12 December 2023Armenia

Russia’s Complicity in the Failure of Peacebuilding and Peacekeeping in Nagorno-Karabakh

Russia used the Karabakh conflict as a bargaining chip to advance its geopolitical interests

by Sossi Tatikyan
© Har Toum

Russia’s role as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Karabakh conflict and the total failure of the Russian peacekeeping mission are the main subjects of the article by leading Armenian foreign policy expert Sossi Tatikyan. As a specialist in international relations she worked for many years with a number of UN, EU and OSCE missions. In her article written for OSTWEST MONITORING, Sossi Tatikyan analyzes Russian involvement in the conflict from the negotiation process to the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians in September 2023.

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In the aftermath of the military offensive and ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023, Azerbaijan seized control of the capital Stepanakert and demolished the de facto state that had existed for the last three decades. The status quo policy of Armenia and its reliance on Russia for security did not save Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia from the 2020 war and its consequences.

As it is known, Russia, together with the US and France, was one of the members of the OSCE Minsk Group, the formal body mediating for the resolution of the conflict. According to many policy experts, Russia was not interested in the resolution of the conflict since it allowed the country to maintain its influence and presence in the region. The OSCE Minsk Group offered several solutions to resolve the conflict, including the deployment of international peacekeepers to protect civilians, granting an interim status to Nagorno-Karabakh and anticipating a referendum to achieve its final status. However, most of those proposals have been rejected either by Azerbaijan or Armenia. Azerbaijan started investing oil and gas profits in the defense sector and preparing for a new war that began in 2005. [1] Armenia has not been eager to accept these proposals either, since after its victory in the First Nagorno Karabakh War it seemingly benefitted from the status quo.

The Russian role in the 2020 Karabakh war and its inaction to prevent violations of ceasefire in its aftermath

In November, 2020, Russia mediated a trilateral statement on the cessation of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan without other OSCE MG co-chairs – the US and France – and established a unilateral Russian peacekeeping presence in Nagorno-Karabakh without an international mandate.

After the war, Russia intensified its hybrid war in Armenia using the illiberal opposition there, associated with the previous authorities, to spread false narratives. They were claiming that the West had enabled the ‘velvet revolution’ in Armenia to weaken the immunity of Armenian people and its national security with false values of democracy and to facilitate the handover of Nagorno-Karabakh. Taking advantage of the frustration amongst liberal circles in Armenia with the inaction and false equivalence policy of the US and EU during the 2020 war and its aftermath, illiberal factions were pointing out that it was Russia that mediated a ceasefire deal and deployed peacekeepers, since the West is either pro-Azerbaijani or indifferent. They were, on the one hand, claiming that Russia was the savior that ended the war and, on the other hand, claiming that the reason for the war and defeat was the deterioration of Armenia’s relations with Russia. Liberal circles largely believe that Russia had authorized Azerbaijan to start the war and stopped it only when the Armenian side had experienced disproportionate losses, in order to advance its military presence in the region.

A month after the ceasefire deal, Russian peacekeepers started allowing Azerbaijan’s armed forces to violate it. In December 2020, the Russian peacekeepers did not prevent the capture of Khtsaberd and Hin Tagher, the last two Armenian villages with a strategic mountain in Hadrut region and an ancient monastery Kataro, together with several dozens of Armenian military servicemen some of whom remained in captivity until their release past week.

In February 2021, Russian peacekeepers banned the access to Nagorno-Karabakh of international journalists, NGOs and Diaspora Armenians without Armenian citizenship, gradually turning it into a gray zone. Furthermore, they did not deter regular Azerbaijani provocations along the line of contact thus resulting in the killing of several civilians during their livelihood activities, nor did they prevent Azerbaijan from surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh with military infrastructure.

In spite of an order by the International Court of Justice ICJ urging the protection of Armenian cultural heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian peacekeepers did not take any action to stop the destruction, distortion and appropriation of Armenian cultural heritage, such as monasteries in Dadivank, Shushi and other areas under Azerbaijani control in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia’s collaboration with Azerbaijan to carry out creeping ethnic cleansing

Inaction of Russian peacekeepers deepened and gradually turned into the facilitation of Azerbaijani violations of the ceasefire deal since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. It| generated a debate as to whether Russian peacekeepers were unable to protect Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh due to their distraction with the war in Ukraine, or whether they were unwilling to do so due to the shift in their geopolitical interests.

It is crucial to note that on 22 February 2022 Russia and Azerbaijan signed a Declaration on “Allied Interaction between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation” formally elevating their partnership to the level of an alliance. Among other subjects, the extensive document contained provisions related to security cooperation. Later in 2022, Azerbaijan also signed a gas deal with the Russian GazProm to meet its commitments of gas supply to the EU, partially laundering Russian gas to Europe for a higher price in its capacity as Europe’s alternative energy supplier to Russia. [2] One week after the war in Ukraine started, Azerbaijan started psychological operations and shooting as well as cutting the gas in freezing temperatures in Nagorno-Karabakh to make the life conditions of the people impossible. The Parukh village and strategic hill of Karaglukh were captured by Azerbaijan’s armed forces and Russian peacekeepers did not prevent it. This coincided with the abstention in the voting for the UN General Assembly resolution on Ukraine, which was Armenia’s first ever vote, deviating from Russia, reportedly in spite of pressure by Russia.

In August 2022, Russian peacekeepers did not prevent a military escalation and capture of the new strategic hills in the original Lachin corridor by the Azerbaijani armed forces in an operation called “Revenge”. Following it, they made the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities implement the provision outlined in the trilateral ceasefire deal, to change the route of the Lachin corridor 1.5 years before the stipulated term, accompanied by the depopulation of Armenians from the settlement of Aghavno in the area. Russian peacekeepers also started creating obstacles for the access of Armenian public figures and journalists to Nagorno-Karabakh in summer 2022.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh proceeded to its last and most dramatic series of events in December 2022 when, without being prevented by Russian peacekeepers, Azerbaijani pseudo-activists blocked the Lachin corridor with false environmental reasons in relation to the exploitation of mines in Nagorno-Karabakh, accompanied with a growing use of ultra-nationalistic symbols and psychological warfare against the Armenian population. Instead, Russian peacekeepers were strict towards the occasional peaceful protests of civilians of Nagorno-Karabakh against the blockade, making them disperse. In spite of the ICJ provisional order issued in February 2023, Russian peacekeepers did not unblock the Lachin corridor of Azerbaijani pseudo-protesters whose environmental claims turned into political demands, urging “integration”, meaning the subjugation of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians into Azerbaijan. Many in Armenia believe that the blockade by Azerbaijan was coordinated with Russia in order to extract an extraterritorial “Zangezour corridor” from Armenia and linking Azerbaijan with its exclave Nakhijevan, overseen by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and thus enabling Russia to use it as well as to bypass sanctions.

In April, the protesters were replaced by Azerbaijani border services who established a checkpoint, replacing Russian peacekeepers who remained but lost their function to manage access to and exit from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Until mid-June, the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh was partial, since Russian peacekeepers and the ICRC were allowed to take humanitarian convoys with food, medicine and basic supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh. However, on 15 June, there was an incident on the Hakari Bridge leading to the entrance of the Lachin corridor from Armenia as Azerbaijani border guards attempted to advance and raise their flag in the Armenian territory. Russian peacekeepers were escorting the Azerbaijani servicemen during the incident. The attempt failed due to countermeasures by the Armenian side. Using this and another incident involving ICRC contracted drivers taking cigarettes and other basic products into Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan banned the entry of any humanitarian convoy to Nagorno-Karabakh. While people were starving in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian peacekeepers began receiving food and supplies by helicopter for their own needs, as Armenian children watched them from the ground. According to one report, they gave some food only to kindergartens. There are eyewitness reports about peacekeepers selling food and fuel for multiplied prices.

Following the trilateral meeting between Foreign Ministers of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan in Moscow on 19 July, Lavrov made a statement endorsing the demands of the Azerbaijani side such as the low level of rights and security for Armenians in Karabakh as an ethnic minority without any special status, in line with Azerbaijani legislation and without international guarantees. The Armenian Foreign Ministry released a clarifying comment about the necessity to address those issues through the Baku-Stepanakert dialogue within an international mechanism.

In summer 2023, the US and the EU were trying to organize direct talks between Azerbaijani and Artsakh authorities in a neutral place to discuss the rights and security of Armneians in Nagorno-Karabakh in order to resolve the deadlock of the situation. Reportedly, Moscow instructed de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh not to go to Sofia, after which Azerbaijan, most likely consulting with Moscow, refused to go to Bratislava and adopted a rigid position that any meeting would take place only on its territory. Russian peacekeepers maintained their monopoly in facilitating meetings between Azerbaijani and Nagorno-Karabakh representatives, strictly limiting them to technical and humanitarian issues. On 16 August, Lavrov’s new plan was leaked suggesting the integration of Armenians in Azerbaijan without international mechanisms for their rights and security.

Finally, Russian peacekeepers did not prevent Azerbaijani armed forces from starting a military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians on 19–20 September 2023, causing not only military but civilian casualties, and advancing up to the capital Stepanakert. Several peacekeepers became victims of shelling by Azerbaijan while trying to help Armenian civilians to flee, for which Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev apologized to Russia. However, Russian peacekeepers had reportedly withdrawn from strategic positions before the military operation. Following it, Russian peacekeepers facilitated a meeting between Azerbaijani and Nagorno-Karabakh representatives making the de facto authorities agree to disarm, dissolve governance institutions and abolish the de facto Republic of Artsakh that existed for more than three decades. This was followed by a mass exodus to Armenia of the whole population of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians still remaining in the region’s territory that numbered more than one hundred thousand in the last week of September 2023.

The speedy exodus of all Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia seems to have caught Russia by surprise since it assumed that at least several thousand Armenians would remain in the territory to justify its further military presence as peacekeepers. Reportedly, Russia is trying to find ways to convince some Armenians living in Russia and Armenia who are originally from Nagorno-Karabakh, to return to the territory. Russian peacekeepers have reduced their posts but they remain in the territory and, ironically, report about the lack of incidents in their zone of responsibility on a regular basis. It is not clear how Azerbaijan and Russia have distributed the weapons and military equipment confiscated by the self-defence force of Nagorno-Karabakh. Reportedly, they are also negotiating with the Azerbaijani side about their continued presence in the territory. Unknown remains the fate of the Russian-Turkish monitoring center in the Aghdam district established in the aftermath of the 2020 ceasefire deal in order to monitor its implementation and functioned ever since without transparency.

During the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sessions addressing the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh in relation to the blockade in December 2022 and August 2023, and in relation to the military operation in September 2023, Russia aligned itself with Azerbaijani narratives and did not accept the failure of its peacekeeping. In 2022, Russia was also the main country that blocked the adoption of a UNSC statement about Azerbaijan’s blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The behavior of Russian authorities and peacekeepers generated growing criticism by Armenia for non-fulfillment of their mandate starting in 2022 and led to the gradual breakdown of trust towards them amongst the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and population. The authorities, political factions and civil society of Armenia and, most importantly, refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, have criticized the lack of action and failures by Russian peacekeepers to prevent violations of the ceasefire, along with further territorial and human losses by the Armenian side and the blockade of the Lachin corridor imposed by Azerbaijan. The reactions of the Russian Government were defensive, denying the failure of Russian peacekeepers and scapegoating the Armenian Government for having recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan in May 2023, at an advanced stage of the crisis. However, Russia’s President Putin publicly acknowledged Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan two weeks after the 2020 ceasefire.

The impact of the Russian factor on the policies of other actors and conclusions

While conducting an aggressive war of narratives against Armenians, Azerbaijan was manipulating the Russian factor to stigmatize the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, avoiding its associations with the most similar conflict – Kosovo, based on the threat of ethnic cleansing. “Kosovo-ization” of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could lead to remedial secession and international protection. Instead, Azerbaijan was strengthening associations of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with those of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Crimea and Donbass that were perceived as Russian-inflicted, in order to gain the support of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as the West.

Since the restoration of its independence in 1991, Armenia’s foreign policy choices led to the failure of its originally intended policy of the balance of power, sacrificing its relationship with the West in order not to harm Russian interests. The last-minute decision by Serj Sargsyan, the third Armenian President, to join the Russian-led Customs Union (now, Eurasian Economic Union) instead of signing the negotiated Association Agreement with the EU was presented as the prioritization of security over democracy, largely conditioned by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, relying on Russia as a key security ally. However, Armenia could have achieved a favourable resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict if it had shaped adequate narratives around it and had partnered with the West to apply the elements of the Kosovo precedent to Nagorno-Karabakh as offered by the OSCE Minsk Group in several plans. Most likely Armenia did not attempt it, fearing the Russian reaction given its support for Serbia and non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence. There is also a report about a US offer to Robert Kocharyan (then Nagorno-Karabakh’s and later Armenia’s Prime Minister and President) to make Nagorno-Karabakh a transit area for an oil or gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe, which was dismissed out of consideration of the change in the regional dynamics unfavorable for Russia. [3] Thus, the Armenian side became stuck in a geopolitical trap, which was not favourable for the resolution of the conflict.

To conclude, Russia used the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a bargaining chip to advance its geopolitical interests and maintain its influence on Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as its presence in the Southern Caucasus. Russia was increasingly aligning with Azerbaijan as an emerging stronger party as well as a country with which it has more in common due to the autocratic governance systems of both, while trying to penalize Armenia for its democratic ambitions. Due to the power dynamics, Russia apparently valued its newly formalized strategic alliance with Azerbaijan more than its traditional alliance with Armenia, and promoted its agenda, including laundering of delivering its gas to Europe through Azerbaijan. The war in Ukraine further enhanced common geopolitical interests between Russia and Azerbaijan.

Russia took advantage of its right to veto in the UN Security Council, not to allow any statement or resolution on the situation on Nagorno-Karabakh since the 2020 war and to prevent any consideration of the deployment of international peacekeepers in the region. It did not change after the Russian peacekeepers’ inability or rather unwillingness to fulfill their mandate became obvious. The lack of international mandate, transparent rules of engagement, international monitoring and reporting mechanisms, purely military and unilateral nature of the Russian peacekeeping were its technical problems. [4] Russia’s stigmatization in light of its war in Ukraine was an additional challenge for the legitimacy and credibility of its peacekeeping role. Russia missed the opportunity to save its face, once more choosing further advancement of its geopolitical interests instead of the protection of the rights and security of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Russia also lost the trust of its ally Armenia, which is apparently leading to transformation in its foreign and security policies.

[1] Sossi Tatikyan. How do energy security and Euro-Atlantic integration correlate in the Southern Caucasus. NATO Defence College Occasional Paper, Research Division, Rome, May 2008.

[2] Sossi Tatikyan. The EU’s Role in Preventing a New Conflict and Ensuring Sustainable Peace Between Armenia and Azerbaijan. European Policy Review, Volume 6, Issue 1. July 2023.

[3] Interview based on Chatham House rules.

[4] The legal and military aspects of the management of secessionist conflicts after the war and before the peace: with and without international peacekeeping. Proceedings of the 45th Annual Roundtable on International Humanitarian Law “After the Conflict Before the Peace: Legal, Military and Humanitarian Issues during the Transition.” International Institute of Humanitarian Law, San Remo. ISBN 978-88-351-4871-5. (pp. 194–202)