Dispatch

Russian Troops in Nagorno-Karabakh ‘Clearly a Win for Moscow’

The Russian-brokered cease-fire that ended six weeks of fighting means soldiers on the ground—either as peacekeepers or as a vanguard of Putin’s latest garrison state.

A Russian peacekeeper in Nagorno-Karabakh
A Russian peacekeeper holds up his hand to stop a photo being taken as a checkpoint is set up at the entrance to Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh's regional capital, on Nov. 13. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh—The Russian soldiers were in no mood to talk. At the bottom of a winding mountain road, where less than a week earlier Armenian and Azerbaijani forces had been locked in fierce combat, the squad had arrived earlier that morning to set up a new checkpoint on the outskirts of Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional capital, Stepanakert. Any attempt at conversation was met with impassive shrugs; attempts to take photos, with a sharp rebuke.

In the previous day or two, only brief flashes had emerged of this unprecedented peacekeeping force, deployed under a Russian-brokered cease-fire to halt six weeks of fighting in this breakaway enclave. One phone clip had shown the rear of a Russian armored personnel carrier crawling through the Lachin corridor, a mountain pass that connects the disputed territory with Armenia proper. Another photo captured a tank rolling through rugged terrain, the Russian tricolor fluttering above its gun turret.

STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh—The Russian soldiers were in no mood to talk. At the bottom of a winding mountain road, where less than a week earlier Armenian and Azerbaijani forces had been locked in fierce combat, the squad had arrived earlier that morning to set up a new checkpoint on the outskirts of Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional capital, Stepanakert. Any attempt at conversation was met with impassive shrugs; attempts to take photos, with a sharp rebuke.

In the previous day or two, only brief flashes had emerged of this unprecedented peacekeeping force, deployed under a Russian-brokered cease-fire to halt six weeks of fighting in this breakaway enclave. One phone clip had shown the rear of a Russian armored personnel carrier crawling through the Lachin corridor, a mountain pass that connects the disputed territory with Armenia proper. Another photo captured a tank rolling through rugged terrain, the Russian tricolor fluttering above its gun turret.

In this southern corner of the former Soviet Union—caught between Russia to the north, Turkey to the west, and Iran to the south—Russian boots on the ground deliver a major coup for the Kremlin, granting Moscow an upper hand as great powers jostle. However, for civilians and conscripts in the firing line, the dramatic deployment promises little resolution to this decades-old crisis. Immense challenges remain in a battleground quieted by an uneasy truce, yet still bereft of a sustainable peace.

Moscow’s military intervention follows a six-week war that, for the most part, had favored its regional rival, Ankara, chief patron of Azerbaijan. Turkish military support had fueled a powerful Azerbaijani assault against ethnic Armenian soldiers who have held Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas since the 1990s. Earlier this month, as the conflict reached its brutal crescendo in the key town of Shushi, threatening next to overwhelm Stepanakert in the valley below, Russia stepped in with its peace deal.

Ethnic Armenian soldiers man a tank by the highway connecting Stepanakert and Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh on Nov. 13.

Ethnic Armenian soldiers man a tank by the highway connecting Stepanakert and Shushi in Nagorno-Karabakh on Nov. 13. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

Ethnic Armenian soldiers block the main northern highway in Nagorno-Karabakh on November 14, 2020, forcing traffic to take a smaller, rougher road through Kalbajar.

Ethnic Armenian soldiers block the main northern highway in Nagorno-Karabakh on Nov. 14, forcing traffic to take a smaller, rougher road through Kalbajar. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

 

An armored vehicle on the highway connecting Stepanakert and Shushi on Nov. 13.

An armored vehicle on the highway connecting Stepanakert and Shushi on Nov. 13. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

As part of its nine-point plan, the agreement froze hostilities, returned certain districts to Azerbaijan’s control, and, significantly, authorized the deployment of nearly 2,000 Russian soldiers as a peacekeeping force, along with hundreds of military vehicles and pieces of vaguely termed “special equipment.” Both sides signed the pact, prompting fury in Armenia and celebration in Azerbaijan. 

“Nagorno-Karabakh was the only conflict in the former Soviet Union without a Russian military presence, and that was a long-term irritant for Moscow,” said Richard Giragosian, the director of the Regional Studies Center, an independent think tank in Yerevan, Armenia. “The deployment is clearly a win for Moscow.”

Operating in a region regarded by Russia as its “near abroad,” Turkey had given unprecedented support to Azerbaijan, directing the Azerbaijani offensive and bolstering it with combat drones and Syrian mercenaries—a clear threat to Moscow’s sphere of influence. Despite the moniker of peacekeepers, analysts regard the Russian troops as simply a tool to push back against Turkey’s postwar presence, with the added benefits of opening up trade routes and linking the administration of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to the Kremlin.

“[President Vladimir] Putin’s Russia doesn’t really do humanitarian,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. “Its agenda is to get its footprint back in the southern Caucasus. Russia is reinserting itself into that region, where it’s been in retreat.”

The deployment has relegated Ankara to a secondary, largely symbolic role following the Kremlin-enforced cease-fire, though that could change. Turkey’s parliament last week approved a plan to send its own peacekeepers to Azerbaijan, which may yet allow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to save face, if not tip the balance back in its favor.

Despite the realpolitik, the halt in fighting does bring relief to those in the war zone—at least for now. The conflict cost thousands of lives and displaced around 100,000 more, some of whom can now return home. The horror of relentless bombardments was brought into sharp relief by Norayr Zakharyan, an Armenian orthopedic surgeon who treated the wounded while volunteering at the hospital in Stepanakert.

Vehicles crowd the road in Kalbachar on Nov. 14 as thousands of civilians flee the contested area before it cedes to Azerbaijan's control.

Vehicles crowd the road in Kalbajar on Nov. 14 as thousands of civilians flee the contested area before it cedes to Azerbaijan’s control. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

An ethnic Armenian soldier back from the frontlines around Shushi returns to his house to pack up and escape Kalbajar on Nov. 12.

An ethnic Armenian soldier back from the front lines around Shushi returns to his house to pack up and escape Kalbajar on Nov. 12. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

“During the worst of the fighting, I was carrying out 10 or 11 amputations each day,” Zakharyan recalled. “There was so much bombing, and we received so many people with injuries from artillery. It was tough, but there were too many people who needed our help. You just have to be strong. You cannot think about yourself—you can only think of them. For me, this peace deal is just some game between the big powers.”

Despite the return of their former imperial ruler, some Armenians welcome the appearance of Russian soldiers and even the cease-fire, regardless of its punitive terms against their country. 

One afternoon, outside the Red Cross building in Stepanakert, a soldier showed up seeking information about his missing nephew. “As far as I’m concerned, the war is over and that’s no bad thing,” said Misha Ayvazyan. He was clad in military fatigues, his face etched with fatigue and worry. “It’s good that we are alive.”

Another soldier accompanied him. “I’m all for having the Russians here,” said Boris Stepanyan. “Far better than being at the mercy of the Turks, anyway.”

Bodies of soldiers killed fighting on behalf of Azerbaijan remain on the side of the highway connecting Stepanakert and Shushi on Nov. 13.

Bodies of soldiers killed fighting on behalf of Azerbaijan remain on the side of the highway connecting Stepanakert and Shushi on Nov. 13. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

A Russian peacekeeper speaks with ethnic Armenian soldiers before the Azeri and Armenian sides exchange the bodies of fallen soldiers near Shushi on Nov. 13—a process coordinated by the Russian peacekeeping force, overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and stipulated by a term of the peace deal.

A Russian peacekeeper speaks with ethnic Armenian soldiers before the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides exchange the bodies of fallen soldiers near Shushi on Nov. 13—a process coordinated by the Russian peacekeeping force, overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and stipulated by a term of the peace deal. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

For the hundreds of thousands of Azeris displaced by war in the early 1990s, the truce promises the chance to return home. Elsewhere, the peacekeeping force has coordinated the exchange of war dead between both sides, Russian combat engineers have been clearing unexploded munitions along the Lachin corridor, and other personnel have escorted buses carrying hundreds of refugees on their emotional return to Stepanakert. Such scenes hand an initial PR victory to Moscow, in contrast to more ham-fisted interventions to the north in Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“There is a degree of ‘lessons learned’ in the Kremlin from Abkhazia and South Ossetia where the local populations felt betrayed because of unfulfilled promises and expectations of Russian aid and investment,” said Giragosian of the Regional Studies Center. “The Russian foreign and defense ministers have both come to Yerevan—it’s a tag-team effort, which shows a hell of a lot more sophistication than the Americans or Europeans.”

The scenes now unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh correspond to what was known in recent years as the “Lavrov Plan.” That meant the entrance of Russian peacekeepers in tandem with Armenia’s phased withdrawal from occupied territories. For Paris and Washington, mere bystanders during the conflict, such unilateral action was always unacceptable. Yet that’s just what Putin did in the war’s waning hours. 

“This was a strategic win by accident,” Giragosian said. “This fell into his lap.”

Yet the dividends in public opinion, geopolitical gamesmanship, and even peace are not guaranteed to last.

Russia’s deal has been criticized for vague wording, especially around the resettlement of refugees and the construction of new infrastructure. Azerbaijan retains the right to veto an extension of the mission’s five-year mandate, thereby eroding the leverage secured by the Kremlin—as well as laying kindling for a serious spat between Moscow and Baku. Most importantly, it offers no political settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, a crucial absence that will only perpetuate tensions.

“This is a grand truce deal, not a peace deal,” de Waal said. “The Russians could win a lot, but they could also lose from this.”

With the hostilities paused, the fight now shifts from the battlefield to diplomatic negotiations. Russia’s short-term goal will be to prevent the resurgence of military and intercommunal violence, not least as Armenian-held Stepanakert and Azerbaijani-held Shusha are so close to each other. But the real test will lie in peace building. By swinging this deal, Moscow has saddled itself with that responsibility, though it may call on other parties, from the OSCE to U.N. agencies, Western capitals, and other international organizations.

Whatever option it chooses, peace building is critical to future stability. The cease-fire at the end of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1994 never became a sustainable peace—a failure tragically highlighted by the last few weeks of bloodshed and destruction.

“The longer-term challenge is political,” said Kenny Gluck, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University who previously held high-level roles in peace processes in Darfur, Yemen, and the Central African Republic. “The most important thing now is to start putting in place mechanisms that move beyond the cease-fire and start thinking about the creation of longer-term political legitimacy. That’s going to be the difficult task—and it won’t be achieved quickly.”

Russian peacekeepers hold up their hands to stop a photo being taken as a checkpoint is set up at the entrance to Stepanakert on Nov. 13. ” width=”1024″ height=”683″ /> Russian peacekeepers hold up their hands to stop a photo being taken as a checkpoint is set up at the entrance to Stepanakert on Nov. 13. Jack Losh for Foreign Policy

One cloudy November afternoon, on the Armenia-bound northern road through Nagorno-Karabakh, a sizable detachment of Russian peacekeepers was spotted by the side of the road. One armored personnel carrier was parked off the asphalt where two young soldiers surveyed the scene, one of them in a blue surgical mask. Nearby, three more hulking combat vehicles were parked in a walled-off yard, flying Russian flags and bearing the insignia of the Mirotvorcheskiye Sily, or peacekeeping forces.

 The dozen or so men there were less guarded than their fellow soldiers in Stepanakert, offering enthusiastic handshakes and welcoming grins.

“We arrived in Yerevan two days ago, then came into Nagorno-Karabakh yesterday,” said a private who spoke in English and gave his name as Slava. “We don’t know exactly where we’ll be deployed. We don’t know what will be tomorrow.”

Despite the uncertainty, Slava seemed sure of one thing. “The Russian presence will help the situation,” he asserted. “It will, of course. We are going to do everything we can to help, because peace is our most important goal.”

 Suddenly, in the ramshackle yard strewn with litter and packed with firepower, Slava grew cagey. Whether his presence was the first hint of an embryonic Russian protectorate or the vanguard of Russia’s latest garrison state, Slava was far from home and realized he shouldn’t be talking.

“I am sorry, but my commander forbids me from speaking with you,” Slava said. “He is getting nervous. If I keep talking, he will do push-ups on my eyebrows. I cannot say any more.”

Jack Losh is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering conservation, humanitarian issues and traditional cultures, often in areas of conflict and crisis. Twitter: @jacklosh