Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan has increasingly tested the will and capacity of the Russian peacekeeping mission deployed to the residual territory remaining under Armenian control at the end of the 2020 Karabakh war.
In early March, Azerbaijani forces were observed circling close to Armenian villages with loudspeakers urging the inhabitants to evacuate, and reports of increased ceasefire violations soon followed. On 8 March, a crucial pipeline supplying gas to the Karabakh Armenian population was cut off on Azerbaijani-held territory, leaving residents without heat for two weeks. Although the pipeline was repaired, it was reportedly cut off again, then restored.
Azerbaijani forces then advanced into the area which is ostensibly under Russian peacekeeper control, forcing the evacuation of one Armenian village, taking strategic heights overseeing others, and reportedly using drone strikes to kill three local Armenian servicemen and wound a further 15.
Although the Russian Ministry of Defence stated Azerbaijani forces later withdrew, both Azerbaijani and Armenian sources denied this. France, Russia, and the US – the co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk Group mandated to mediate the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict – all took the rare step of calling out Azerbaijan as the violator of the ceasefire regime.
Azerbaijan has leveraged Article 4 of the 9 November 2020 ceasefire statement, stipulating the withdrawal of Armenian troops, to justify its actions. But although 3,000 troops from Armenia reportedly did leave after the ceasefire agreement, the statement’s wording leaves the status of local Karabakh Armenian forces – the self-styled Nagorno-Karabakh Defence Army – as ambiguous.
Baku sees them as an illegal armed group on its territory, but the local authorities and population see them as essential self-defence. Yet with local Karabakh Armenian units being no match for the Azerbaijani army, it is only Russian peacekeepers that stand between Azerbaijani forces and Karabakh Armenian civilians.
Russia’s invasion is Azerbaijan’s opportunity
If the post-2020 security infrastructure in Karabakh is precarious, the sources of these new tensions also relate to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which created a window of opportunity for Azerbaijan in two critical ways.
First, Russian distraction exposes the weaknesses of the peacekeeping mission in Karabakh, comprising 1,960 servicemen and approximately 2,000 civilian support staff but still lacking a defined mandate or rules of engagement.
This has suited Baku, which is keen to emphasise the temporary nature of Russia’s presence – its relationship with the mission has been fraught, with a rapid turnover of mission heads whose approach to peacekeeping has incurred Baku’s disapproval.
As units from other contested territories, such as South Ossetia, have now reportedly been reassigned to Ukraine, there has been – unsubstantiated – speculation that Russian units from Karabakh might follow. Mounting criticism of the Russian peacekeeping mission in the Azerbaijani press adds to this pressure.
Second, the international reaction to Russia’s invasion offers a golden opportunity to rhetorically homogenize the various post-Soviet conflicts and the legitimacy of their various actors’ claims. With Europe and the US mobilized as never before around Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the illegitimacy of occupation, arguments over the nuances and variable pathways of Eurasia’s conflicts are easily swept aside.
The scholarship on breakaway territories and de facto states has painstakingly identified differences between the numerous unrecognized entities in Eurasia and their paths of creation, but the war in Ukraine now enables their universal depiction as duplicates of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics – both widely rejected as the Kremlin’s manufactured creations.
In the heat of battle, consensus on Ukrainian territorial integrity trumps historical rigour, care with causality, and justified concern over the human rights of any population locked behind a contested border.
Western mobilization for Ukraine is also a bitter reminder for Baku that no such consensus has ever emerged on Azerbaijan’s own territorial integrity. After the mass ethnic cleansing of several provinces by Armenian forces in the 1990s, this added insult to injury.
Ambivalence towards Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity is widely framed by Azerbaijani analysts as evidence of islamophobia and orientalism. But neither tendency was much in evidence in the tepid international reactions to Azerbaijan’s September 2020 offensive in Nagorny Karabakh, which since 24 February has been bitterly contrasted in Armenia with international mobilization for Ukraine.
While degrees of islamophobia and orientalism are also likely present in certain external perspectives on Azerbaijan, international ambivalence over Nagorny Karabakh relates to rather dim prospects of there being alternative scenarios to more ethnic cleansing – this time of the Karabakh Armenian population – as a final ‘resolution’ of the conflict.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has always been characterized by recursive, reciprocal rounds of ethnic cleansing leaving the two national communities totally segregated. A popular Azerbaijani narrative after the 2020 war claimed that Baku had ended this heinous tradition, but this is false. No Armenians remain in territories reclaimed by Azerbaijan in 2020.
Russia’s declining security offer
With its peacekeeping architecture dependant on the reputation of Russian security guarantees, the post-2020 situation in Nagorny Karabakh has now been recast by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moscow’s engagement in a draining – and indefensible – conquest of Ukraine gives Azerbaijan both the operational scope and normative cover to test the Russian presence within its borders. This presence is the most obvious and resented symbol of Azerbaijan’s truncated victory in 2020.