The second Karabakh war, which began on September 27, 2020, ended this week, with Armenia soundly defeated and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan forced to accept the ceasefire demands made by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The accord to end the war was signed by Pashinyan, Aliyev and President Vladimir Putin on November 9. Both sides agreed to a timetable for Armenia’s withdrawal from what it has called its “security buffer zone” around Karabakh. By November 15, all Armenian forces must be out of Azerbaijan’s Kalbajar District; by November 20, from parts of the Agdam and Gazakh districts; and by December 1, from the Lachin District. All the other previously occupied lands of the “security buffer zone” were liberated by Azerbaijani forces over the past month and a half of fighting. Some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers will move into Karabakh to guarantee the ceasefire, supervise the execution of the trilateral agreement and to assert control over the so-called “Lachin corridor”—a highway from Armenia to Karabakh, through the city of Lachin. The return of refugees to Karabakh and the formerly occupied surrounding districts will be supervised by the United Nations. Moreover, a land corridor through Armenian territory will be established from the Azerbaijani exclave bordering Turkey—the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic—to mainland Azerbaijan. The transit of goods and people from Nakhchivan to mainland Azerbaijan will be supervised by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) Border Guards (Interfax, November 10).
Azerbaijani forces defeated the Armenians by breaking through in the southern section of the front and performing a slow, but steady deep flanking maneuver in the Aras River valley, north of the Iranian border. After reaching the state border of the Republic of Armenia, Azerbaijan’s military turned north, moving into the Karabakh mountains, bypassing the main Armenian defense fortifications and forcing the enemy to fight out in the open. Relatively small Azerbaijani mobile groups of crack infantry with light armor and some Israeli-modernized tanks were supported by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 attack drones, Israeli-produced loitering munitions, and long-range artillery and missiles. Their targeting information was supplied by Israeli- and Turkish-made drones, which also provided the Azerbaijani military command with a real-time, accurate picture of the constantly changing battlefield situation. Meanwhile, the Armenian forces were left baffled. Azerbaijan’s move to attack Lachin was stopped in the gorge, south of the city; but another column marched from the Karabakh town of Hadrut to the region’s ancient capital—the mountain fortress city of Shusha (Shushi in Armenian). On November 8, Aliyev announced, “Shusha is ours! Karabakh is ours!” By capturing Shusha, the Azerbaijani forces intercepted the main supply road from Lachin to the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani). This readied Azerbaijan to next attack the main Armenian defense forces from their unguarded rear. The Armenian solders were demoralized by the enemy’s constant precision strikes, which knocked out their command posts, artillery and anti-aircraft assets. Up until this week’s ceasefire, the Armenian war effort was critically faltering, its defenses crumbling (Novaya Gazeta, November 9; see EDM, October 8, 19, 29, November 3).
According to Pashinyan, up to 25,000 Armenian solders manning the main defense position east of Stepanakert could have been surrounded and eventually forced to surrender. To save them, Pashinyan says, he was forced to give up the entire “security buffer zone,” Shusha and other parts of Karabakh already occupied by the advancing Azerbaijanis (Armeniasputnik.am, November 12). The loss has triggered angry demonstrations in Yerevan, with the opposition calling Pashinyan a “traitor” and demanding his resignation. But both the Armenian opposition and Pashinyan’s supporters hope the Russian peacekeepers will help keep the Azerbaijanis out of the leftover rump of Artsakh (Armenian name for Karabakh) and keep it Armenian (Komsomolskaya Pravda, November 12).
The Russian military had planned to deploy peacekeepers to Karabakh as early as 1994, when Moscow brokered the ceasefire that ended the first Karabakh war. Now it is finally seeing its wish become a reality. Neighboring Georgia has permitted Russia to fly transport jets through its airspace to deliver peacekeepers and equipment to Armenia for deployment to Karabakh. In addition to the troops, this will include some 90 armored personnel carriers, 8 helicopters and other equipment from the 15th Motor-Rifle Brigade (Ulyanovsk), which will take up positions in the Lachin corridor. Putin signed an ukaz ordering the deployment of peacekeepers to Karabakh and FSB border guards to the Nakhchivan transport corridor. The deployment will be financed by the Russian budget, and troop rotations will happen twice a year. The Russian peacekeepers are deploying for five years, with the possibility to prolong the mission for five more with the consent of Armenia and Azerbaijan (Interfax, November 12).
The long-term survival of postwar rump “Artsakh” and its Armenian population under Russian peacekeeper protection is unclear, but the overall result of the autumn 2020 hostilities seems to be in Moscow’s long-term interest: Armenia has been weakened by its defeat, its army is in tatters, and it will need Russia both to rebuild its military and to guarantee the survival of the rump “Artsakh” and of Armenia itself. Pashinyan, whom Putin does not like or trust, has been seriously weakened and may be ousted. Azerbaijan has been equally weakened by victory: repopulating the reclaimed territories and developing the shattered infrastructure there will require years and lots of money. Aliyev needs Moscow to ensure full Armenian compliance with the terms of the November 10 agreement. The Kremlin may believe its long-term strategic aim of making both Armenia and Azerbaijan Russian vassals is now achievable. The only potential stumbling block is Turkey, which supported Azerbaijan’s war effort both politically and militarily. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced Turkey will participate together with Russia in the Karabakh peacekeeping operation. The initial Russian reaction was a nervous denial. Moscow and Ankara have agreed to establish a joint Russo-Turkish peacekeeping observation center, but Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists this center will be placed “outside of Nagorno-Karabakh” and the Turkish personnel will “observe remotely, using drones” (TASS, November 12). At the same time, the Armenian defense ministry has announced that “Russian and Armenian forces have established a no-fly zone, including to drones over Karabakh” (Militarynews.ru, November 12). Of course, neither Armenia nor Russia currently have any assets on the ground that would stop Azerbaijani (Turkish) drone overflights of Karabakh; but this announcement may be an indication of trouble ahead.
For now, the war is over. Establishing a ceasefire was relatively easy, since both Azerbaijan and Armenia need peace. But figuring out a regional equilibrium with Erdoğan could prove much more complicated.