Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 174 and 176
Following its victorious 44-day war (September 27–November 9), Azerbaijan controls approximately one third of the territory of its Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh region. The larger part remains under Armenia’s control via the unrecognized republic of Karabakh, although the territory is universally recognized as being a part of Azerbaijan. The Kremlin-brokered ceasefire of November 9 and its “peacekeeping” intervention have prevented Azerbaijan from regaining this larger part of Upper Karabakh with its administrative center, Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani). The ceasefire stopped the Azerbaijani forces’ seemingly irresistible advance; and the swift insertion of Russian “peacekeeping“ troops has effectively sealed Armenia’s continuing hold onto a rump–Upper Karabakh. Strategically, however, thanks to its intervention, Russia has practically become a suzerain power in this enclave and seems to be laying the foundation for a Russian protectorate.
The November 9 armistice agreement makes no reference to Upper Karabakh’s legal or political status. Azerbaijan’s legal title to sovereignty is not in dispute, but is omitted. De facto, meanwhile, the armistice agreement complicates the situation even further than it already was. Upper Karabakh—hitherto a territorial unit—is now divided between an Azerbaijani-administered part, free from Russian troops (excepting the Lachin corridor—see below) and a larger part under an unrecognized local Armenian administration. The latter is equipped with state structures (including an “army”) but is practically governed from Yerevan; and it is now protected by Russian troops with a Russian civil-affairs presence on the ground (see EDM, November 12, 13).
Without making legal arrangements, Russia has become the security guarantor of this Armenian-inhabited territory of Azerbaijan against reincorporation by the same Azerbaijan. The case is analogous with those of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, which are protected by Russian troops vis-à-vis Georgia and Moldova, respectively. Akin to those cases, Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Upper Karabakh patrol the demarcation line between the enclave and the rest of Azerbaijan (see EDM, November 12, 13).
Unlike those other cases (or that of Ukraine’s Donbas), however, Russia has not dictated this armistice agreement. Rather, it has received Azerbaijan’s consent to the “peacekeeping” operation after serious negotiation and reciprocal give-and-take in the war’s final stage. Azerbaijan’s forces had, at that stage, regained four Armenian-occupied districts adjacent to Karabakh, in Azerbaijan’s interior. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev consented to Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in Upper Karabakh in return for Russian President Vladimir Putin compelling Yerevan to yield three additional Armenian-occupied districts in inner Azerbaijan (Aghdam, Kelbajar, Lachin) back to Baku without further fighting. President Aliyev recounted the essence of this quid pro quo in several post-armistice addresses to the nation (Azertag, November 20, 25, December 1).
The November 9 armistice agreement (Kremlin.ru, November 10) declares a full ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia as “the Sides” (Upper Karabakh’s authorities being unrecognized). It stipulates the stationing of Russian “peacekeeping” troops in the Armenian-controlled part of Karabakh as well as in the Azerbaijani-controlled Lachin corridor (the 20-kilometer-long, 5-kilometer-wide link between Armenia and the Armenian-controlled Karabakh). Thus, the Russian “peacekeepers’ ” areas of responsibility are situated entirely on Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized (also by Russia) sovereign territory.
The Kremlin seems intent on a permanent military presence in Upper Karabakh. The armistice (clause 4) sets the “peacekeeping” mission’s duration at five years initially, to be prolonged automatically at five-year intervals, unless one of “the Sides” (Azerbaijan or Armenia) “declares its intention to cease implementing this clause” with six months’ advance notice. This wording does not provide a basis for Azerbaijan to demand outright the withdrawal of Russian troops in the future. It simply allows one side to make a unilateral statement. Nor does this wording obligate Russia to withdraw its troops, were Azerbaijan unilaterally to “cease implementing.” Moscow could well, in that case, respond by calling for negotiations and procrastinate with impunity (as it has in all the analogous cases—see above). Given that Russian troops are stationed exclusively on Azerbaijani legally recognized territory, Armenia’s inclusion in the clause about the operation’s lifetime is unwarranted and a potential source of Russian mischief.
Russia’s troop contingent is set at 1,960 motorized-rifle troops with light weapons, 90 armored personnel carriers, and 380 motor vehicles (no mention of helicopters) by the armistice agreement. Moscow, however, is augmenting its military and quasi-military presence in Upper Karabakh beyond the armistice agreement’s limitations. Taking charge of humanitarian relief and post-conflict reconstruction in this territory, the Russian government is deploying the personnel of its militarized departments responsible for civilian affairs to Upper Karabakh.
On November 13, President Putin instituted, by decree, an Interdepartmental Center for Humanitarian Response of the Russian government in Upper Karabakh. The Center draws its personnel for the most part from Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations, a fully militarized institution, formerly headed by Russia’s current Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. The Ministry of Defense is, indeed, in charge of the Center’s “organizational matters,” according to Putin’s decree; while Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) also contributes personnel to the Center, as do civilian departments (Kremlin.ru, November 13).
Russia’s Humanitarian Response Center is instructed to work closely with the Russian “peacekeeping” troops. The Center has set up a “camp for long-term basing of Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry’s personnel” outside Stepanakert. It is receiving supplies and additional personnel from Russia, including a new unit of more than 100 de-mining troops from Russia’s defense ministry (TASS, November 22, 23, 24, December 6). Supplies and reinforcements are delivered from Russia to the Yerevan airport and onward, overland, across Azerbaijani territory, to Karabakh. To simplify the logistics, the Russian and Armenian sides consider restoring and upgrading the disused Stepanakert airport.
Russian troops deployed to Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh exceed by far the number stipulated in the November 9 armistice agreement (see EDM, November 12, 13) due to the additional deployment of Russia’s Humanitarian Response Center personnel. This supplementary manpower is drawn mainly from military or militarized institutions—Ministry for Emergency Situations, Ministry of Defense, Federal Security Service (FSB)—the numbers of which have yet to be disclosed (see Part One in EDM, December 8). That personnel, augmenting the “peacekeepers,” has taken charge of civil-administration tasks in Upper Karabakh (post-conflict reconstruction, infrastructure maintenance, distribution of humanitarian assistance).
The “peacekeeping” troops’ commander is a three-star general, Rustam Muradov, with another flag officer (Major General Andrei Volkov) as chief of staff. Such a high-ranking command looks disproportionate to the official number of 1,960 “peacekeepers.” Prior to this mission, Muradov served as Russia’s chief representative on a joint armistice observation center in Ukraine’s Donbas, then as a combat commander of Russian forces in Syria (Hero of Russia award for the victory in Deir ez-Zor). Muradov is a native of Dagestan and an ethnic Tabarasan (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 12).
Although Russia does not officially recognize the Karabakh “republic,” Russia’s “peacekeeping” and “humanitarian-response” missions do cooperate with the de facto authorities (as Russia also does in the unrecognized Transnistria, and did in Abkhazia and South Ossetia long before recognizing them officially). Such cooperation with the de facto authorities is not only well-nigh inevitable for practical considerations but also politically useful, as it helps to entrench the de facto authorities and advance their eventual acceptance on the international level.
The Karabakh “republic’s president,” Haraik Harutiunian, “officially” received Muradov as early as November 13 and then received the department heads of Russia’s emergency situations ministry, Lieutenant General Igor Kutrovsky and Vladimir Solovyov, on November 17. The meetings dealt with cooperation between Karabakh’s authorities and the two Russian missions (Armenpress, November 13, 17, 23). According to Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, “cooperation with Nagorno-Karabakh’s leadership has been established” (TASS, December 4).
Russia’s “peacekeeping” and “humanitarian” missions currently operate in Karabakh de facto, without a legal basis thus far. According to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia is only now “considering the legal implications of the Russian peacekeepers’ area of responsibility” (TASS, December 7). Maps published by Russian military authorities show that area of self-arrogated responsibility covering the entirety of the Armenian-controlled rump-Karabakh (divided into a northern and a southern area of Russian responsibility). It does not currently extend to the Azerbaijani-controlled southern part of Upper Karabakh.
Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation violates at least two cardinal norms established by the United Nations for legitimate peacekeeping operations: requiring a UN or other legitimate international mandate as well as barring troop contributions from neighboring countries or from countries already involved in the conflict at issue. Russia has also breached the consensus of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group and its co-chairmanship (Russia, United States, France), whereby any hypothetical peacekeeping operation in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict theater would have to exclude troops from countries allied to either side, from neighboring countries, or from the co-chairing countries. These exclusions, covering Russia and Turkey first and foremost, held from the Minsk Group’s foundation in 1994 until October–November 2020, at which point Russia proposed and deployed its “peacekeeping” operation, blindsiding the US and French co-chairs as well as the OSCE and the UN.
Russia is not only Armenia’s military-strategic ally but is now also accurately considered the “guarantor of Karabakh’s security.” Russia practically guarantees the Karabakh “republic’s” separate existence, as opposed to its return to Azerbaijan without a “republic’s” status. Above and beyond the local Armenian population’s safety, Russia guarantees the continuation of the “Karabakh republic’s” state structures: its own “president, government, parliament,” complete with the Karabakh Defense Army. Similarly, Russia had protected the proto-states in Abkhazia and South Ossetia while recognizing Georgia’s territorial integrity officially from 1991 through 2008, at which point Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia officially. At present, Moscow continues recognizing Moldova’s territorial integrity officially, even as it operates a Russian protectorate in Transnistria.
Moscow has taken the position all along that its security guarantees for Armenia do not cover Karabakh. This remains Moscow’s official position, but its “peacekeeping” and humanitarian operations have turned Russia into the “Karabakh republic’s” protector, a fact clearly recognized by all parties concerned. While respecting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity officially, Moscow acts to make the restoration of that integrity conditional on negotiation processes that Russia can decisively influence, thanks primarily to its military presence on the ground.
The United Nations looks content, as it has been all along (Tajikistan 1992–1997, Abkhazia and South Ossetia 1992–2008, Transnistria from 1992 to date), not only to tolerate Russia’s breaches of the UN’s own peacekeeping standards but to legitimize them directly or indirectly. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, informed Lavrov by telephone that he “welcomes Russia’s role in achieving the armistice” and that “UN agencies will interact with Azerbaijan, Armenia and with Russia’s peacekeepers to resolve the humanitarian problems” (TASS, December 3). Guterres’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, followed suit, urging “all sides to carry out the armistice stipulations,” and modestly confining the UN’s own role to humanitarian assistance. Guterres plans to dispatch a fact-finding mission “to assess together with Russia” the needs for humanitarian assistance in Karabakh and adjacent districts. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations plans merely to send a humanitarian de-mining mission to Karabakh (TASS, November 23, December 3, 4).
The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations presides over peace-support missions worldwide, excepting the conflict theaters in former Soviet territories. All UN secretaries general and their peacekeeping departments have, from 1992 to date, conceded a Russian peacekeeping monopoly there. Such a monopoly is a basic ingredient to Russia’s sphere-of-influence rebuilding efforts.
Moscow does welcome international organizations to play auxiliary roles alongside Russian “peacekeeping” missions. A symbolic international presence on the ground confers a semblance of legitimacy on Russia’s unilateral operations without influencing them in any way—not even objecting to Russia’s breaches of the UN’s own peacekeeping norms (see above). Russia has successfully used the UN and OSCE in this way in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and it has played cat-and-mouse with the OSCE in Transnistria and in Ukraine’s Donbas.
Russia currently encourages the United States and France, co-chairing countries of the Minsk Group, to associate themselves with Russia’s “peacekeeping” efforts in Karabakh. According to Lavrov, the US and France could usefully participate by mobilizing international humanitarian assistance and contributing to the preservation of historical and religious monuments in the area (TASS, December 7).
Moscow agreed in principle, on November 11, to a limited presence of Turkish unarmed military-technical observers in a Russian-Turkish joint center on the ground “in Azerbaijan.” However, Moscow currently obstructs the negotiations with Ankara regarding the parameters of the joint center. The Russian side apparently attempts to confront Turkey with the alternative options of having a modest Turkish presence or none.
The unrecognized Karabakh “republic’s” state structures (president, parliament, government, army) are not going away but continue to exist and function under Russia’s protection. This situation basically reproduces the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia before 2008, until Russia ended up recognizing them as independent “states.” They were and remain Russian protectorates. The long road to their official recognition included Russian passportization of their residents and inclusion into Russia’s security, economic, logistics, and information spaces (see EDM, June 18, 2014, December 2, 2014, December 7, 2020; see Commentaries, February 5, 2010). According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, Karabakh’s “parliament” is drafting “legislation” to confer “state-language” status on the Russian language alongside Armenian (TASS, December 2).