2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict: Return of Russia to Caucasus - end of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan

International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East, the Balkans and around the world. On the occasion of the signing of the Russia-brokered peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan to end military conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh enclave, IFIMES made an analysis of the current developments. We bring the most important and interesting excerpts from the analysis titled “2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict: Return of Russia to Caucasus - end of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict:


Return of Russia to Caucasus - end of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan


In Moscow, on 9 November 2020, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia signed the peace agreement that ended the six-week war in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The agreement is a victory for Azerbaijan, which after 26 years has returned its occupied areas (Kalbajar, Lachin, Qubadli, Zangilan, Jabrayil, Fuzuli, Agdam) that have been controlled by Armenia ever since the ceasefire agreed by the Bishkek Protocol[2]in 1994. The Protocol that ended the previous war was also agreed under the mediation of the Russian Federation.


Since the outbreak of the last Armenia- Azerbaijan war on 27 September 2020, Armenia has suffered major military losses from the Azerbaijani forces, which were backed by substantial Turkish military support. Yerevan begun the war with aggressive rhetoric, which was later silenced.


Not only that Armenia lost the Azerbaijani territories that it had occupied in 1993, but the Azerbaijani forces have deeply penetrated the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh and on 8 November 2020 took control of the strategically important city of Shusha, which is only 6.4 km by air from Stepanakert, the capital of the breakaway region. It seems that Armenia was caught by surprise bearing in mind its assertive rhetoric against the Azerbaijan in the previous years. The conflict did not develop as the Armenian leaders had envisaged.


According to the peace agreement, Russian peacekeepers will be deployed for a period of five years, and Armenia will establish a corridor on its territory that will connect West Azerbaijan with the Azerbaijani autonomous region of Nakhchivan, which is completely isolated and in the vicinity of the Turkish border. Russian peacekeepers will also be deployed along the 6 km-long and 5 km-wide Lachin corridor, which links Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.


As common with international peace agreements, the agreement is formulated in diplomatic language that is not “insulting” for the defeated side. However, careful reading of the agreement and its context reveals that Azerbaijan has achieved much more than it expected, while Armenia has lost in the war what it could have avoided- had it agreed to negotiations on the basis of four resolutions of the UN Security Council (822/1993, 853/1993, 874/1993, 884/1993) prior to the outbreak of the conflict. In the recent history the Serbs in Croatia were in a similar position when they refused the proposed Z-4[3] plan. Namely, the refusal of the Z-4  plan by the leaders of Serb insurgents in Croatia was followed by military-police operations Flash (Bljesak) and Storm (Oluja) that led to an exodus of Serbs from Croatia in which more than 250,000 Serbs were exiled within a couple of days.


How 2018 “Velvet revolution” led to defeat of Armenia?


The Moscow peace agreement confirmed the defeat of Armenia. However, the defeat was expected if we take into account the development and potential of Armenian authorities after the 2018 revolution, known as the “Velvet revolution” (headed by a group of civil society organizations), which had not been taken into account in the development of the new geopolitical equation on the Caucasus. Revolution brought to power the opposition leaders, supported by the West, such as Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who promised to fulfill the aspirations of the Armenian people to eradicate crime and corruption, as well as transform the country into the rule of law and transparency.


Just as in Georgia and Ukraine in the recent history, the new rulers of Armenia wanted to distance themselves from the previous policy of remaining in Russia’s interest zone (as Armenia’s territory has been part of Russia’s interest zone for almost a century), and decided to move closer to the West and the NATO alliance. Although Prime Minister Pashinyan had announced that he wants to embrace a “multidirectional” foreign policy, he made an array of fatal mistakes, which led to the defeat of Armenia. These mistakes include:


1. Reform of security forces

Pashinyan pursued a domestic policy that relied on exclusion of opponents through a “purge of the administration”. He appointed civil society activists known for their negative and hostile sentiments towards Russia and installed then in sensitive centers of power. Pashinyan then conducted massive demobilization of officers who had been trained in Moscow, as a result of what the Armenian military lost experienced personnel that had good relations with Russia. This led to reduced communication in the area of intelligence between the two countries.


In May 2020, Pashinyan suddenly removed the leadership of the Armenian security service, specifically the chief of the police and the chief of the general staff. On 8 June 2020, he appointed Argishti Kyaramyan (a 29-year-old with no previous experience in the security sector) as the Director of the National Security Agency, describing it as a step aimed to put security forces under civilian control.


This issue had a direct impact on the fights in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, because the Armenians had completely failed in the area of intelligence operations. Particularly as in the summer months they had neglected the seriousness of logistic and military movements and the intents of Turkish and Azerbaijani forces at the borders of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, as well as underestimated the relevance of sporadic incidents that took place almost along the entire frontline.  The Armenians realized their mistake only once when it was too late, due to what Kyaramyan was removed in the midst of the conflict on 8 October 2020.


2. Changes in security doctrine

Pashinyan relied on researchers from analytical think-tank centers such as the IRI  (International Republican Institute)in the formulation of the “new Armenian national security strategy” that was founded on the idea that the national security apparatus  requires reforms and was an “inefficient Soviet legacy”, which was based on the “outdated Russian model” and has failed in “the identification of modern security threats that Armenia faces.”


3. Reducing cooperation with Russia

Although Armenia is still a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB/CSTO)[4], established in 1992, with headquarters in Moscow, Prime Minister Pashinyan had decided to reduce the level of intelligence cooperation and exchange of security/intelligence data with CSTO member countries, including Russia. As soon as he came to power in 2018, he recalled the ODKB/CSTO Secretary General, the Armenian Yuri Khachaturov, who was arrested and tried for the charges that during the opposition protests of 1 and 2 March 2018 as the commander of the Yerevan garrison he had “subverted public order” without informing member countries, and particularly Russia, and without previous announcement.


Maybe the biggest political and diplomatic blow to Russia was the voting of Armenian representative against the return of Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in June 2019.


Armenian politicians welcomed Russian opposition members as heroes in Armenia. The government introduced restrictions on Russian companies doing business in Armenia, the most important ones being the South Caucasus Railway[5] and the Armenian energy company connected with the Gazprom Company. In November 2018, the offices of these companies were raided for tax evasion, as a result of what Russia threatened to suspend railway operations and withdraw its companies from Armenia.


Pashinyan's government made an array of strategic mistakes, which are often made by civil society activists. Namely, their sole goal and vision was to come to power, which is what has also happened in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, just like in Armenia.


It appears that the lesson Russian allies should learn today is that Russian obligations to the allies are not unconditional and have to be mutual and reciprocal. This means that the allies need to reciprocate Russian support, or otherwise will lose the support of Russia, while Russia will stick only to the formally binding elements and do what is suitable for its interests within the framework of the international law (as in the case of Syria and Iran). However, if an ally decides that it has other allies as well, particularly on the West, then it should expect a ​​harsh response from the Russian side and be ready to bear the consequences.


Peace agreement under pressure and “betrayal” by friend


The agreement leaves a bitter taste, as the Armenians had signed it under double pressure. Specifically, a major defeat on the front and disappointment in their “friend” (Russia), from which they expected help when they need it the most. Hence, the conclusion was that Russians have sold an illusion to Armenia after they had promised them support, which never came. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan did not want cameras to document this “humiliating” moment in the history of Armenia - the signing of the peace agreement.


France as  an “honest mediator”


The Armenian government had high hopes from France, because of the historic relations between the two countries, the shared “hostility” towards Turkey and the strength of the Armenian lobby in France. Namely, there are almost 700.000 Armenians who live in France. As French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian said, France has remained an “honest mediator” during the conflict. However, that was not sufficient for Armenia.


In fact, the official Paris has no wish to wage a battle in the region that does not belong neither to Armenia nor its geostrategic sphere (and Turkey would not allow that, nor would Russia).


Bad news for Iran


The victory of Azerbaijan and the defeat of Armenia is bad news for Iran, the reason being that one fourth of the population of the Islamic Republic of Iran are ethnic Azeris. Hence, the victory of Azerbaijan can encourage this minority in Iran to start expressing political stances related to self-determination, or maybe even request separation from Iran and annexation to Azerbaijan. Although Iran had preserved its neutrality with respect to the war between the two countries, the defeat of Armenia, which is the closest ally of Teheran in the region, will definitely weaken Iran's influence in the region at the time when Turkish influence is growing.


Turkey – new actor on South Caucasus  


While it is true that the agreement was concluded between just three countries, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, it’s directly yielded results will be in favor of Turkey, which supported the official Baku as Turkey and Azerbaijan share cultural, social, economic and historical ties.


Although Turkey celebrated the victory of Azerbaijan, the official Ankara did not manage to achieve its goal and have the “2 + 2” formula applied to the negotiations. Namely, according to this formula Turkey would have been included in the negotiations as the fourth partner. However, this is where the Russians had drawn a red line for Turkish ambitions.


In the future Turkey will strengthen its influence in Azerbaijan (Turkey has already obtained consent of Azerbaijan to establish its military base on the Azerbaijan territory), and simultaneously secure transport of energy from Azerbaijan and Central Asia to Turkey, and then Europe. In the context of its further expansion to Central Asia, Middle East and the Mediterranean region, the victory of Azerbaijan is in favor of Turkey.


Armenia scored an own goal in favor of Russia


Russia displayed restraint and unwillingness to intervene in a dispute between its two neighbors during the conflict, despite the fact that Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB/CSTO), because the territory of the Republic of Armenia was not at risk. Namely, the conflict took place on the territory of Azerbaijan and not within the borders of Armenia.


Russia has very good relations with Azerbaijan, which in its recent history and after the fall of the Soviet Union did not express any negative experiences or stances with respect to its period under the Soviet rule. In fact, it has not closed Russian schools, it developed trade, economic and military relations with Russia, etc. In general, Azerbaijan did not seek allies on the West at the cost of its relations with Russia, but did just the opposite- it respected Russian interests in the region.


With the cease fire agreement Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn the red lines in the Caucasus for all, including his Turkish “partner.” Azerbaijan did not, just as Armenia was not fully defeated. Now a balance has been established in the Caucasus and Russia has returned to the region, which was not under its control since the collapse of the USSR.


Continuation of the war would harm Russian interests and would create a window for a possible international intervention in its geostrategic neighborhood. In fact, Russia does not want the crisis to get internationalized. It also does not want to see an intervention by the west in the conflict (in the name of protection of Armenians) to become inevitable. Russia was concentrated on the problem of development of closer relations between Georgia and the West, which is why the Azerbaijan-Armenia war had “surprised” it. From the military-strategic perspective, Moscow cannot allow to have NATO bases at its southern border, as it currently does at its northern border in Poland and the Baltic states. So far, Moscow has managed to prevent expansion of the conflict from the Caucasus and its escalation into a broader war, which would have unforeseeable and serious consequences.


The defeat of Armenia will deepen its dependence on Russia. Namely, the presence of Moscow, as a signatory to the agreement and its guarantor, through Russian peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region is a confirmation of the role and influence that Russia has in the Caucasus region. This is a result that Moscow deems satisfactory and an own goal scored by Armenia in favor of Russia.


Destiny of Nagorno-Karabakh


Despite the developments on the ground, earlier international decisions, resolutions and stances of different parties to the conflict, the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh region remains unclear.


While the aforementioned resolutions of the UN Security Council related to the conflict and the resolution of the UN General Assembly no. 10693 from 2008.godine, reaffirm territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and call on Armenia to withdraw from the “occupied Azerbaijani territories”, they do not explicitly and categorically speak about the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh region.


Many important questions remain unanswered. According to the Agreement, the “Armenian” military units have to leave the Nagorno-Karabakh region. However, it is not specified whether this means the armed forces of the Republic of Armenia or military formations of Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region? Ambiguous interpretations of this item could activate the conflict at any time.


Azerbaijan succeeded in having the Republic of Armenia be a signatory to the Agreement, as a party to the conflict, and not the unrecognized and self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is not even mentioned. This undoubtedly weakens the negotiating position of Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, even in the future political-diplomatic fight for autonomy within the Republic of Azerbaijan.




In the opinion of analysts in the International Institute IFIMES, although the last ceasefire, that is the peace agreement, is respected for the time being, the circumstances indicate that it is rather unlikely that the agreement will remain in place and serve as a basis for some peace talks among belligerent parties.


The problem of almost million refugees and displaced persons on the territories affected by war still remains. Experiences from other conflicts in the past show that international actors had abuses the issue of refugees and displaced persons for political purposes. Armenia and Armenian diaspora will probably undertake efforts to regain the lost territories. In fact, they could get the support and funding from France, United Arab Emirates or even Iran for such a cause. All in attempt to slow down the growing influence of Turkey in the region, which is France’s goal.


The response of the Armenian opposition and the release issued by the Armenian Ministry of Defense after the agreement, which states “we have to learn from the mistakes from the past, look into the future and build a strong military, which the people of Armenia deserves,” indicate a possible search for a new solution with military means. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned them that it would be “suicide” if the Armenian government would withdraw from the ceasefire signed under the mediation of Russia in the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. At the same time, the opposition forces in Yerevan protest against the ceasefire and call on Prime MinisterNikol Pashinyan, as the signatory to the agreement, to resign. The lesson from the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan can also serve as a “moral” for certain politicians in the Balkans, who cultivate a romanticist relation (based on ethnicity and Orthodox religion) towards Russia although this war has shown that Russia is led firstly and foremostly by its own national interests.


It was clearly proven that an intensive pro-western foreign policy orientation must not be equated with an intensive anti-Russia campaign. Foreign policy implies fine balancing of relations and cooperation. On the internal political level this means implementation of reform processes directed towards development of democracy, rule of law and democratic relations- that is embracing of the European system of values. At the same time, this is also the best way to resist the Russian influence. Furthermore, it has transpired once again that counting and relying on the so-called traditional friends has no practical weight, which in this case was demonstrated through the very passive stance of France and the role of Russia that was below the expectations. One also gets the impression that the European Union as well did not play its role, particularly bearing in mind that this all was happening in its neighborhood. The same was seen in the case of Belarus and the support provided to its opposition, which further complicated the relations in the country.  


Ljubljana/Baku/Washington/Moscow/Brussels, 3 December 2020 



[1] IFIMES - IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia,has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018.

[2] TheBishkek Protocol is a provisional ceasefire agreement, signed by the representatives of Armenia (Parliament Speaker Babken Ararktsian), the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (Parliament Speaker Karen Baburyan), Azerbaijan (First Deputy Parliament Speaker Afiyaddin Jalilov) and Russia's representative to the OSCE Minsk Group Vladimir Kazimirov on May 5, 1994 in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.https://peacemaker.un.org/armeniaazerbaijan-bishkekprotocol94 .

[3] The Z-4 Plan or Draft agreement on reintegration of occupied areas into the Republic of Croatia (Krajina, Slavonia, Southern Baranja and Western Sirmium), drafted by Ambassadors of Contact Group members: United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations, and presented in late January 1995. The Z-4 plan implied that “Serb Krajina” would be an almost independent entity within the Republic of Croatia, but without an international identity, that is “a state within the state.”

[4] ODKB/CSTO is an organization for collective security and cooperation established in 2002 as a military alliance of countries in the post-Soviet area including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan.

[5] South Caucasus Railway is the rail operator in Armenia that is a 100% subsidiary of the Russian Railways Company. https://www.railway.am/