Deal envisions effective steps that will hopefully bring a complete end to the conflict
- Araz Aslanli
A critical 44 days are left behind, not only critical with respect to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but also critical as it is related to the fate of Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Transcaucasia at large, and maybe even the entire world due to Turkish-Russian relations potentially transitioning to a whole new level. The last 44 hours of these 44 critical days, and the very last four hours even, led to equally thrilling developments, as well as some serious surprises for certain people.
If we are to summarize the process; the war that (re)started between Armenia and Azerbaijan on Sept. 27, 2020 became one of the main issues on the world agenda due to the likelihoods of Russia and Turkey becoming involved, the energy projects in the region being targeted, major humanitarian crises occurring, and others.
There had been close combat between the two countries on several occasions in recent years, and the international public was used to seeing short-term conflicts in the region. However, the developments that took place during the conflicts in July 2020 and in the following period (such as Russia arming Armenia comprehensively and the support given to Azerbaijan by Turkey) were signaling that Azerbaijan would not remain as calm as before against Armenia’s provocations and that the war could be more extensive and last longer this time around.
Certain states and international organizations called for a cease-fire following the restart of the war on Sept. 27 with destructive effects. Agreements were reached on a ceasefire under the mediation of Russia, France and the USA on three different occasions (on Oct. 10, 17 and 26). However, the combat never ended. The discourse and policy of Armenia on launching “new attacks for the occupation of more territories” and its targeting civilian settlements far from the conflict zone as well as Azerbaijan’s insistence on the implementation of the decisions taken by international organizations on the problem (especially the four United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions that had been passed on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) and on liberating its own lands from Armenian occupation suggested that the likelihood of the parties coming to an agreement was weak, and instead, the possibility of the conflict ending in the victory of one of the parties was much higher.
Details of the Peace Deal
The war continued with the military and psychological dominance of Azerbaijan, who is rightful and confident, and now stronger and more decisive, but also feeling the balancing power of Turkey as needed. In the last two days, with the liberation of Shusha from the occupation of Armenia (which is considered one of the key points in the heart of the problem - and, to some, the most important point - while also carrying a special symbolic meaning), and the Azerbaijani army coming within a few kilometers of Khankendi, the fate of the war was now in clear sight.
While everyone in Azerbaijan was celebrating the State Flag Day on Nov. 9, one of the national holidays, and waiting for the war to soon come to an end with the full military defeat of Armenia, a series of interesting developments took place starting that evening. Firstly, a Russian helicopter was downed by a missile fired from Azerbaijan on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Then, news surfaced on the social media about Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signing a “peace agreement under severe conditions”. There was also the claim that two large missiles had been launched by Armenia to hit Baku and the missiles were intercepted over Baku, which was followed by the signing of the Peace Deal, which itself included serious surprises.
The first point to be highlighted about the Peace Deal, the details of which have now been covered in the media, is that this is not an agreement, but a general accord reached to end the armed conflict.
The most important difference between this peace deal and the other previous “accords” reached following the resumption of the war on Sept. 27 is the claim that it started a process which envisions effective steps that will completely stop the war (allowing peacekeepers to be stationed in the region immediately) and bring a complete end to the problem, and therefore that this peace deal is not just a simple ceasefire agreement.
The Peace Deal affirming the clear psychological superiority of Azerbaijan and the complete defeat of Armenia, while sparking celebrations in Azerbaijan, was met with very negative reactions in Armenia. One of the most important victories of Azerbaijan is that its insistent request from Armenia to present a schedule regarding its withdrawal from the occupied territories since the beginning has been met with a declaration now. If this comes true, parts of Kelbajar, Lachin and Aghdam that were still under Armenian occupation will be rescued without a battle. Although the preservation of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is now expected with considerable certainty, it is not possible to absolutely guarantee that the unitary structure of Azerbaijan will not be disrupted (that is, no autonomy or significant status will be given to the Armenian population within the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region), as the said deal does not contain technical details. However, the optimism on this issue is strengthened by the fact that there is no provision regarding this in the declaration and that the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is insisting that “no status will be accorded”, which also a number of other involved senior officials state.
On the other hand, due to the historical role played by Russia in the region, the Russian army moving into the region as a peacekeeping force is a cause for resentment and concern amidst the victory celebrations in the sight of those who consider this victory as the fulfillment of a longing that lasted for 27 years and as the realization of an important goal. Although the establishment of a land connection (right of transportation) between the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan and the mainland through Armenia (under the control of Russia) is mentioned as an important victory, given the details we have for the time being, this does not seem to offer any additional benefits over the current connection that passes through Iran. But of course, there may be more favorable details in the upcoming agreement.
What may indeed be assessed as a positive development is that, Azerbaijan stated during the war that it had changed the terms, the status-quo and the cease-fire line (line of contact), and all of these are mentioned in the signed deal.
A total defeat for Armenia
On the other hand, it is possible to consider this deal an absolute defeat for Armenia, who has, over the years, repeatedly acted on its discourse of “new war to occupy new lands” and “the war will end in Baku if it starts again”. This defeat is a source of internal instability, but also a means of escaping “extinction” for Armenia. The internal turmoil in the country that surfaced following the signing of the peace deal as well as the plans that certain foreign countries have regarding Armenia suggest that this country might witness some serious, chaotic events in the near future. Although Pashinyan tried to manage the situation by accusing the opposition of not giving the necessary support to the war and by arresting the leaders of the groups who objected to the war, it is highly likely that he will have no place in the future of Armenia. In contrast, it is improbable that the groups close to Russia will get the support they once received from the public, either.
Without a very effective external intervention in the ongoing processes in Armenia (such as the armed attack in 1998 that resulted in Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s resignation or the attack in 1999 in the Armenian Parliament leading to the deaths of 10 people including the prime minister and the speaker of the Parliament), it is likely that the impact Ter-Petrosyan or a similar politician has on the country will increase. Although Russia wants to strengthen its image as the “last-minute savior” of Armenia, it can be expected that other countries, especially France and the US (and probably Iran as well) will increase their propaganda efforts in the opposite direction (that cooperation with Russia was not enough to prevent the total defeat), and that these efforts will create some serious consequences.
Although it was the losing party, Armenia had the opportunity to question itself. It will either revert to its old aggressive policies, pursue policies that escalate bilateral and regional tensions, including territorial claims against its neighbors, or take part in building a common regional future by questioning itself and its policies. The second option is probably the desired one for a considerable number of external powers. In this context, if Armenia increases its aggressive policies, its relations will worsen with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and even, probably, Georgia. However, if it questions itself and its policies and aims toward creating conciliatory policies instead, both Armenia and all its neighboring countries will benefit from that, and the losers will be those who devise schemes in the region over Armenia.
Turkey is an actor who determines the results
One of the most important results of the process is that Turkey and Russia have begun to strengthen particularly their military positions in Transcaucasia in general. Turkey having a say in the processes taking place in the Transcaucasia while also being of the countries that determine the end results as a NATO country stems from its increasing power and executing a successful balance policy. Russia, on the other hand, is happy to be strengthening its favorite status as “the country that has the last word”, and it does its best to have this result all the time.
The return of Russia to Azerbaijani lands is of great symbolic and strategic importance for this country. Azerbaijan removed the Russian army from the country to a great extent in 1992-1993 and refused its return, despite very severe pressures. In fact, following the difficult period in 2012-2013, the term of the Gabala Radar Station, which was the only military base of Russia left in Azerbaijan, was not extended.
When we compare the deal with the 1994 ceasefire agreement, the arrival of peacekeepers in the region this time can largely ensure the cessation of armed conflict in the region. Turkey and Russia actively participating in this peacekeeping force will improve the odds that this problem will be solved in a fair manner. On the other hand, if the regional and global balances change for the worse, there is a possibility that the problem will take longer to resolve or become chronic again.
Another change was related to the mediators. The work of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs (Minsk Group co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who have been playing a mediating role for years) was rightly criticized and it was stated that these co-chairs should be replaced. It has recently been seen that especially the active stances of Russia and Turkey were of critical importance. Likely, these two countries will continue to be the most important countries regarding the destiny of this conflict in the following period as well.
Generally speaking, the process and the Peace Deal resulted in victories of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia, while weakening the positions of Armenia, France and the US. At the following stage, the important thing for Azerbaijan is to make sure that these results are reflected in the peace agreement, and to solve the problem in peaceful ways once and for all within the next five years at the latest, so that it will not need the intervention of an external peace force inside its borders again.
[ Araz Aslanli, the head of the Academy of the State Customs Committee of Azerbaijan, is also the president of the Caucasian Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (QAFSAM) ]