Nagorno-Karabakh Is Moscow’s Latest Frozen Conflict
Russian peacekeepers have radically reshaped the region.
Dadivank, a beautiful Armenian monastery in the Kalbajar region of Azerbaijan, could be the world’s most fortified church: Its ancient ramparts bristle with sandbags and gun emplacements, and cloisters have been turned into an army barracks. Just six months ago, Armenian pilgrims could worship here freely and in peace. Now, the only way to visit is with a Russian army escort that leaves twice a month from Stepanakert, the regional capital of what remains of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, an Armenian breakaway region that controls just over two-thirds of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fate of this 12th-century monastery has become a flash point for the conflict over Armenian cultural heritage in land recently retaken by Azerbaijan.
As we stood in the courtyard of Dadivank after a recent Sunday service, Narik, my Armenian escort, pointed to the remains of an old water tower on a hill above us. “There is an Azerbaijani outpost right over there,” he said. “Careful, I bet they’ve got their rifles trained on us as we speak,” he added, a touch dramatically.
As one drives into Stepanakert itself, a billboard with a stony-faced portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin glowers down. It reads “Man of the Year,” and the locals mean it seriously. The inhabitants of Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh regard Moscow as their last protector. Russia, for its part, has been increasingly cutting off and controlling the breakaway state, leaving Armenia more and more powerless in the region.
Last month, the world’s attention was focused on Russia’s troop buildup on the border with Ukraine. But while international attention was distracted by what now seems to have been a fakeout, Russia was quietly consolidating control of another restive region in its environs: Nagorno-Karabakh.
The long-simmering conflict that erupted over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh in September 2020 was a disaster for Armenia. Outside of significant loss of life—as many as 8,000 soldiers on both sides perished—Yerevan was forced to relinquish around a third of Nagorno-Karabakh in addition to seven Azerbaijani regions it had controlled since the first war over the enclave in the early 1990s. The Russian-brokered cease-fire that ended the latest skirmish mandated that a contingent of around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers control the new line of contact in the region.
Yet the regional power that has benefited most from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war is Russia, Armenia’s supposed ally. Today, Russian troops are stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, and they now seem to have the final say over the region’s political matters. All this has rendered the statelet more and more isolated. Since February, it has become almost impossible for foreigners—bar Russians—to enter Nagorno-Karabakh. Almost all foreign press and aid organizations who have tried to enter the region have been blocked from doing so by the Russian authorities.
A document obtained and published by Aravot, an Armenian national newspaper, listed that around 80 or so organizations had been barred from entering Nagorno-Karabakh. These included Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Crisis Group, and even the Halo Trust, a demining organization that had been well respected by locals before and during the conflict.
The BBC, Radio France, and many freelance journalists also had their press accreditation denied. The photojournalist Kiran Ridley was even issued a visa by the Artsakh authorities, only to be turned away by Russian soldiers at the border. They told him that only Russian and Armenian nationals were allowed in Nagorno-Karabakh from now on.
The exact chain of command in Nagorno-Karabakh is deliberately opaque. The leader of the Russian peacekeeping mission, Lt. Gen. Rustam Muradov, meets frequently with Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders to hear petitions about what should happen in the statelet. But because Armenian forces were forced to withdraw from the area—while Azerbaijan’s troops remain behind the new line of contact—Russia now has complete military control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Jeanne Cavelier, the Central Asia regional director for Reporters Without Borders, said these restrictions risk transforming Nagorno-Karabakh into a news and information “black hole” and called on the Russian peacekeepers to expand access for international media. This is a stark contrast from before. When Nagorno-Karabakh was under Armenian control, NGO workers, journalists, and even tourists could enter the region almost at leisure.
In March, the parliament of the Republic of Arstakh introduced Russian as an official language, and officials in both Yerevan and Moscow have proposed giving the region’s population Russian passports. While such an arrangement would be new to Nagorno-Karabakh, it tracks with how events have unfolded in other frozen conflict zones where Russia has extended its grip.
Across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, Russia has used its peacekeepers to put pressure on regional foes while offering Russian citizenship to locals. South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia recognized as an independent state by Russia, is controlled by Russian peacekeepers. It is extremely difficult for foreigners to access and completely geopolitically reliant on Moscow. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Russia’s demand that its peacekeepers patrol the borders in the Donbass region in the county’s east is one of the main sticking points preventing a lasting cease-fire.
Russian peacekeepers have also patrolled two other frozen conflict zones—the regions of Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova—since the early 1990s. These areas remain similarly isolated, though slightly easier to access than South Ossetia and the Donbass. A senior Ukrainian general told me in 2018 that Russia had mobilized its peacekeepers in Transnistria in 2014 in case they were needed for an invasion. Indeed, one of the Ukrainian military’s biggest fears is that Russia could launch an offensive from the Donbass or Moldova.
Of course, there remain significant differences between Nagorno-Karabakh and these other enclaves. For one, both Armenia and Azerbaijan signed off on the presence of Russian peacekeepers in their cease-fire last fall. Ukraine and Moldova, by contrast, had turned definitively toward the West when Russia intervened in their local conflicts.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have also retained friendly relations with their former colonial ruler in Moscow. Yet the two countries themselves remain sworn enemies, and, in Nagorno-Karabakh, mere yards separate Azerbaijani troops from their Armenian enemies. This reality has rendered Moscow’s men less controversial than elsewhere, as they are seen as a neutral party. But skirmishes still break out.
When I visited this line of contact shortly before access for foreign journalists was cut in February, I witnessed one of these violent encounters for myself. A small group of journalists, of which I was a part, was accompanied by a squad of Armenian troops who were standing guard in Taghavard, an Armenian village that is cut almost directly in two by the new front line. Shortly after arriving at what the soldiers said was a heavily mined line, we heard gunfire coming from the Azerbaijani positions barely a mile from us.
The Armenian troops were tight-lipped about the situation but confirmed to us that they were still suffering injuries from sniper fire they had endured earlier that day—meaning that such skirmishes were a routine occurrence. In a separate engagement that day, as many as 62 Armenian troops had been taken prisoner while defending the Armenian villages of Hin Tagher and Khtsaberd in otherwise Azerbaijani-controlled territory. The status of these villages had not been settled under the cease-fire agreement, so Azerbaijan decided to settle the matter by force.
The mayor of Taghavard told us that when a villager crossed into the other Azerbaijani-controlled part of the village to visit his brother’s grave, he was taken hostage by Azerbaijani troops who claimed that Armenians in the area were saboteurs. The villager’s whereabouts remain unknown, although local officials suspect he was taken to Baku.
One Armenian foreign official in Yerevan complained to me that while Russia had done nothing in response to Azerbaijan’s initial attack in the war last fall, it moved very swiftly as soon as given the chance to deploy troops in the region. Still, many Armenians feel that they have no choice other than to turn to Russia for protection.
Despite the recent influx of Russian troops, a semblance of peace has been restored in Stepanakert itself. During the war in September 2020, locals would rise early in the morning to sweep away the broken glass and debris from shelling the night before. A local told me that keeping their city presentable was a small act of defiance during the war. Now, the streets are clean, and most of the damaged buildings have been repaired or covered up. Life has returned, and Stepanakert looks as if it just suffered a bad storm rather than a pitiless military bombardment.
The Armenians who remain, however, face a deep identity crisis. The hastily brokered cease-fire agreement made no mention of the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, which parties relegated to later talks. But this intractable issue is at the heart of the conflict over the enclave, and until it is sorted, Nagorno-Karabakh will join Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Donbass, and Transnistria as a frozen conflict zone reliant on Moscow. Russia, for its part, has grown extremely comfortable with the indefinite nature of these conflicts: Frozen conflicts prevent any of the countries involved in them from joining NATO, which requires that applicants for membership have no outstanding territorial disputes.
Russian troops also now function as a bulwark against Turkish influence in Nagorno-Karabakh as the growing rivalry between the two powers escalates. During the September 2020 war, Turkey threw its full diplomatic and military support behind Azerbaijan, and Turkey’s supply of high-tech military hardware was likely the decisive factor in the conflict’s outcome. Indeed, many of the drones Azerbaijan had used were piloted from Turkish bases in Ankara.
Yet it seems Turkey achieved little for its support of Azerbaijan. Ankara has no military presence on the front line, having been relegated to a joint Russian-Turkish observation headquarters miles from the conflict zone. Plans for a land corridor between Turkey and mainland Azerbaijan via Nakhichevan have also stalled. And U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent recognition of the Armenian genocide demonstrated to many observers that Turkish influence has waned in Washington, not least over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Meanwhile, Armenia and Azerbaijan are caught in yet another tense military standoff. Azerbaijani troops marched several miles into the southern Armenian province of Syunik on May 12, prompting U.S. and international calls for their withdrawal. Once again, Russia has been called to meditate, further increasing its influence in both countries.
Back at Dadivank, I saw no omens for peace and reconciliation. As the afternoon dragged on, three men dressed in Azerbaijani military fatigues came down from their perch in the hills to buy snacks and supplies at the makeshift food truck Russian troops had parked next to the monastery’s chapel. They were tall and lanky with trimmed moustaches but couldn’t have been older than 21. As they huddled among themselves, the men looked awkward and uncomfortable—hardly the conquering horde of Armenian imagination. They were probably the first Azerbaijanis any of the Armenians I was with, most of them worshippers and priests, had encountered in the flesh since the borders closed more than 25 years ago.
But when I suggested we approach the Azerbaijani soldiers and get a quote from them, Narik raised his eyebrow at me and grimaced. “I’ll always hate them, and they’ll always hate me,” he said.
“Why would we ever talk to each other?”
Tom Mutch is a journalist from New Zealand who writes about crime and conflict. Twitter: @tomthescribe