The recent fierce fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia, just the latest in a prolonged conflict, has seemingly have come to an end. This bloody engagement, dubbed the ‘Second Nagorno-Karabakh War,’ lasted six weeks and ended in a truce brokered by Russia, which began on 10 November 2020. Armenia, as the losing side, agreed to return to Azerbaijan most of the territories which it occupied in the early 1990s as the result of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The centuries-long dispute between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the enclave last re-emerged in the late 1980-s during the final years of the Soviet Union, to which both Azerbaijan and Armenia still belonged. In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh, which was mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, announced its secession from Azerbaijan and its intention to join Armenia. This led to a bloody war, by the end of which in 1994 Armenia fully occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and some other territories of Azerbaijan beyond the disputed enclave itself. Subsequent 25 year-long peace talks mediated by the United States, France, and Russia under the umbrella of the OSCE have failed to achieve a peace treaty.
The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, apart from being a new phase in an old regional conflict, carries significant geopolitical significance. It manifests the multidimensional nature of the conflict and the complex dynamics governing the interplay of all interested parties, especially Russia and Turkey. As the war is over, at least for now, it is worth examining the primary geopolitical outcomes of the conflict.
Winners and losers in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War
The military superiority of Azerbaijan in this war ensured that the government of Armenia had no choice but to agree to return to the opposite side all internationally recognized territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia also agreed to give back most of the southern part of the enclave itself, including the ancient city of Shusha, the second-largest town in the enclave which is situated in a strategically dominant position overlooking Stepanakert, the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh. In other words, Azerbaijan has regained control over three-quarters of their territories lost in1994. Armenia retains control only over the northern and central parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Lachin Corridor which connects the enclave with Armenia’s mainland, the security of which is to be guaranteed by Russian “peacekeepers,” and 2,000 have already been deployed. In exchange for the Lachin Corridor, Azerbaijan also gets free access to its Nakhichevan enclave, which is separated from the mainland by the Armenian territory. Another significant gain for Baku is that the self-proclaimed and internationally unrecognized Armenian client quasi-state ‘The Republic of Artsakh’ has seized to exist.
One international player to gain from the conflict is Russia. So far, the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh was the only one in the former Soviet space where Russia was not involved directly in any way. Given the Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions, the apparent success is that Russia has still become a guarantor of the agreement, thus enhancing its geopolitical standing in the region. Moscow will preserve and even step up its influence in Armenia, for which Russian peacekeepers have become vital. But these are not the only Kremlin gains from the war. The Armenia’s government led by Nikol Pashinyan came to power in January 2019 as a result of a peaceful democratic revolution that swept away the corrupt authoritarian government supported by Moscow. However, Armenia’s military defeat significantly decreased the government’s support in the country. Russia, Armenia’s main ally, held back its intervention, as if it wanted to teach an essential lesson all its allies and clients: look what happens when forces outside the Kremlin’s favor come to power. Arguably, Moscow nevertheless saved Armenia from complete defeat, thus making it even more dependent than ever before. For now, Pashinyan’s attempts to develop multi-vector foreign policies and distance the country from Moscow have come to an end.
Another and perhaps the biggest geopolitical beneficiary from the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War is Turkey, the growing regional power which has now increased its geopolitical role in the region – a part which Ankara has been so keen to play. Many experts believe that Turkey was crucial not just in preparing and supporting Azerbaijan militarily and politically but also in encouraging its ally to start the offensive to restore its territorial integrity. Now Turkey’s military personnel will be stationed in various monitoring centres in the recently recaptured areas of Azerbaijan. Turkey also gained a strategic transport corridor to Azerbaijan and further into Central Asia with which Ankara has strong historical and cultural ties.
In other words, Turkey has entered into the region not just as an essential stakeholder but rather a geopolitical game changer.
Some questions remain, such as: Why did Armenia eventually accept the deal? The previous ceasefire agreements did not last even a day. This time, however, was different, and it seems that the agreement has been and will be observed by both parties. Given the military situation and the main interested parties, it would be reasonable to suggest that Russia and Turkey agreed first and then made Armenia accept it. Another question is: Why did Azerbaijan accept the agreement? Indeed, it gained a lot from it, but why stop the offensive when you’re winning, you have military superiority, and there’s a high chance of recapturing all the contested territories? The answer is the same – Russia and Turkey as the regional power brokers pushed president Aliyev to accept the deal as both Russia and Turkey achieved their aims and reached a consensus. It seems that president Aliyev realized that Vladimir Putin would not allow him to retake Nagorno-Karabakh back fully as it would be against the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests in the region. Perhaps Aliyev also understood that a complete victory in Nagorno-Karabakh would make his country overly dependent on its ally Turkey. In the current situation, however, competing regional superpowers counterbalance each other. As a result, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War has brought a new geopolitical configuration to the region, which may last for some time until the new local, regional or global forces break down this fragile balance of power. However, a more active involvement of global players such as the United States, the EU, and possibly others would increase the chances for a lasting peace in the region.
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