Peacekeeping in Nagorno-Karabakh: Perceptions and Impacts on Russia’s Bilateral Relations
The final ceasefire agreement in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war was accompanied by the stipulation that 2,000 Russian peacekeepers would be deployed to the region. The impact of the deployment of the peacekeeping force is international, going beyond a mere enforcement of the ceasefire. The move to deploy peacekeeping forces places Russia in a precarious position, both in terms of the peacekeeping mandate and its bilateral relations with the parties involved. Moreover, this case represents a rare instance in which the United States did not object to a deployment of Russian forces. This article attempts to explore the mandate of the peacekeeping forces in Nagorno-Karabakh as well as its implications for Russia’s international relations.
As a key stipulation in the final ceasefire in the 2020 war, Russia sent a contingent of 1,960 troops to Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Lachin Corridor in concurrence with the withdrawal of Armenian troops. In addition to the stipulation of troops and equipment, the mandate guarantees the Russian peacekeepers presence for a period of 5 years, to be extended with the consent of both parties. It is apparent from the ceasefire that the Russian peacekeeping forces have no clearly defined mandate beyond the mere number and duration of their presence. The consequences of such ambiguity can be seen in Karabakh today. The small contingent of Russian peacekeeping forces have filled a wide variety of roles, ranging from more standard peacekeeping tasks such as clearing landmines and patrols along the line of contact, to more atypical tasks such as retrieving stray cattle. What is clear is that whether removing bomb fragments from crop fields or escorting civilians to graves behind Azerbaijan’s positions, the small group of Russian forces is in high demand for those living in Karabakh.
Though it is apparent that the peacekeepers are a welcome addition for the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, the international aspects of the arrangement are more varied. Though the ambiguous mandate may allow the Russian forces a good deal of flexibility to deal with the wide variety of challenges in the area, it also lacks a mutually agreed framework for resolving ceasefire violations. While at one point peacekeeping forces seemed to meet success in resolving issues through trilateral contacts, more issues have arisen with between the parties involved when it comes to the resolution of ceasefire violations.
Indicative of this was Azerbaijan’s claim that Armenia was attempting to discredit the peacekeepers by publicizing an attack on Armenians near the line of contact. Moreover, in August 2021, Russia made an unusual step of openly blaming Azerbaijan for a ceasefire violation, which was met with much anger in Azerbaijan.
Looking at Azerbaijan’s rhetoric in relation to the deployment, there has been a marked increase in frustration at the peacekeeping mission, while Armenia has only grown more receptive. A draft of a more clearly defined mandate was agreed to by Armenia and Russia but rejected by Baku. Azerbaijan has stated that it would not agree to the draft unless its counter proposals were met, though this included many non-starters for Yerevan: the dissolution of armed Armenian groups in Nagorno-Karabakh, a requirement that Armenian officials have permission from Azerbaijan to visit Nagorno-Karabakh, and that the institutions of self-governance must be appointed with the consent of Azerbaijan.
Considering that Russia seeks to reach a trilateral agreement to define the mandate, it is clear that it will likely remain ambiguous. Though many highlight the need for a clearly defined mandate, such an agreement would almost inevitably come at the expense of Russia’s relations vis-a-vis one of the parties involved. This may be inevitable, however, as Azerbaijan has increasingly aired public criticisms of the Russian peacekeepers stationed in the region. The complaints about Russian peacekeepers range from accusations that they are not fulfilling their current mandate by failing to remove armed groups in Karabakh (which Azerbaijan claims are deployed from Armenia), to taking issue with the humanitarian activities of the peacekeepers such as a sports and first aid camp billed as “basic training” for youths in Nagorno-Karabakh. The precariousness of the deployment for Russia’s bilateral relations goes beyond the mandate and the actions of peacekeepers themselves. Seemingly minor lexical choices such as referring to the region in military tenders as the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” have repercussions for Russia’s bilateral relations with Azerbaijan. As such, these strains will likely decrease the chances of an extension for the peacekeeping mandate, thus increasing the likelihood for renewed conflict.
Whereas the deployment is exerting strain on Russo-Azeri relations, it has highlighted the importance of Russo-Armenian relations for Armenia. Though there is some frustration that Russia did not intervene on behalf of Armenia during the conflict, the impact of peacekeepers themselves on bilateral relations largely follows the view of those living in Nagorno-Karabakh. As such, the deployment has improved the Armenian government’s perception of Russia as an important factor in safeguarding the security of fellow Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Considering the course of the 2020 war and the repeated collapse of ceasefires prior to the deployment of peacekeeping forces, Russia has positioned itself as the guarantor for the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh. Further, the deployment has ensured that Armenians continue to have access to Nagorno-Karabakh via the Lachin Corridor. While Armenia may continue to be disenchanted with the outcome of the conflict and lack of Russian intervention on their behalf, these facts and the reality on the ground is still understood. Indicative of this understanding, the Armenian Security Council noted that, amid a situation that continues to be unstable, the presence of the Russian forces is an important factor in ensuring security in the region. Taking into account this security guarantee, in conjunction with the roles undertaken by the peacekeepers, it is no wonder that the Armenian side has expressed its desire to extend the deployment. While this is the case, it must be considered that either party can prevent the extension of the Russian peacekeepers’ deployment, so impact of the peacekeepers as felt from Azerbaijan’s side should be especially concerning, given the outcome of the 2020 conflict.
Outside of the immediate parties to the conflict, the deployment of Russian peacekeepers has had international repercussions as well. Herein we see more nuanced differences among the international community on the presence of Russian peacekeeping forces in Karabakh. Moreover, looking at Turkey and the United States, we can identify contradictions in the reactions and stances to the deployment. Looking at Turkey, we can see how Russian forces in Karabakh adds to the regional dynamic of Russo-Turkish cooperation and competition. In this conflict, Russia and Turkey find themselves with confrontational interests as Turkey openly backs Azerbaijan both diplomatically and militarily. Many have paid special attention to the role of this support, citing Turkish supplied equipment as a key determinant in the outcome of the 2020 war. Though this can alleviate most tensions, it far from a more equal ‘condominium’ arrangement such as those that Russia and Turkey have come to in places like Syria. Moreover, it seems as though there was a misunderstanding as to Turkey’s role in the peacekeeping mission, with President Erdogan claiming it would contain a Turkish contingent and President Putin’s spokesperson saying he made no such agreement. In this case, an accommodation was reached, establishing a Turkish monitoring mission outside of the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. As another indicator of potential strain, the Daily Sabah, which is closely affiliated with the Turkish government, occasionally highlights what it deems as Azerbaijan’s discontent with the deployment or the Russian “occupation” of Azerbaijani land, a position that the Turkish government may not want to take openly given the delicate balance that Russia and Turkey have managed to maintain. As such, while not to the same degree as Azerbaijan, the deployment of the Russian peacekeepers could continue to be an issue area for Russo-Turkish relations.
While the West played a decidedly more minor role in the conflict, France and the United States are still Russia’s cochairs in the OSCE Minsk Group aimed at resolving it. Moreover, Western perceptions of the deployment are particularly relevant given the significance of their bilateral relations with Moscow. Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the few areas in which the United States and Russia continue to cooperate, and the only one that involves a territorial dispute in the post-Soviet space. Given general trends in West-Russia relations, it would be easy to expect the deployment of peacekeepers to be accompanied with universal outcry from the West, as Russia’s other extraterritorial deployments have. This instance of a Russian military presence is an exception to the trend, with more mixed or even positive assessments from Western observers. At the official level, the US government response to the ceasefire agreement was positive, with the State Department welcoming the cessation of hostilities, but with no mention whatsoever of the Russian deployment which was a key piece of the agreement. What we can gather from this is that while it was certainly in the US interest to stop the fighting (as evidenced by previous ceasefires brokered by the US), the United States could not openly welcome the deployment of Russian forces specifically. While Nagorno-Karabakh presents an avenue of cooperation, this is not isolated from wider geopolitics which places some limitations on overt cooperation with Russia. As such, while the conflict can continue to be one of the few exceptions to US-Russia confrontation, the confrontation itself still overshadows and limits the overtness of such cooperation. The result of this contradiction of interests is this relatively lukewarm official response. Beyond this, the American perceptions are less nuanced.
We can identify two main schools of thought in Western understanding of the peacekeeping deployment. The first, a more positive account, is that the deployment was necessary to stop the violence and with the violence stopped, it leaves room for a peacefully negotiated settlement. In this view there are those who describe this as an opportunity for positive engagement with Russia, coupling Western experience in post-conflict reconstruction with the stabilizing force of the Russian peacekeepers. In terms of US-Russia bilateral relations, this is the most positive account in the sense that Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to provide an area in which the United States and Russia can cooperate based on complimentary rather than contradictory interests. This is not to say that it provides a one size fits all model for US-Russia relations in the post-Soviet space, but that it at least proves a forum for selective cooperation in an area that American and Russian interests are aligned. Moreover, Russia’s continued adherence to the OSCE Minsk Group’s agreed principles and framework give some credence to this view that with the deployment, the conflict resolution process can continue be one of the few areas of cooperation for the United States and Russia.
The second and less common Western view of this deployment, with more negative implications for US-Russia relations, is that the deployment is a threat to American interests and that as a result it will provide another front for US-Russia confrontation. Such narratives understand the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh as a zero-sum game in which something deemed good for Russia or Russia’s influence must be bad for the US. As such, this view holds two key pieces: that the deployment was a “win” for Russia and that this win comes at the expense of American interests. In this view of a revisionist Russia, this is considered to be a good circumstance for Russia because Russian forces are now on the internationally recognized territory of every state in the South Caucasus. Some in this camp note, however, that the unilateral deployment does not allow Moscow to yield unlimited influence over the conflicting parties given the 5 year extendable term which can be vetoed by either party. As such, the states in this case do retain much more agency than other states to which Russian forces have been deployed. On the deployment as well, the aforementioned accounts do not consider the collapse of each prior ceasefire agreement that did not include the deployment of forces on the ground, nor do they suggest an alternative other than “greater engagement” to simultaneously minimize the influence of Russia and maintain peace building efforts.
From the standpoint of bilateral relations, the former view seems to be prevailing. The official narrative which welcomes the cessation of hostilities, but begrudgingly accepts that Moscow is more willing to commit by deploy forces to the area. The US continues to engage in this sphere through the provision of humanitarian aid and the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group. Some have suggested the peacekeepers presence allows for Western engagement in each area with a somewhat stable setting. As such, the deployment of peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh could have positive implications for bilateral relations. To the contrary, however, few (if any) would go so far as to claim that this one instance of cooperation in Nagorno-Karabakh could tangibly improve bilateral relations at a time when they are at their lowest. While the South Caucasus does not seem to be able to preclude the overall pattern of US-Russia confrontation, Nagorno-Karabakh still remains an area of complimentary, rather than contradictory, interests.
The decision to place Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh is not without its risks, and these risks go beyond material and personnel stationed in the region. Though large-scale conflict has stopped, this mandate exerts influence outward on Russia’s bilateral relations. While it presents obstacles to Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, it creates stronger ties with Armenia and supports potential cooperation with Western powers as an exception to Russo-Western confrontation. As the West does not view the deployment of peacekeepers to Karabakh as they do other extraterritorial deployments (which are widely considered to be occupying forces as is the case in Abkhazia or Transnistria), cooperation remains on the table in this sphere. While it presents an opportunity for selective cooperation and relatively minimal risks for Russo-Western relations, their presence and mandate presents numerous challenges to Russia’s relations in the region. Though a more clearly defined mandate would do much to mitigate the risks for Russia’s relations in the South Caucuses, such a mandate would require the agreement of both Armenia and Azerbaijan which poses challenges in and of itself.