Who emerge as the real winners from the bloody Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

Who emerge as the real winners from the bloody Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani meeting via videocall during the closing days of the war. / Azerbaijan Presidential Press Office.
By bne IntelIiNews November 11, 2020

The bloody six-week war waged for Nagorno-Karabakh has ended with a stark defeat for Armenia and a clear triumph for Azerbaijan. It ushers in a reshaping of influence in the South Caucasus and raises questions as to what Russia, Turkey, Iran and, to an extent, Georgia, stand to win or lose from the outcome.

Is Russia the major winner here?
Some observers feel that the Kremlin had a game plan all along and that everything has turned out much as it intended. Russia has a security pact with Armenia—though admittedly it does not extend to protecting self-proclaimed republic Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan despite nearly three decades of ethnic Armenian control—and analysts were curious as to why Moscow never looked like coming to the small, impoverished nation’s assistance against the technologically much superior armed forces of hydrocarbon-rich Azerbaijan. Russia also has amicable relations with Baku and if it had truly set its face against Azerbaijan’s military plans it could very likely have forestalled them.

Moscow also stood by while Turkey, entering a region that Russia quite clearly regards as its own backyard on its southern flank, took an obvious role in the conflict. Armenia claims this extended to providing military advisers that devised and ran the campaign, deploying many Syrian militia mercenaries and backing the offensive with great numbers of armed drones and even F-16 fighter jets (all of this is denied by Turkey, but it was bellicose in its backing for Baku and made it clear all along that a simple request from Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev would be enough for it to send Turkish troops to the theatre of war).

Now the fighting is over, however, Russia will attempt to keep Turkey’s new presence in the South Caucasus heavily curtailed. Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved a more than two decades-old Russian ambition of inserting Russian peacekeepers into Nagorno-Karabakh on a renewable five-year basis. Turkish troops will be limited to helping run a ceasefire monitoring centre to be set up outside the mountainous enclave. By moving to broker an end to the war when he did, Putin prevented a full Turkish-backed Azerbaijani takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh which the Armenians said was just days away (though Putin possibly had a deal with Baku and Ankara for only a partial conquering of the territory by Azerbaijan all along). Turkey is also not a signatory to the peace deal, thus once more its influence is not recognised as anything but limited .

“Today’s [November 10] deal [to end the conflict] ... in many ways addresses core Russian interests in the conflict, and is perhaps the best outcome (at least in short term) Moscow could get,” according to Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

“Russia has put its 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh—something that Moscow wanted to do back in 1994 [after the end of the six-year war that left the ethnic Armenians in control of the enclave], but was unable to. There will be no Turkish armed peacekeepers, which is very important for Moscow.”

“Russia did well in this,” Matthew Bryza, a former co-chair of the Minsk Group—a long-standing diplomatic effort to resolve the claims on Nagorno-Karabakh co-chaired by Russia, the US and France, which has now been sidelined in irrelevance by events—was quoted as saying by RFE/RL. “Putin has dominated. He’s the kingmaker in the situation.”

Is the outcome really such a big success for Putin?
Moscow may have been savouring what it was presenting as a diplomatic coup, but Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said the ceasefire deal flattered to deceive.

“This is managing decline, a Russia that in regional terms is strong in capacities, weak in will, trying to make the best of a situation, and in the process disappointing its allies and doing nothing to deter its challengers,” he wrote in a Moscow Times opinion piece.

He added that maintaining the peace deal would be “an additional burden on its military and treasury. It does bake a role for itself into the geopolitics of the region, to be sure, but this was a part of the world in which it was already meant to be dominant?”

“When you have to escalate your commitment to retain your position, that does not seem a sign of progress so much as laboring to hold back decline,” Galeotti also noted.

Carey Cavanaugh, a former US diplomat who helped organise the 2001 talks in Key West, Florida, where the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents came close to reaching a resolution, told RFE/RL the deal was a clear victory for Azerbaijan, given its military gains. He disagreed that Russia was a clear winner, suggesting that Moscow was forced by the circumstances to find a way to avert a major escalation.

Moscow, he said, faced the danger of a continued fight by Azerbaijan, which could have sparked desperate military acts—for example, an Armenian missile attack on Baku, or targeting the Caspian-to-Mediterranean oil pipeline—that would then have sucked Russia and Turkey into a deeper conflict.

The deal was a way “to staunch the bloodletting,” he said. “They had to stop it from going any further, over the precipice, where it would have been ‘desperate-times-call-for-desperate measures’.”

As things stood before the conflict erupted on September 27.

What level of influence can the Western powers still exert in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute?
As things now stand, almost none. The Minsk Group for mediation, which involved France and the US, played no role in resolving the war. Donald Trump showed almost zero interest in the conflict. Paris, which almost every week returns to its war of words with Turkey over Ankara’s aggressive foreign policy, was clearly frustrated that Armenia—with which France has been enjoying increasingly cordial relations given the substantial ethnic Armenian minority in France and Armenia’s spring 2018 Velvet Revolution which brought about more cultural and political exchanges between Armenia and Western Europe—was getting outgunned on the battlefield, very much thanks to Turkish guns, but was constrained in what it could do given that Russia is Armenia’s strategic partner and the South Caucasus is an historic sphere of influence for Moscow.

Whether Joe Biden, when he takes over as US president on January 20, will want to, or be able to, get his foot in the door to introduce new US influence as regards Nagorno-Karabakh remains to be seen.

The lack of engagement by Trump in the events that have played out may also have damaged Georgia in that the West’s level of influence when it comes to its Russian-occupied territories and its ambition to join Nato may have been degraded.

Azerbaijan state propaganda video glorifying the successes of armed drones in the conflict. The consensus of defence analysts is, however, that the drones gave Azerbaijan a 'magic bullet' advantage that led to the annihilation of many Armenian military assets.  

How much of Nagorno-Karabakh has Azerbaijan regained?

The deal consolidates major battlefield gains by Azerbaijan’s forces and will leave Baku in control of about 40% of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, as well as nearly all of the surrounding occupied territories long held by Armenian forces.

Before the conflict, Armenian-backed forces controlled the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, plus parts of the seven surrounding districts. Collectively, these territories amounted to around 13% of Azerbaijan.

Will Iran be content with how the war has been resolved?
Around one-fifth of Iran’s population of 84mn are Iranian-Azerbaijani. And many were growing rather restive during some moments of the conflict, alleging that Tehran was on the side of Armenia, particularly given that, if their claims were correct, Iran was allowing Russian weapons and supplies to pass into Armenia via its territory. Given that these frustrations now no longer threaten to boil over, Iran will feel some relief.

Iran, given its dire economic situation under heavy US sanctions, can ill afford to fall out with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia or Turkey, trading partners one and all. It is also one year into a temporary two-year preferential trade agreement with the Moscow-led European Economic Union (EEU), which groups Russia, Armenia, Belarus and Turkic nations Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

What is the final death toll from this conflict?
It is too early to say. Both sides have been less than transparent as to their losses, with Azerbaijan not even announcing any military casualty figures at all. The fighting appeared brutal at times, with indiscriminate shelling of civilians in both Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Two weeks ago, Russia estimated 5,000 dead. It would not be a surprise if the final grim tally is far higher than that, with hundreds of civilians dead.

There is also the question of how many of the around 100,000 ethnic Armenians who were displaced by the war will want to, and will be able to, return to their homes.

The future for Stepanakert looks dim, Laurence Broers, the Caucasus programme director at Conciliation Resources, a peace-building group, was cited as saying by the Guardian, adding that “maybe the calculation is that it’s going to be such an awful place to live that most of the Armenian population—most of whom have already left—won’t come back”.

The ethnic Armenian population of the territory stood at around 150,000 before hostilities broke out.

France 24 English reported that Armenian PM Pashinian is seen as having misled Armenians for six weeks over how badly the conflict was going for their country.

Can Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian survive this surrender?
Pashinian called the decision to sign the truce "inexpressibly painful". He said he only did so after "an in-depth analysis of the military situation" by his armed forces, a day after Azerbaijani forces seized the fortress city of Shushi, known as Susa in Azerbaijani.

"This is not a victory, but there will be no defeat until you admit you are defeated," Pashinian said. "We will never admit that we are defeated and this should be the beginning of our period of national unity and revival."

Moments after the agreement to end the war was announced, angry crowds began searching for Pashinian around Yerevan. He was forced to issue a statement denying he had fled the country.

There is a school of thought that Moscow would be only too pleased to see the end of Pashinian’s political career. Since he took office, though he has been careful to praise the Russian-Armenian strategic relationship as inviolable, he has instructed his government to make good on its anti-corruption and anti-cronyism promises, and that has often involved pursuing oligarchs and politicians of the old power structure that had close links to Russia. Pashinian has also been building up links with the EU, European institutions and the US and the Armenian diaspora, particularly in the US and France. All of this is no doubt viewed by Moscow with suspicion.

Hasn’t Pashinian rather overplayed his hand as regards Nagorno-Karabakh since coming to power, particularly given Armenia’s increasing military inferiority to Azerbaijan as a consequence of the latter’s rising defence spending?

Well-known commentator on Caucasus affairs Thomas de Waal, a scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank, has said that Pashinian was foolish in visiting Nagorno-Karabakh and making speeches to crowds about ‘Greater Armenia’.

Moscow-based Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow and chair of the Russia in Asia-Pacific Programme at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a Twitter thread: “By Moscow's assessment, @NikolPashinyan's way of handling the conflict and relations with Baku have been extremely risky since 2018, leaving Russia with increasingly fewer options to prevent a military scenario. As the war resumed, it had left Moscow with few good options.”

Gabuev also noted the “very complicated relationship with Turkey that matters much for Moscow's broader game in the Middle East and Northern Africa”. In such a context, Yerevan’s standing was diminished.

Did Armenia ever stand much of a chance of winning this conflict?

Azerbaijan is far superior to Armenia in terms of its defence budget and number of military personnel, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In 2019, Baku had a defence budget of $1.8bn and a 60,000-strong army. Armenia’s defence budget extended to $644mn and 44,000 troops.

Baku prepared for the war by buying extensive amounts of Turkish and Israeli military hardware.

And, when war broke out, the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh forces appeared to be in a wretched condition. Karabakh Armenian leader Haraik Harutyunan, in explaining to hetq.am why the Armenian side basically capitulated, said that predecessors were guilty of failures, observing: “The moral-psychological condition of the army was extremely poor, there were illnesses (coronavirus, haemorrhoids, dysentery), we were unable to rotate troops, treat the sick. Nonetheless our armed forces were able to resist for 43 days.”

Is it possible to get a detailed assessment of the losses in terms of equipment and men suffered by both sides?

Al-Monitor referred to local news reports as stating that the Armenian military has lost about 100 main battle tanks, some 50 armoured combat vehicles and personnel carriers, about 70 howitzers, 60 multiple launch rocket systems, about 20 air defence systems and more than 400 trucks since September 27.

The Azerbaijani forces, the reports indicate, have lost 20 tanks, about 10 howitzers and multiple launch rocket systems, nearly 50 trucks and about 20 drones. The figures, based on corroborative footage and photographs, suggest the Armenian army has seen the destruction of nearly 35% of its inventory in terms of tanks, artillery and trucks.

As for obtaining more information on the death toll, local sources put Armenia’s losses at up to 5,000, or around 10% its standing army. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has lost about 1,200 men, but that’s according to official statements. As the war progressed, the Armenian side was claiming the Azerbaijani armed forces death toll was much higher.

Will Turkey and its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan be satisfied with the outcome?
Eurasia Group said Erdogan would probably not be too upset by the way things had turned out. “Turkey maintains some role, but it is clearly secondary to Russia’s,” it said in a research note. “Erdogan is likely fine with this. His military support for Azerbaijan made a big difference at relatively little cost to Turkey, and it granted Ankara a nationalist win and some leverage with Russia.”

Erdogan needs all the wins he can get right now with Turkey’s economy perched on the edge of precipice and a pervasive feeling among many Turks that it was his bungling that got it there.

A handy gain for Ankara is that the peace deal will open up a land corridor that runs from Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave, which borders Turkey, through Armenia to Azerbaijan. That will have some economic significance—trade between Turkey and Azerbaijan presently often must go through Georgia. Plus it will fit in neatly with Erdogan’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ aspirations to rebuild the Turkic identity as a major power.

How extensive is the Russian peacekeeping force and when will it leave?

The Russian peacekeeping force comprises of 1,960 troops, 90 armoured vehicles, 380 other vehicles and special equipment. It is deploying along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory of 12,000 square kilometres, and along the so-called Lachin Corridor, the main road from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia.

It has a five-year mandate that is automatically renewable if neither side objects six months in advance.