Who Won and Who Lost with the War in Karabakh?

2020 / 11 / 24

Shota Utiashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation


The ink had not yet dried on the November 10 peace agreement when a hot debate broke out in expert circles about what the long-term results of the war would be. Who would be the losers and who – the winners?

One part of this question seems quite simple. Armenia was defeated as it gave up seven districts and part of Karabakh proper with the city of Shusha included while Azerbaijan emerged victorious as it received these territories back.

The West was also defeated as it became clear that its influence on the region is minimal. Nominally, the US and France co-chair the Minsk Group (together with Russia), yet their calls for stopping the war had no influence on the developments in the conflict and neither did the agreement signed by the foreign ministers in Washington. France even surpassed the role of mediator, taking an open pro-Armenian position; however, to no avail.

So, we have Turkey and Russia remaining. The majority of experts adhere to the opinion that since the ceasefire agreement was brokered in Russia and it is the Russian peacekeepers who will be stationed in Karabakh through this agreement, Russia is, therefore, the winner and, consequently, Turkey has failed to collect the dividends that it expected.

Russia has two illegal military bases in Georgia, one in Armenia in Gyumri and, with this new agreement, this will be complemented with 2,000 peacekeepers on the territory of Nagorno Karabakh which will allow Russia to manipulate the parties of the conflict more than ever before. On the one hand, Armenia can practically only rely on the Russian military when it comes to protecting the part of Karabakh that it managed to keep. As for Azerbaijan, in his most recent TV interview, President Putin spoke extensively about how Georgia was punished for attacking Russian peacekeepers which was followed by the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (of course, this is Putin’s version of the developments which is quite far from the actual reality, yet it is still interesting as a warning to Aliyev). Turkey is not even mentioned in the ceasefire agreement and it seems that the Turkish military will only be represented with several officers in the monitoring center in the immediate zone of the conflict (it has also been discussed that Turkish military forces may be stationed on the territory of Azerbaijan but this will not change the overall picture).

As for the Russian passive approach during the initial stage of the conflict, some analysts explain this with the desire to punish the reform-minded Prime Minister of Armenia, Pashinyan, while group of experts believe that Russia decided that Armenia is already in its pocket anyway and so it tried to win the favor of Azerbaijan as well. According to this view, Russia’s active approach in the final stages of the conflict in any case outweighed its initial passiveness.

So, Russia won while Turkey lost?

There are at least three factors that put the prominence of this view in question.

First: Turkey’s ally won while Russia’s ally lost. We do not know whether Russia was unwilling to help out its biggest ally in the region, was unable to do so or “betrayed” Armenia for some other gain. The argument that Russia was only obligated to defend Armenia proper and this did not extend to Karabakh seems quite weak given the fact that Russia would have easily found a pretextto help its ally if it decided o do so.

The second argument can be debatable:  we can speculate that the Karabakh conflict will be frozen for a rather prolonged period of time. President Aliyev celebrated victory, admitted Russian peacekeepers to the Armenian part of Karabakh and with this, he unequivocally showed that he is satisfied with the achieved results and his goal is now to consolidate the taken (liberated) territories and not to take (liberate) more territories. Armenia is, of course, very dissatisfied with the results of this war and yet this result precisely reflects the new military balance within the region:  Azerbaijan is stronger than Armenia and the latter has now clearly seen this. Also, Armenia has not lost everything as it managed to maintain a large part of Karabakh proper. If the leaders in Baku and Yerevan have enough foresight, this war could become the beginning of a long-term reconciliation. And if this were the case, Russia’s policy, that has been benefitting from this confrontation, will turn out to be not so efficient.

Third and possibly the main argument:  Russian influence in the post-Soviet area including the Caucasus, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus stood on its monopoly on the right of the use of force. Russia maintained the loyalty of some of these countries (Belarus, Armenia) and prevented the integration of others in NATO (Georgia, Ukraine) by being the only state allowing itself to intervene militarily while restricting the ability of others to do so. Russia intervened militarily in 2008 in Georgia and in 2014-2016 in Ukraine while the West did not dare to stand up to this with military force of its own (supplying a limited amount of weaponry to Georgia and Ukraine cannot change the overall picture). In 2020, after falsified elections and civil disobedience, the West did not dare to actively intervene in the developments in Belarus, one of the reasons also being that it did not have an effective instrument to use in the case of escalation by Russia.

Monopoly on the use of force remains the main (we can go even further to say that it is one of the indispensable ones) instrument of Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space to date.

This monopoly ended during the past few weeks. The Turkish army did not formally get involved in the conflict and yet perhaps Turkish military assistance, Turkish weapons and the training of the Azerbaijani army with Turkish methods (which turned out to be decades ahead of the Russian ones and this, in itself, is very important) decided the fate of the war.

This does not mean that the post-Soviet space has now necessarily become much more peaceful, stable and development-oriented; however, I believe this is a tectonic change whose results will be much more long-term than territorial changes within or around Karabakh.

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