Russia and the West Still Need Each Other in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Anna OhanyanAnna Ohanyan is a nonresident senior scholar in the Russia and Eurasia Program.

https://carnegieendowment.org-Source: Getty

Summary:  The pact Russia brokered in Nagorno-Karabakh has plenty of holes. Yet while their relations with the Kremlin remain tense, Western powers are better equipped to patch up the agreement’s shortcomings than Russia is, and they have strong reasons for trying to do so.

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The Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia has jarringly and abruptly redrawn the map of the South Caucasus after six weeks of fierce fighting and bloodshed. However, unless the post-war conditions created by the agreement are bolstered by a robust multilateral and multilayered peace process, they bode poorly for prospects of a sustainable peace.

Nagorno-Karabakh is not the only lingering, inconclusive conflict of its kind. Since World War II, there has been a steady decline in the number of conflicts that have ended in complete military victory by one side. The majority of armed conflicts and civil wars have remained unresolved in a state of limbo somewhere between full-on war and cold peace. Conflicts that end in negotiated settlements—the third, most desirable conflict outcome—have also been prevalent during this period, but the majority of such peace agreements have collapsed within three to five years.

Although the guns have now fallen silent in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it is still far from clear which of these three categories the enclave’s conflict will resemble in the near and medium term. Yet for all the agreement’s holes and Western powers’ fraught relations with Moscow, international organizations, NGOs, and other civil society actors may hold the key to mitigating the conflict’s more persistent remaining challenges.

The Agreement and the Post-War Conditions It Has Created

The post-war conditions that agreements create are crucial to understanding fragile peace agreements and the work that is necessary for truly durable settlements. Social science data shows that conflicts ending in outright victories on the battlefield often nourish and deepen authoritarianism in the victorious state and increase the likelihood that war will recur. Conflicts ending in negotiated settlements on average have more durable and sustainable outcomes. And the evidence is overwhelming that negotiated settlements are more likely to emerge when peace processes are representative and inclusive of all parties to a conflict. Such settlements tend to emerge when women are at the table, when civil society groups are consulted, and when peace processes are institutionalized. All too often, peace brokers fall short of these goals.

As many have observed, the November 2020 agreement Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia reached was not truly negotiated, and it does not currently represent a durable settlement. Effective peace agreements create mechanisms for regulating combatants’ incompatible goals. But the Nagorno-Karabakh agreement effectively translates Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s military victories on the battlefield into a new status quo, imposing painful Armenian concessions. The agreement does not even mention the central bone of contention between Azerbaijan and Armenia: the status of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh (which shrank considerably as a result of the war) and its Armenian population. Azerbaijan’s strongman leader Ilham Aliyev has gloated publicly about this omission on multiple occasions. The lack of political status for Nagorno-Karabakh is a blow to the self-governing institutions of the entity, creating uncertainties and insecurities for its Armenian population. The return of Azerbaijanis into Nagorno-Karabakh, as stipulated in the agreement, without recognition of the need for the political status for the entity to be addressed, will create impossible conditions for communal coexistence that the agreement seems to expect.

Effective peace agreements also address the security needs of affected communities, but the Nagorno-Karabakh agreement leaves many such concerns untouched. The deployment of the Russian peacekeeping troops to the conflict zone has stopped the immediate bloodshed—a significant accomplishment in its own right. However, the agreement itself says little about major issues like the safe return of refugees, humanitarian concerns, the long-term presence and security of the Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh, or the protection of cultural heritage sites in ceded territories. In terms of security guarantees, the explicit five-year term for Russian peacekeepers in Armenian territories is either a sword of Damocles for displaced Armenian civilians, or a political window to establish a more durable peace.

The unpredictability of the present agreement remains a formidable challenge. Peace researchers often gauge peace agreements’ certainty, explicitness, and predictability when evaluating their underlying quality. On these measures, the current agreement and its implementation under Russian sponsorship has been disheartening so far. The vague, cryptic text has introduced both short-term and long-term unpredictability. It leaves many unresolved and lingering questions, including both immediate ones regarding security for refugees and returnees to Nagorno-Karabakh and more long-term issues on the administration of so-called transit corridors—such as the one connecting Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan exclave with Azerbaijan proper.

Other political factors will challenge the peace process emerging from this document moving forward. Authoritarianism inside Azerbaijan remains a serious roadblock. Any full and final settlement of the conflict would likely open domestic political space for opposition forces in Azerbaijan, a development contrary to the interests of the Aliyev regime. Unresolved conflicts heighten security considerations inside states; they often lead to centralization of power and create diversions from domestic problems. The resolution of the conflict, a net gain for the Azerbaijani and Armenian people, is a loss for Aliyev’s political fortunes of regime survival. Indeed, Aliyev has incentives to potentially sabotage any emergent peace process that may follow from the thin agreement currently on paper. He already boasted about the effectiveness and legitimacy of a militarized political outcome, precluding the possibility for any status of Nagorno-Karabakh other than as Azerbaijani territory. He will likely continue to use the unresolved conflict for domestic political purposes.

What Russia and the West Each Bring to the Negotiation Table

Yet the conflict’s lingering uncertainties and problems are ones that Russian and Turkish powerbrokers may not be best equipped to handle. Being a product of what appears to be essentially a post-war geopolitical bargain between Turkey and Russia, the Nagorno-Karabakh agreement is also organizationally bare, and remarkably so. This is significant because many of the lingering challenges on the ground are ones that Western powers have had more historical experience and success in addressing or at least mitigating. The role of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group—the decades-old forum for resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, a group that includes the United States, France, and Russia—remains important. This structure is necessary for building a political process to translate the agreement into a more enduring settlement. But the shape such involvement may take is still up in the air.

This is important because only deep and dense institutions in a conflict zone have historically crafted the political predictability needed for any potential dividends from this sort of peace agreement to emerge. For example, the agreement states the return of refugees and returnees to Nagorno-Karabakh and its adjacent territories will take place under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the only international organization mentioned in the document.

If implemented as stated, this would be the first time Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh will live together since the end of the enclave’s first war in 1994. Issues of housing, property, human rights, intercommunal coexistence, economic development, and returnee/refugee reintegration loom large. These are only some of the questions in Nagorno-Karabakh that resemble similar challenges of post-war reconstruction faced in other analogous contexts like post-war Kosovo as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In both cases, largely due to the central role played by the Western powers in ending the wars, international organizations, NGOs, and bilateral donors were active in post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. While posing their own set of challenges, these vast networks of organizations stabilized the affected communities for administrative structures of the state, recognized or not, to take root. In both cases, administratively complex international presence and transitional administration were needed to translate the fragile, cold peace on the ground into a sustainable resolution.

With the present document, however, the Kremlin has shown its historic capacity to stop the bleeding without treating the wound. Nevertheless, its central role to short-term security with this agreement offers a much-needed window for political negotiations to commence. In this process, the presence of international development agencies and NGOs will be necessary to supplement the administrative structures of authorities in the de facto state of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Now that the ceasefire agreement, warts and all, has been signed, many voices are calling for the reinsertion of the Minsk Group into any subsequent negotiation process. This will be a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for subsequent talks to produce a more sustainable settlement. Despite the shared rhetoric in Russia, France, and the United States for the subsequent peace process to unfold within the Minsk Group, it remains unclear whether there is either financial or political capital for deeper Western involvement. Reinvigorated multilateral diplomacy within the Minsk Group would need to be supplemented with equally involved post-war reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts.

Despite these uncertainties, both the West and Russia have a lot to gain from deeper diplomatic cooperation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s relations with the West have been in a steady decline over the past two decades. For the agreement to hold, Nagorno-Karabakh will need to see continued cooperation from the Minsk Group and the international and regional organizations equipped to address the agreement’s limitations. Such cooperation is absolutely necessary but also would be unprecedented. If cooperation were to take root, Russia would stand to gain much needed credibility for its role as a peacekeeper and a peacemaker. The West would obtain a real chance at solving this conflict, which otherwise would remain a vehicle for authoritarian consolidation in the region.

The Regional and Global Stakes of Nagorno-Karabakh

From a global perspective, the seeming golden age of liberal peacebuilding has taken a blow in the increasingly multipolar and post-American hegemonic world order. Ultimately, the West wants to prevent Russia’s brand of resolving regional conflict through sideroom geopolitical deals from supplanting a post–Cold War tradition of liberal peacebuilding based on deliberative and participatory conflict resolution. Counterintuitively, to move forward in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Western powers in the Minsk Group may need to pursue complementary avenues of peacebuilding that call on international organizations and NGOs to work alongside illiberal powers with their own agendas.

Unresolved conflicts are tactical front lines for authoritarian resurgence and autocratic survival. Moving toward a sustainable settlement of this conflict would improve the conditions for democratic consolidation both in Georgia and Armenia, while protecting the democratic institutions in Nagorno-Karabakh, an unrecognized political entity. For the Western powers to prevent further democratic erosion worldwide, supporting democratic clusters as they emerge regionally remains an unappreciated policy response.

Before this war, the previously fragile Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan was contending with a backdrop of protests against the embattled autocratic leader of nearby Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. By emerging victorious domestically, Aliyev likely has now consolidated his power for years to come. Deeper authoritarianism in Azerbaijan, and the explicit military presence of two external authoritarian players in the region (Russia and Turkey), has drastically altered the prospects of democratic consolidation for the nascent democracies in Georgia and Armenia. Historically, democratic breakthroughs and consolidation are more likely in regions with stronger democratic poles. In this case, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh may already have strained an emergent Armenian democracy that dates back to the 2018 Velvet Revolution, to the benefit of not only Aliyev but also Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In pushing back against a resurgent Russia and an aggressive Turkey in this region, the West would begin with an understanding of how these powers habitually employ regional fracture to maintain an edge in their neighborhoods. Whether in the Middle East, North Africa, or (now) the South Caucasus, both powers have enabled and prolonged ongoing conflicts and supported dictators. The current Nagorno-Karabakh agreement, if unaccompanied by a rigorous political process, promises to transform the proxy war over the enclave into an equally devastating brand of proxy politics for years to come. This would leave little room for regionwide institutional connectivity from which a sustainable peace settlement could emerge.

Rethinking Peacemaking in a Multipolar World

Despite the shortcomings of the existing Nagorno-Karabakh agreement, the West has few alternatives to engaging with Russia on the peace Moscow has brokered. The temporary five-year Russian peacekeeping provision in Nagorno-Karabakh does reflect the deeper retrenchment of Russia in the region. But it also offers a political window to revive a negotiation process, one with a much stronger and more institutionalized presence of international organizations in post-war deliberation and reconstruction.

The uncertainty, insecurity, and unpredictability of the present agreement have already introduced overwhelming stressors to Armenia’s nascent democratic institutions. A deliberative and internationally supported peace process, drawing from myriad other cases of post-war reconstruction, is needed to address the humanitarian challenges of affected communities.

But such a peace process is also needed to transform the complex yet cryptic agreement into a durable settlement for the region. A multilayered and a multilateral peace process could yield long-term peace dividends in the form of unblocking closed borders and moving the South Caucasus toward greater regional connectivity. Institutional, political, and financial support from international organizations and Western governments, especially the Minsk Group co-chairs of the United States and France, is a critical step in that regard.

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