improvisation, will be keenly debated for years to come but one popular view is Russia won the war by planting ‘boots on the ground’, excluding Euro-Atlantic actors, and securing new sources of leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
An alternative – and less ideological – view is that Turkey’s successful execution with Azerbaijan of a military operation bringing an external actor into the formerly Soviet space presented a shocking challenge to Russia’s assumed monopoly on security provision in former Soviet domains, as well as an ongoing quagmire which will continue to illustrate the limits of Russian power.
Moreover, Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh are present by mutual consent of Armenia and Azerbaijan and so, combined with the absence of a territorial proximity of their area of deployment with Russia, this introduces substantial conditionality to their presence. It is a two-way street when it comes to leverage, particularly in the relationship with Azerbaijan which is decidedly more ambivalent about Russia’s presence.
Russia’s capacity to actually keep the peace is also under constant interrogation and it has on at least two occasions taken the unusual – for this context – step of naming the party violating the ceasefire. But this had little impact in deterring either further violations or the large-scale Azerbaijani offensive witnessed on 16 November. Russia’s presence may deter the outbreak of sustained war, but it is insufficient to deter major offensives, skirmishes, or even civilian executions.
The compromised ceasefire relates to the fact that Azerbaijan can now ‘lean into’ Turkish patronage to resist Russian control. Turkey’s role is crucial because the combination of Russian and Turkish foreign policies have created a system of distinct but interconnected pressure points in the theatres where both powers are involved. Russia’s Karabakh policy – and enforcement capacity – is no longer independent of this wider system.
So, Russia must bear responsibility for a situation which satisfies no-one except possibly Turkey. It is responsible for both mediation and the containment of violence in a context where coercive bargaining has been normalized – and a wider regional context where Russia makes extensive use of coercive bargaining tactics. This is highly concerning when considering the parties’ continuing dissatisfaction with the new status quo.
Societies still mobilized around the conflict
The exposure of Azerbaijani society to the devastated wastelands of territory occupied by Armenian forces in 1992-3 was always going to elicit shock and trauma. And these reactions are then sustained by dozens of landmine casualties, including a reported 29 civilians, since the end of the war, but also a steady investment in enemy imagery, such as a horrific ‘trophy park’ in Baku which featured racialized waxwork caricatures of Armenian soldiers in various poses of distress – thankfully removed after Armenia and Azerbaijan both filed cases with the International Court of Justice relating to claims of racial discrimination.
Despite a decisive victory in 2020, Armenians are still presented to Azerbaijani society as a monolithic mythologized enemy to be dominated, instead of distinct real-world communities needing differentiated Azerbaijani approaches and policies. Mobilization around other ideas or values is meanwhile violently suppressed.
In late 2021 Azerbaijani forces shot dead three Karabakh Armenian civilians, reinforcing Karabakh Armenian fears that Azerbaijan has no other plan but their demographic attrition through intimidation. Azerbaijan also continues to hold an uncertain number of Armenian prisoners whose maltreatment has been attested to by human rights organizations.