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Armenia and Azerbaijan sign Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire deal brokered by Moscow

The truce was announced on November 9th and aims to end the current round of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone which lasted for more than six weeks. This game-changing agreement, which will bring Russian peacekeepers to the break-away region, has caused protests and political upheaval in Armenia and celebrations in Azerbaijan.

November 20, 2020 - Natalia Konarzewska - Analysis

The remains of an armoured personnel carrier in Nagorno-Karabakh Photo: Ogannes flickr.com

Azerbaijan’s military edge

Despite limited gains in earlier offensives, by late October the Azerbajiani army was able to retake swathes of territory in the south of Nagorno-Karabakh and near the Iranian border. These were previously seized by Armenian forces in the previous Karabakh war in the 1990s and used as a buffer zone. Subsequently, the past two weeks saw Azerbaijani forces make serious advances toward the Lachin corridor, a strategically important supply route connecting Armenia proper with Nagorno-Karabakh. Its possible capture would result in a siege against the separatist enclave.

In the last week of the war, Azerbaijan’s army seemed to focus its efforts on recapturing Shusha (Shushi in Armenian), which was one of Baku’s main goals of this war. Shusha has great strategic importance, as control of the town allows to seize the Lachin corridor and gives possibility to attack Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto capital Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani) located only ten kilometres away. The town also has historical and cultural significance for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Many experts believed that a battle for Shusha would prove to be a tipping point in the war but predicted that it would be long and claim many lives on both sides. The town is naturally difficult to capture due to its location at the top of a mountain.

These predictions, however, did not materialise as Azerbaijan announced on November 8th that it had regained control of the city. The Armenian side quickly debunked this claim and asserted that the battle for Shusha was not over. Despite this, footage showing Azerbaijani soldiers in various locations around Shusha started to emerge soon after this claim. A spokesperson from Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto government then admitted that they had lost control over the city. This was later confirmed by the break-away region’s de facto president Arayik Harutyunyan. It appears that Shusha fell so quickly because Azerbaijani forces broke crucial supply lines. These include the Lachin (Berdzor in Armenian) to Shusha road and a strategic bridge over the Akari River, which allowed Armenia to move supplies and additional soldiers to the city. Harutyunyan explained that the Azerbaijani military’s fast territorial advances to the regions south and the recapture of Shusha, could have allowed Baku to seize Stepanakert and possibly the rest of the Armenian-controlled part of the separatist region, were decisive in Armenian decision to halt military operations.

The fog of war has not yet settled. Though at first glance it seems that Azerbaijan owes its victory to factors such as sophisticated military hardware, tactics and Turkish assistance. Technically advanced weaponry has helped Azerbaijan break Armenian defences and destroy much of their equipment. Azerbaijan gained a tactical advantage by deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) either domestically produced or supplied by Turkey, Israel and Russia, as well as loitering munitions (also called kamikaze drones) and Israeli long-range missiles. Many Russian/Soviet air defence systems in Armenia’s inventory turned out to be ineffective in countering UAVs and loitering munitions.

The innovative tactics used by Azerbaijani forces in their offensive were modelled on NATO commando tactics used in Afghanistan and gave Baku yet another advantage on the battlefield. Azerbaijan used small commando teams to infiltrate, capture strategic positions around the towns and villages and then pass their coordinates to the rocket forces, artillery or UAV operators.

Turkey’s military and diplomatic aid to Azerbaijan also played a big part in the recent hostilities. Turkish arms sales to Azerbaijan increased to six times their previous amount in the first nine months of this year. The military hardware supplied to Azerbaijan includes the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) Bayraktar TB2, which contributed to Baku’s supremacy in the air. Armenian experts believe that a significant part of the losses suffered by the country’s forces were the result of Turkish UAVs. In particular, the Bayraktar TB2 was said to be responsible for destroying multiple Armenian armoured vehicles, tanks and even surface-to-air missile systems. According to experts, Turkey also gave Azerbaijan access to the drone warfare strategy that it had been using in Syria.

During the last summer, Turkey conducted large-scale military exercises with Azerbaijan and left a number of F-16 fighter jets in the country for deterrence purposes. However, Armenia’s Ministry of Defence claims that Turkey used one of these warplanes to shoot down an Armenian Su-25. Ankara vehemently denies these allegations. Turkey’s use of foreign mercenaries in Nagorno-Karabakh has also caused controversy. Ankara and Baku refuted these claims but the presence of Syrian and Libyan mercenaries on the ground was mentioned by French President Emmanuel Macron and the Russian MFA. These groups’ involvement was also independently verified by numerous foreign media outlets. Turkey’s diplomatic assistance, especially in relation to Russia, also proved important for Azerbaijan. In other circumstances, Baku would have been wary to potentially confront Moscow.

A controversial deal

The November 9th ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia took many by surprise. This is despite the fact that news about a possible truce began to emerge the weekend prior. The agreement was preceded by several high-level diplomatic contacts between Ankara and Moscow. There were also other signs that preprations for the armistice were underway before its announcement. For example, at the end of October a small Russian military camp was spotted in southern Armenia, close to the Lachin road. The movement of Russian personnel and equipment in this direction continued over the next few days. This unexpected Russian presence near the Armenia-Nakhchivan border resulted in a tragic incident when Azerbaijani forces accidentally downed a Russian Mi-24 helicopter and killed two servicemen. Moscow also deployed its first 400 peacekeepers suprisingly fast. A few hours following the deal it was announced that Russian troops were departing from Ulyanovsk airport.

The latest ceasefire agreement is game-changing in many respects and, if implemented, will have serious ramifications for Nagorno-Karabakh and the whole region. The deal reflects the military situation on the ground and is a major success for Azerbaijan. Faced with a crushing defeat, Yerevan has been forced to make large territorial concessions. Armenia has to withdraw troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and hand over several regions to Azerbaijan. This includes Kalbajar by November 15th, Aghdam and parts of Gazakh by November 20th, and Lachin by December 1st. At the same time, internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees have a right to return to Karabakh and the surrounding territories under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is particularly important because hundreds of thousands of people – Azerbaijanis and Armenians alike – were driven out of their homes as a result of Karabakh wars.

Additionally, Azerbaijan will keep the territories it has already recaptured, including the city of Shusha. Simultaneously, the deal guarantees the existence of a five-kilometere wide Lachin corridor, which will connect Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia proper. This link will be guarded by Russian peacekeepers. Azerbaijan shall also give guarantees of safe passage for people and goods along the corridor. In total, as a result of war and territorial concessions Armenia has lost control over seven districts that originally belonged to Azerbaijan and about 30 per cent of the occupied territory of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomus Oblast (NKAO), which it had under control since 1990s.

Another major development is Russia’s aforementioned deployment of peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh and the Lachin corridor. The mission has been given a five-year mandate, which will be renewed for another five years as long as there are no objections from Baku or Yerevan. The contingent will involve 1960 troops from the 15th Motorised Rifle Brigade, which is Russia’s designated peacekeeping force. A special peacekeeping centre will also be established to monitor the ceasefire and oversee the activities of the mission.

The November truce also involves the creation of a land corridor through Armenia’s territory. This will link Azerbaijan with its exclave Nakhchivan and will be overseen by Russian border guards. The geopolitical importance of this corridor cannot be overstated, as it will give Azerbaijan direct land access to Nakhchivan and farther to Turkey.

The ceasefire agreement was met with celebrations in Azerbaijan. The jubilant mood, however, was somewhat affected by worries surrounding the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. This sees Moscow’s military deployed to internationally-recognised Azerbaijani territory for the first time since 2012 when Russia stopped renting Gabala Radiolocation Station.

Understandably, the atmosphere in neighbouring Armenia was much worse. Large-scale protests broke out in Yerevan after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced the ceasefire agreement. Many in Armenia saw this as a capitulation or even treason. During the night of November 10th protesters stormed government and parliament buildings. Armenia’s Parliamentary Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan was beaten unconscious by an angry mob. Pashinyan took to Facebook to explain the reasons behind his controversial decision from an unknown location.

Rallies in Yerevan continued throughout November 11th and the following days. The protests were organized by 17 different opposition parties, which called for Pashinyan to step down and denounce the controversial truce. These rallies have been widely seen as an attempt to topple the government by the discredited former establishment, centred on the Republican Party. Police tried to disperse the protesters and detained more than 100 people, which included opposition politicians from the Republican Party and Hayrenik (Fatherland) parties. Other opposition politicians were summoned to the National Security Services (NSS). Days later, the NSS announced that it had prevented an attempted coup and assassination against the prime minister. Those arrested under suspicion of involvement in this plot include the leader of the Hayrenik party and former NSS head Artur Vanetsyan, and the former leader of the Republican Party’s parliamentary group Vahram Baghdasaryan. Ashot Minasyan, the commander of the Sisian Volunteer Detachment and the far-right Adekvat leader Artur Danielyan were also detained. Danielyan, Vanetsyan and Minasyan were later released from custody by the court.

Pashinyan has started to lose support from within his own ”My Step” parliamentary group as a result of his mishandling of the post-ceasefire political crisis. Several MPs, including the head of the Deputy Prime Minister Office Varak Sisserian, have resigned following Pashinyan’s Facebook post on November 15th. In this message, the leader appeared to suggest that frontline Armenian troops should come to Yerevan to deal with the opposition. The post was seen as a call for civil conflict and caused outcry in the social media even tough Pashinyan explained later that his words were misunderstood.

Simultaneously, a string of resignations from the government has started. In the past few days many higg-ranking officials were sacked of resigned themselves, including Miniter of Foreign Affairs Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, Deputy Foreign Minister Shavarsh Kocharyan, Minister of Emergency Situations Felix Tsolakyan and Deputy Minister of Environment Irina Kaplanyan. There might be more resignations to come as the government and ”My Step” bloc have been obviously shaken by a serious political crisis.

Overall, many Armenians were are shocked by the deal and demand accountability from the government. All the more so, the public was unprepared for the grim outcome  because the authorities did not fully reveal information regarding territorial losses and defeats. Pashinyan’s tweet from November 9th, in which he asserted that the battle for Shusha was ongoing even after Armenian forces lost control of the city, was a glaring example of the government’s misguided information policy.

It is hard to imagine that Nikol Pashinyan will stay in power amidst such acute political crisis. The once highly popular leader has lost much of his legitimacy and key political figures in Armenia and diaspora call for his resignation. This is despite the fact that the ceasefire deal prevented Armenia from suffering larger human and territorial losses. Pashinyan’s government is only partly responsible for the country’s lack of preparedness. However, it will be held fully accountable for the defeat.

What does the future hold?

The November 9th ceasefire is a much welcomed development, as it has ended a brutal conflict that claimed thousands of lives and placed a huge toll on both soldiers and civilians. That being said, this deal should not be seen as a comprehensive peace accord. Instead, it is more of an armistice agreement with elements of political settlement roughly based on the OSCE’s ”Madrid Principles”. Unlike the few recent attempts at a ceasefire, which were practically dead on arrival, this one is likely to stand regardless of the political outcome in Armenia. Part of the Russian peacekeeper contingent is already on the ground. This gives Yerevan little to no chance to renounce the agreement.

The ceasefire document contains many uncertanties that potentially threaten the sustainability of the whole deal. The most critical issue is the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh. This has been a bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan for a long time. However, nothing about this topic is mentioned in the agreement. It is also not clear whether the region’s status will be subject to future negotiations. The agreement also talks about unfreezing “all economic and transport links in the region”. Despite this, it is not made clear if this passage refers to only the Lachin corridor and the future land route between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan or all trade and transport links between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The second possibility would be a true milestone for the region, as trade and transportation routes between these countries were blocked as a result of the Karabakh war in 1990s. There are also fears that a profound sense of defeat and loss will now create grievances on the Armenian side. This could further complicate chances for lasting reconciliation.

Urgent desires to end the bloodshed are understandable. However, it must be remembered that the agreement radically changes the reality on the ground. Consequently, it should have involved more detail. It seems now that these crucial issues are being negotiated on an ongoing basis which creates sense of unpredictability and further grievances.

Turkey’s role in the peacekeeping process remains unclear as it is not explicitly mentioned in the agreement. This is despite Anakara’s military and diplomatic engagement in the conflict. Conflicting statements from Azerbaijani, Russian and Turkish officials have cast doubts on the possible role of Turkish troops in peacekeeping efforts.

Both Azerbaijani and Turkish presidents, Ilham Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, asserted that Ankara will take part in peacekeeping operations in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Kremlin denied these claims, stating that Turkey’s involvement on the ground was not discussd before and would need approval from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later clarified that Turkish peacekeepers will not be deployed to Nagorno-Karbakh. Instead, Turkish observers will be present only in the future joint monitoring centre in Azerbaijan. This was discussed in a memorandum agreed by Russia and Turkey on November 11th regarding the establishment of the centre.

The location of the monitoring centre is another uncertain issue as Russia and Turkey have not negotiated the details yet. Reportedly, Turkey wants the centre to be located in Nagorno-Karabakh to establish its military presence here. In an obvious move to put a pressure on Moscow, president Erdogan asked for Turkish parliament’s formal approval to deploy troops to the joint monitoring centre with Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh and received the consent. This issue is far from being resolved as Turkish military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh is unacceptable for Russia but also for Armenia, because of historical grievances, and Turkey’s recent role in hostilities.

Another key emerging issue is the very tight timeframe now facing Armenia as it attempts to dismantle its decades-long presence in the occupied territories adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh. The degree of distrust and hostility between Armenians and Azerbaijanis only complicates this matter further.

The hectic reality on the ground in Kalbajar, the first district scheduled to be handed back to Azerbaijan, shows the difficulties of implementing the armistice deal. Following the ceasefire, local Armenians felt compelled the leave their homes due to fears that the Azerbaijani government cannot ensure the safety of civilians. Evacuation has been very hasty and dramatic. Due to logistical problems and the worsening weather, Azerbaijan agreed to extend the deadline to November 25th following Russian mediation.

Similar doubts have also appeared concerning the status of Armenian cultural and religious artifacts located in the territories scheduled to be given back to Azerbaijan. The imminent loss of one of these important heritage sites – Dadivank Monastery in Kalbajar district – has already sparked fears among Armenians regarding its future. Russian peacekeepers were subsequently deployed to guard the site, perhaps to dispell these worries. Azerbaijan responded with a declaration that it intends to protect Christian religious architecture.

Russia confirmed its position of a successful mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and strengthened its posture in the region by deploying a peacekeeping contingent there in line with its earlier plans. The complete irrelevance of the US and European Union in the conflict and its outcome shows that Russia effectively sidelined the West with Turkey’s help. Moscow has also improved its hand in Armenia by taking actual control over a part of what was left of break-away Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which will allow Russia to position itself as a security guarantor for Karabakh Armenians. The rapid fall in public support for Nikol Pashinyan is another desirable outcome for Moscow, which has long been distrustful towards the Armenian prime minister who came to power as a pro-democratic reformer.

Natalia Konarzewska is a graduate of University of Warsaw, as well as a freelance expert and analyst with a focus on political and economic developments in post-Soviet space.

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