Why are Russian peacekeepers leaving Karabakh?

Why are Russian peacekeepers leaving Karabakh?
Russian peacekeepers are pulling out of Nagorno-Karabakh more than a year earlier than planned. After Azerbaijan retook full control of the disputed region, there is little reason to retain a Russian garrison there. / bne IntelliNews
By Seymur Mammadov in Baku April 29, 2024

The early withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping contingent from the Karabakh region in Azerbaijan is a pivotal event for the South Caucasus. While Armenia and Georgia are also experiencing significant internal changes, these do not heavily impact the geopolitical landscape of the region. These shifts are mostly tied to internal political struggles and the interaction between the governments and their citizens. In contrast, the Baku-Moscow agreement on the early withdrawal of peacekeepers will undoubtedly influence the regional dynamics. Although the full extent of the changes this decision will cause remain unclear.

Surprisingly, despite earlier expectations of Russia’s long-term presence, the decision for an early withdrawal of peacekeepers was made. This move is particularly startling in light of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's recent remarks about the temporary nature of the Russian Military Contingent’s (RMC) stay in the Karabakh region. This early departure, well before the mission's scheduled end in November 2025, challenges many previous predictions.

The relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia, as well as between their leaders, Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin, remains robust despite regional and global geopolitical challenges. Although Russia supported Armenia in the Second Karabakh War with military aid, it did not act against Azerbaijan. The ceasefire was decided in Baku, not under Moscow's coercion but to avert further casualties. During this period, Moscow aimed to solidify its influence, and Baku, based on the strength of bilateral ties, consented to a compromise that allowed for joint problem-solving.

Over the past twenty years, despite occasional serious tensions, the relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia has never reached a breaking point, with disputes typically resolved peacefully. It is improbable that Russia would actively oppose Baku’s decision to withdraw the Russian peacekeeping contingent, even if it disapproved of it. The presence of the RMC arguably caused more problems than it solved, and its withdrawal is likely to enhance bilateral relations further.

Additionally, the public response to Aliyev's recent visit to Moscow on April 22 and the subsequent early withdrawal of peacekeepers highlight improved mutual understanding and resolution of concerns within the Azerbaijani community regarding Russia's actions.

In 2020, the decision to deploy the RMC in Azerbaijan was made jointly by Baku and Moscow. The withdrawal of the RMC in April 2024 also stems from a bilateral agreement, despite some opposition. This withdrawal should not be viewed as surprising; it is a logical continuation of Aliyev's policy and achieved all its goals following the 2020 war, despite the presence of the Russian contingent and significant international pressure, including threats of Western sanctions.

Doubts about Russia's ability or willingness to actively intervene in the region grew following eco-activist protests on the Lachin road in December 2022. The active military onslaught in the so-called an anti-terrorism operation in September 2023, signalled that the peacekeepers' days in Azerbaijan were numbered after Baku took full control of the disputed region.

Importantly, the five-year duration of the RMC's deployment was included in the Trilateral Statement at the insistence of the Azerbaijani president. Initially, Russia did not plan to set a timeline for its troops' presence, but Aliyev insisted on this stipulation. This decision was made based on strategic reasoning, taking into account the level of bilateral relations with Russia and confidence that the RMC would not be used against Azerbaijan. Additionally, increasing international interest in deploying international peacekeepers to the region prompted Baku to act decisively to counter accusations of genocide in the event of large-scale military actions. The decision to position the Russian contingent along the demarcation line between the territories liberated and those controlled by separatists effectively prevented the intervention of other forces.

The early withdrawal of the RMC from the Karabakh region is a logical progression of events. After Karabakh was returned to the government’s control the local Armenian population was relocated which then led to a public discussions about the possible early withdrawal of the RMC as control of the region was no longer in dispute.

The RMC, initially intended to stabilise the demarcation line and aid the peaceful integration of Armenians, was seen by Baku as inadvertently supporting separatist factions, which complicated its mission. Baku realised that Moscow had an interest in the instability as that allowed it to extend the stay of its forces.

A month after the military operation, the Russian forces were in effect superfluous and the cost of maintaining the contingent was a drain on Russia’s budget without offering any political advantages. Azerbaijani public opinion was also strongly opposes the presence of foreign armies, regardless of their status.

Another contributing factor was the demand for Russian servicemen to participate in the Ukrainian campaign. In the context of escalated military engagements there, the two thousand well-equipped soldiers represent a substantial asset that could be reallocated to bolster Russian military efforts in Ukraine.

A third factor is the political pressure on Armenia. Russia's troop withdrawal signals its willingness to leave Armenia to face the militarily superior Azerbaijan and Turkey alone if hostilities resume. This move is intended to coerce Yerevan into making political concessions, highlighted by the conditional and gradual nature of the troop withdrawal based on the Armenian government's responses.

In the future, Azerbaijan will become the only country among the Eastern Partnership members on whose territory no foreign military forces will be stationed and thus improving Baku control over its own sovereignty.