TARTAR, AZERBAIJAN - NOVEMBER 10, 2020: Local residents celebrate the end of the military conflict over disputed Caucasus Mountains territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Gavriil Grigorov/TASS.
What’s next after the Azerbaijan-Armenia ceasefire?

A fragile peace has emerged after six weeks of war, with Armenians distraught, Russia reasserting itself, and Iran feeling nervous.

Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Russia just signed a peace deal to end six weeks of war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The deal represents a victory for Azerbaijan, which used its superior military strength to retake territory that Armenian forces had held since a Russian-brokered ceasefire ended the most recent war in 1994. 

In response to the peace deal, anguished Armenians stormed their parliament building in Yerevan, while jubilant Azerbaijanis celebrated in Baku and around the country. On Sunday, Azerbaijan captured the religiously significant city of Shusha, (known as Shushi to Armenians), and was prepared to advance further, until Armenia sued for peace. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan described the peace deal as “incredibly painful” but agreed to it in order to prevent the inexorable advance of Azerbaijan’s forces northward towards Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert. 

Azerbaijan’s victorious capture of territory reflects the opposite of the outcome in 1994, when Armenia successfully seized Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the land separating the region from Armenia. In both conflicts, thousands of residents on both sides fled the violence; now Azerbaijanis displaced since the 1990s hope to return to their homes, while newly displaced ethnic Armenians face possibly permanent refugee status.

These individuals may push for a future round of conflict to retake Nagorno-Karabakh unless Armenia helps them establish stable lives in Armenian territory; yet Armenia may be more interested in preserving their sense of loss in order to justify future military action. “The country that receives displaced peoples plays a significant role in whether those individuals continue to insist on returning home, or supports them in building a new life,” explained Kelsey Norman, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, “Host countries often have a vested interest in keeping memories of a conflict fresh.”

Under the terms of the peace deal, Armenia’s army will withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh, replaced by 2,000 Russian peacekeepers. The peacekeepers will patrol the strategic Lachin corridor, keeping open one of the only roads connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia had previously held the territory surrounding this link to the disputed region, but had to retreat as Azerbaijan advanced northward from the border with Iran.

Because conditions prior to the conflict reflected Armenian control of contested territory, Armenia’s loss appears somewhat self-inflicted; the wave of populism that brought Prime Minister Pahinyan to power in 2018 was also what spurred him to declare in July 2019 that “Artsakh is Armenia,” using the Armenian word for Nagorno-Karabakh. In doing so, Pashinyan not only belied Armenia’s long-held claim to support independence for Nagorno-Karabakh, he also prompted Azerbaijan to prepare for impending conflict. Sales of its abundant natural gas had funded a decade of weapons purchases from Russia, Turkey, and Israel, preparing Azerbaijan to take advantage of Armenia’s expressed willingness to overturn the status quo.

Although the current ceasefire only involves Moscow, Baku, and Yerevan, multiple international actors are also invested in the outcome. Azerbaijan’s win is welcome news for both Turkey and Israel. Turkey has cultural, linguistic, and economic ties to Azerbaijan, as well as long-standing animosity towards Armenia, including persistant denial of the Armenian genocide.

Israel’s interest in the conflict is primarily motivated by antipathy towards Iran: Tel Aviv’s outreach to Azerbaijan expanded after Israel’s quiet partnership with Turkey soured under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Baku has proven useful: Iranian nuclear documents stolen by Israel in 2018 were first smuggled to Azerbaijan. 

The outcome may represent bad news for Iran: nearly a quarter of Iran’s population is ethnically Azeri, therefore Azerbaijan’s win may cause ethnic Azeris to push for greater autonomy, or possibly even secession from Iran. For example, most Azerbaijanis traveling to the exclave of Nakhchivan take buses through northern Iran; a recent statement from President Aliyev appears to indicate that Armenian territory will be used to link Nakhchivan with Azerbaijan. Although Iran adopted an officially neutral stance toward the conflict, Azerbaijan’s win helps to solidify Turkey’s influence while Iran’s wanes.

The conflict was framed by some as a contest between Turkey and Russia, using Azerbaijan and Armenia as their respective proxies. However, the outcome does not represent a loss for Russia. Brokering the ceasefire and sending in troops reinforces Russia’s prestige as the region’s most powerful actor.

Although Russia has a mutual defense pact with Armenia, and a military base near Armenia’s border with Turkey, Russia’s willingness to sell Azerbaijan ammunitions, specifically BM30 “Smerch” (Tornado) missiles, contributed to Azerbaijan’s military advantage. Furthermore, Moscow was surprised by Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” that overthrew Armenia’s former prime minister and president Serzh Sagsyan in 2018. Putin’s emphasis on Russia’s good relations with Azerbaijan may have reflected his desire to punish Armenia’s democratically elected Prime Minister Pashinyan. Armenia’s loss will reinforce and likely deepen its dependence on Russia. 

Although Turkey celebrated Azerbaijan’s victory, Erdoğan fell short of his objective of achieving a “2+2” format for negotiations, which would have included Turkey as the fourth negotiating actor. Still, Ankara’s overt support for Baku reflects Erdoğan’s perception of former Ottoman Empire territories as legitimate spaces for Turkish intervention. Turkey sent Syrian mercenaries to fight on behalf of Azerbaijan, although President Aliyev both maintained and demonstrated that Azerbaijan could fight the war alone.

Another relevant external actor is the United Arab Emirates, which is primarily interested in thwarting Turkey, and therefore expressed support for Armenia. In addition, the UAE may see utility in distancing itself somewhat from Saudi Arabia, which quietly supported Azerbaijan. The UAE is actively cultivating a diverse network of support as it expands its regional influence.Given the interest and involvement of competing regional powers, as well as the dismay of Armenians, it is unclear whether the ceasefire will hold. Norman, drawing on her recent book on refugees, pointed to other historical conflicts where international actors have used policies towards displaced populations to keep the memories of conflict alive, such as Palestine and Cyprus. Armenia and the vocal Armenian diaspora are likely to push for efforts to retake lost territory. In this, they may receive support and funding from the UAE or even Iran, looking to challenge Turkey’s increasing influence in the region. Although the recent ceasefire is holding for now, conditions make a lasting peace unlikely.

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