Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a ceasefire agreement in November, bringing a tenuous peace to the long-disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region

Print edition : January 01, 2021

People storm the main hall of the parliament in Yerevan after Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he had signed an agreement with leaders of Russia and Azerbaijan to end the war, on November 10. Photo: Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure via REUTERS

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan while addressing the nation in the capital, Baku, on November 10 holds up the agreement signed with Armenia. Photo: Azerbaijani Presidential Press Office via AP

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia addressing the nation in the capital, Yerevan, on November 12. Photo: Tigran MEHRABYAN/Press Service of Armenia’s government/AFP

The Russia-brokered ceasefire agreement ends the bloody 49-day conflict. The war, which saw many casualties on both sides, resulted in Azerbaijan regaining lost territory and with Turkey for the first time playing a military and diplomatic role in the region.

On November 10, the fierce battle that started in the last week of September (“‘Frozen conflict’ erupts”, Frontline, November 6) between the armies of the two former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh ended. The day before, the two sides signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia. The victor was Azerbaijan, which succeeded in reclaiming most of the territory it had lost when the enclave broke away from the country after a war fought in 1992-94. The Azeris, no wonder, are overjoyed.

The present bloody 49-day conflict resulted in heavy casualties on both sides. Non-military targets were frequently attacked, exacting a high civilian toll. In the last days of the fighting, the Azeri and Armenian soldiers engaged in face-to-face combat. Around 3,000 Azerbaijani soldiers were killed. The Armenian side has so far not officially revealed the numbers of its casualties, but officials in the Nagorno-Karabakh region told the media that more than 2,300 soldiers from their side were killed. The ceasefire agreement came after the Azerbaijani army had inflicted heavy losses on its enemies and was on the verge of capturing Stepanakert, the capital of the enclave. Azeri forces had taken the second biggest town in the region, Shushi (which the Azeris call Shusha), which is just 10 km away from Stepanakert.

The armed conflict between the two countries, the first conventional war they have fought in recent years, stood out for the innovative use of military drones and artificial intelligence. According to many military analysts, it provided an insight into how future wars would be fought. Experts have started questioning the utility of main battle tanks in high-intensity military operations after images of camouflaged Armenian tanks burning after being hit by drones flooded the media. Suicide drones (that is, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) armed with explosives), supplied by Israel and Turkey, caused havoc in the ranks of the Armenian forces. Turkey signalled its emergence as a major manufacturer and supplier of sophisticated UAVs. Drones from the country had earlier helped the officially recognised Libyan government defeat rebel forces and help end the siege of the capital, Tripoli. Turkey had also used military drones to great effect in northern Syria and passed on the lessons to the Azerbaijan military. Drones have the additional advantage of being able to film their lethal attacks. The pictures of Armenian weaponry being destroyed helped Azerbaijan score points in the propaganda war.

The agreement

Under the terms of the agreement signed by President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Armenian troops had to withdraw from most of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and hand over control to the Azerbaijani forces. After the agreement was signed, Pashinyan said that he had made the decision “after a deep analysis of the military situation”. Until then, his government’s propaganda machine had lulled the Armenian populace into a false sense of security, making them believe that their country had the upper hand in the fighting. Armenian military commanders had convinced Pashinyan that any delay in signing the agreement would result in the loss of the entire autonomous region, including the capital. The Armenian military had also lost control of a key road through which it supplied arms to its beleaguered fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Also read: Azerbaijan and Armenia in a military conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region

Under the agreement, Armenia also allowed Azerbaijan to open a transport corridor through Armenian territory to provide access to the Nakhichevan region, an Azerbaijani enclave. Aliyev had reason to be elated with the outcome, describing it as the “dawn of a new reality” and that Azerbaijan had finally “restored its territorial integrity”. Pashinyan meanwhile is fighting for his political life. Many of his senior Ministers have already been forced to resign. On November 10, protesters stormed the parliament building in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, and ransacked the main hall. The capital is witnessing daily protests. According to most observers of the region, the Prime Minister’s days in office are numbered. “The seat of the Prime Minister is currently occupied by a political corpse,” said Artur Vanatsayan, the leader of the opposition.

Armenians settled in the region were given only 10 days to clear out from homes that they had occupied for more than a quarter of a century. More than 50,000 refugees out of the 700,000 displaced by the war in the early 1990s have started returning to the Nagorno-Karabakh region. These are the people that the victorious Armenians evicted from 10 districts of the area 25 years ago. Russian peacekeepers are helping to manage the flow of Azeris back to their original homes and ensuring that no untoward incident happens during the exchanges of populations; 100,000 Armenians have already fled from the enclave and only 30,000 residents remain. It is unlikely that the Armenians who fled will return. With the return of its displaced citizens to the enclave, Azerbaijan has achieved its main military and political goals. Armenia had defied calls from the international community asking it to withdraw its troops from these occupied areas. Many of the departing Armenians preferred to burn down their houses rather than leave them for the returning Azeris, who had been their neighbours during the Soviet days.

Ethnic divide

The war may have ended, but it will take a long time for the ethnic divisions to be bridged in this part of the Caucasus. By allowing Russian troops to be present in the enclave, the Azerbaijani leadership is sending out a signal to the Armenians still there that peaceful coexistence is possible as long as the right of displaced Azeris to return is respected. If the Armenian leadership proves to be inflexible again, then Azerbaijan will no doubt look for an opportune moment to strike again to complete the liberation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in its entirety now that it has gained a military advantage over Armenia.

Russia, which has a mutual defence pact with Armenia, did not go out of its way to bolster the Armenian forces in the conflict although most of Armenia’s weaponry is of Russian origin. Russia, for the record, supplies arms to and has friendly relations with both countries. In fact, Putin has a better personal chemistry with the Azerbaijani President than with the Armenian Prime Minister. Aliyev’s father, Heydar, was a senior KGB official who rose to become a Politburo member in the last decade of the Soviet Union. He later became President of independent Azerbaijan.

But Russia has close political links with Armenia, which is a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. The relationship has become even closer now with Russian boots on the ground in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Under the defence treaty with Armenia, Russia is obliged to intervene militarily only if there is foreign aggression inside Armenian territory. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan. Putin stressed that the latest ceasefire agreement was “in the best interests of the people of Azerbaijan and Armenia”.

Aliyev agreed to sign it immediately after his forces accidentally shot down a Russian military helicopter, killing two Russian military officers. The Azerbaijan government feared that the incident would give Russia an excuse to intervene militarily in the conflict on the side of the Armenians. The Armenians have historically viewed Russia as their protector since the genocide of their compatriots in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

Russian peacekeepers will be deployed for five years in the region. They will be guarding Stepanakert, and 2,000 of them will be guarding the Lachin corridor, a 60-km route that will connect Stepanakert to Armenia. Turkey will for the first time be playing a small military role in the region. Turkish military and diplomatic support had played an important role in establishing Azerbaijan’s military superiority over its rival.

Also read: Armenia: A forgotten genocide

Russia and Turkey have agreed to establish a joint peacekeeping centre to monitor the truce. A limited number of Turkish troops will be deployed for a year to jointly monitor the peace along with the larger Russian force. Russian officials have said that the Turkish soldiers will only be concerned with the monitoring work on Azerbaijani soil and will not step into Nagorno-Karabakh. “We agreed to set up a joint centre that will use drones. We will jointly control the situation along the contact line using these aerial vehicles,” Putin told the media. Russia has made it clear that Turkey is not a party to the peace agreement. Russia, according to reports, was initially not too keen on deploying peacekeepers in the volatile region but was forced to do so after the Azeri forces threatened to capture the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, including Stepanakert. This Russian military deployment will be its largest in the region since its face-off with Georgia in 2008 over South Ossetia.

The Minsk Group comprising Russia, France and the United States had negotiated earlier peace deals between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The three countries had also played a role in negotiating three very short-lived ceasefire agreements during this year’s military confrontation. However, after the latest ceasefire agreement in which Turkey has been given an important role, France and the U.S. are no longer seen as key players in the region, and the role of the Minsk Group has become more or less irrelevant.

Turkey’s role

Turkey has formally emerged as an important player in the region for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was the first head of state to visit Azerbaijan after the hostilities ended. He attended the military parade held in the capital, Baku, to mark the Azeri victory. Azerbaijan seems to have played its diplomatic cards deftly, managing to retain its close relations with Russia, Israel and the U.S. at the same time.

Erdogan pledged that Turkey would do its utmost to help Azerbaijan liberate the rest of the enclave. The French Senate unanimously passed a non-binding resolution calling for the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an “independent” state after the latest ceasefire agreement was signed. As a result, Azerbaijan wants France to be dropped from the Minsk Group. France has around 800,000 citizens of Armenian origin.

The decision of Russia and Turkey to work together in the southern Caucasus came as a surprise to the international community, given that the two countries are on opposing sides in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts. But they have cooperated in other areas. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, bought the S-400 anti-missile systems from Russia despite strong objections from the U.S. It seems that Turkey no longer wants to be seen as an ally of the West in the Caucasus and has decided to strike out on its own in the region. Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman aspirations have already borne some fruit. Turkish troops are now not only in Azerbaijan but also in Qatar and Libya. Part of Syria is under illegal Turkish occupation. Iran, which shares a border with Azerbaijan, has also expressed its happiness with the deal despite having reservations about Turkey’s growing role in the region. A statement from the Iranian Foreign Ministry expressed the hope that the new agreement would lead to “long-lasting peace in the Caucasus”. Russia and Iran were unhappy about Turkey’s role in facilitating the influx of a large number of Syrian fighters belonging to militant groups to help the Azerbaijan army.