Staunton, November 10 – Like the blind men and the elephant, both the direct participants and outside observers of the accord between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia to end the current round of fighting over the Armenian-occupied portions of Azerbaijan have fastened on those provisions of this accord they consider most important and ignored most of the others.
This has allowed them to proclaim winners or losers. But in doing so, they have neglected three obvious points. First, as more cautious observers are pointing out, the accord was a declaration of intent rather than some legally binding peace agreement (ridl.io/ru/nagornyj-karabah-pobediteli-i-pobezhdennye/).
Second, like most steps forward in a complicated situation involving multiple participants with conflicting interests, the declaration even if it is fully implemented gives something for everyone and at the same time costs each some of what it wants. Assigning victory or defeat to any side reflects an underlying assessment of which of these provisions are the most important.
And third, as has already become clear, not everyone reads the declaration or the intentions behind it in the same way. Azerbaijan and Turkey say it opens the way to the presence of Turkish peacekeeping forces in the region, a claim that Moscow has argued is not the case and something it won’t permit.
All this means that the declaration which appears to have stopped the fighting is both less and more than many have suggested, less because this is not a peace but rather an extended ceasefire or armistice that doesn’t address all the key issues and more because it reflects a significant change in the balance of power in the south Caucasus.
On the one hand, this accord would not have happened except for the victory of Azerbaijani arms in the field, the more active moves of Turkey, and Russia’s decision not to support its traditional client Armenia, a refusal that has likely alienated Armenians from Russia for a long time to come.
And on the other, it shows that Russia is no longer the exclusive paramount power in the region that it once was, that Turkey is now a far more serious player in that region, and that Azerbaijan is strong enough to insist on its own position, although Baku is conscious that it must not overplay its hand lest it prompt either Russia or the West to change their positions.
It thus may be useful to consider in brief compass what each of the four most directly involved participants have gained and lost, because each side is experiencing both, and then consider how other countries are likely to be affected by the arrangements this joint declaration of the three have put in place (rbc.ru/politics/10/11/2020/5faa0bfb9a79472d1159c5e8). Armenia in the opinion of most including its own population has been the big loser. It has lost on the battlefield, it has been betrayed by Russia, and it has made to make concessions in Zengezur for a transit corridor between Azerbaijan proper and Nakchivan that outrage many Armenians.
But Armenia with this accord avoided two outcomes that would have had even more negative consequences for Yerevan. On the one hand, it avoided the loss of its army in the field, something Azerbaijani forces were close to achieving after the fall of Shusha. And on the other, it avoided what would have likely been a massive influx of Armenian refugees from the east.
Had it lost its army, Yerevan would not have been able to resist further demands not only from Azerbaijan but from Turkey; and had it faced a massive flow of Armenian resettlers from the formerly occupied territories, it would have been confronted with a humanitarian disaster beyond its capacity to overcome.
Azerbaijan too, while its government and people are celebrating victory, both won and lost something. It won recognition of its military advance within its internationally recognized borders, it cost Armenia its Russian support, and it gained what may be the most important prize of all – a corridor across the Zengezur region of Armenia.
That will help Baku both integrate Nakchivan with Azerbaijan proper, changing the dynamics in Baku where much of the leadership traces its origins to that non-contiguous exclave, and open the way for expanded Turkish involvement both in Nakchivan and in Azerbaijan and the Turkic states beyond.
But Azerbaijan lost something as well. It was very close to achieving its ends by military means and was compelled to stop. Had this agreement not happened, Baku would have been able within days or weeks have succeeded in recovering Karabakh from Armenian occupation without having to make other concessions and that would have left Armenia further weakened.
Russia and Turkey both had mixed results as well, even though Moscow is celebrating this accord as a Russian triumph and even though Ankara views what has happened as opening the way for a further expansion of Turkish influence and even the creation of an Ankara-led pan-Turkic world.
Russia showed itself capable of organizing the talks when other Minsk Group co-chairs were not doing anything significant, it has succeeded in getting approval in Baku and Yerevan for the placement of Russian peacekeepers in the region for five years, and it has reinforced the view that in the post-Soviet space, Russia is the chief power to be reckoned with.
But Russia has lost big as well. It has lost Armenians for at least a generation, and Armenia will not continue to move away from Moscow, seeking support from somewhere else, possibly France and more likely Iran. It has been forced to accept the Azerbaijan advance which it couldn’t stop. And the decline of its power in the region is painfully obvious.
Turkey has played a bigger role than at any point in a century, but the limits of its power at least for now have been clearly indicated by the fact that the accord was reached without its participation and the additional fact that Moscow won’t allow it to send peacekeepers even though it will be in the monitoring center.
Three more distant players if one can call them that are also facing a mixed picture. Iran now faces domestic problems because its Azerbaijani population is likely to be energized by Baku’s win, but it will likely compensate for this problem by expanding its influence in Yerevan which desperately needs a new outside supporter.
France, as a metonym for the EU, did not play the role it has aspired to and thus looks weaker, but at the same time it did welcome the end of the fighting and the salvation of the Armenian army whose destruction would have put France and more generally the West in a difficult position.
And much the same thing can be said about the US. It didn’t play the role it hoped for and thus looks less important in the region than at any point since 1991 but at the same time, given the enhanced positions of Azerbaijan and Turkey and Armenia’s search for support in the face of Russian weakness, it may now have a chance to change the shape of the board.