The Russo-Ukrainian War and Nagorno-Karabakh’s Faltering Ceasefire

The Russo-Ukrainian War and Nagorno-Karabakh’s Faltering Ceasefire

Public domain picture – published on Flickr via amanderson2.

Azerbaijan has sought to exploit the world’s and Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine in order to militarily resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. As Moscow becomes extensively embroiled in its so-called ‘special military operation’ against Kiev, it is highly likely that Baku will feel emboldened enough to push further into the contested region, even if this results in the antagonisation of Russian peacekeepers.

Faltering Ceasefire

Reports of ceasefire violations along the line of contact in Karabakh began to quickly make headlines in international media in early March, just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its second week. Clashes quickly materialised between Azerbaijani forces and those of the self-proclaimed, Armenian-led, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, resulting in damage to a crucial gas pipeline on March 8, as well as the shelling of villages, such as Khnapat, on March 11. In addition, Baku resorted to the use of loudspeakers as a form of psychological pressure, calling upon residents of the village of Taghavard to evacuate the area, and, more recently, captured the village of Parukh (spelled Farrukh in Azerbaijani) on 25 March, seemingly ignoring the fact that the settlement fell under the protection of Russian peacekeepers. Although Azerbaijan did ultimately withdraw its forces from the area on 28 March, the spike in tensions has forced the contested region’s de-facto leader, Arayik Harutyunyan, to declare martial law two days prior.

The recent escalation has, arguably, come as unsurprising to scholars of the South Caucasus. Although the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War resulted in an Azerbaijani victory, with Baku successfully capturing one-third of the contested region, including the strategically-important town of Shusha, its winning-streak was cut short by the Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement of 10 November, 2020. As such, the Russo-Ukrainian war presented Azerbaijan with the perfect opportunity to upend the unsatisfactory status-quo established two-years prior, with Baku essentially seeking to rekindle its momentum in the region, which was, in part, based on extensive military and political support provided by Turkey.

Artak Beglaryan, state minister of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, made it clear that, in his view, Baku was taking direct “advantage of the whole world’s and especially Russia’s preoccupation with the situation in Ukraine”, seeking to “increase” its operations in the region, a sentiment which was echoed by political analyst Tigran Grigoryan, who suggested that Azerbaijan has been effectively “trying to take advantage of the chaotic developments [within the post-Soviet space] for achieving tactical gains on the ground”. Even some members of the Azerbaijani opposition, such as Fuad Gahramanli, publicly called on the Azerbaijani authorities to make good use of this “historic opportunity” and “liberate” the region.

Russia’s Role and Response

Perhaps predicting that the 2020 ceasefire agreement would unravel as soon as Russian troops crossed into Ukraine, Moscow seemingly sought to stabilise the region by signing a Declaration on Allied Interaction with Azerbaijan on February 22, just two days prior to the initiation of the ‘special military operation’. Nevertheless, even if such a move did indeed seek to secure the South Caucasus for the duration of Russia’s invasion, then, by early March, it became evident that the Kremlin’s hopes for stability were short lived.

Interestingly enough, Azerbaijan’s opportunism, apart from materialising in a military confrontation with enemy forces, also saw Baku increasingly question the role played by the 2,000-strong contingent of Russian peacekeepers in the region. On 7 March, for example, a pro-government article blamed the faltering ceasefire on Russia’s peacekeeping troops, who, according to the authors, were either “unable to manage the functions they have been tasked with” or were simply “letting the Armenians” engage in provocations. On a similar note, the Azerbaijani news website ran a story which sought to discredit the commander of the Russian peacekeeping force, Major General Andrey Volkov, suggesting that he was “corrupt” and “beholden to the Armenian authorities”.

As noted prior, such a trend ultimately culminated in the capture of a village by Azerbaijan forces which lay within the Russian peacekeeping zone. Such a move sparked a relatively harsh, and somewhat unusual, reproach from Moscow, who has always sought to maintain a careful balancing act between Yerevan and Baku over their conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russian Ministry of Defence, in a statement from March 26, squarely blamed Baku for “violating” the November 9 trilateral ceasefire agreement, and, in turn, for putting into question the role attributed to the peacekeeping force.

Potential for De-Escalation? 

As the situation stands today, the likelihood that the confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh deteriorates into a full-blown war between Yerevan and Baku is, arguably, interlinked with the current state of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Moscow will, for the time being, continue to prioritise its operations in Ukraine over developments in the South Caucasus. This, in turn, inadvertently sends a signal to Azerbaijan that any action which it undertakes below the deliberate attack on Russian peacekeepers will likely trigger a much more muted response from Moscow than before February 24, as evidenced by the fact that the Kremlin’s recent condemnation of Azeri actions only came following Baku’s encroachment into the peacekeeping zone. 

Furthermore, a further escalation will also be dependent on the extent to which Ankara decides to utilise Russia’s current preoccupation with Ukraine in order to advance its own geopolitical goals in the region. Although Turkey has remained the only member of NATO which has not implemented sanctions against Russia, or strongly condemned its actions against Kiev, this does not mean that Erdogan is no longer vying to extend Turkish influence across the South Caucasus. If another clash occurs, extensive Turkish military support to Azerbaijan can be expected, as was evidenced during the 2020 conflict.

Although the picture might seem bleak, there is, ultimately, room for de-escalation. The Azerbaijani five-point proposal of March 12 for the establishment of a peace agreement could serve as the basis for de-escalation in the region. Nevertheless, Armenia’s appeal for international mediation in light of the proposal has so far been left unanswered, leaving room for the continued deterioration of the crisis in parallel with the war in Ukraine.

Categories: Eurasia, Security

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