Recent fresh clashes on the Armenian-Azeri border have highlighted the harsh reality: the Second Karabakh War has changed the status quo, but failed to resolve the conflict. Thus, the situation in the South Caucasus will remain highly explosive for a long time, heading toward more conflict and potentially pitting Russia and the regional powers, Turkey and Iran, against one another. Those who ignore these worrisome dynamics do so at their own peril.

The Second Karabakh War, which broke out in the fall of 2020, was a turning point, and not only for its participants, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It changed the political and military balance in the South Caucasus, facilitated the further rise of Turkey as a regional power, and marked out both the limits of Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus, and the limits of the United States and European Union’s real interest in this part of the post-Soviet space. Azerbaijan’s air supremacy, which saw the use of drones and loitering munitions, was not only one of the main factors in deciding the outcome of the war, but will also shape the future development of warcraft in armed conflicts on a similar scale.

Strategically, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh came as no surprise to attentive observers. Several years ago, the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) published a book titled Waiting for the Storm: South Caucasus. Now, a year on from the storm that did indeed break over the region in September 2020, this new collected volume—written by CAST researchers and other authors, and edited by Ruslan Pukhov and the late Konstantin Makienko—reviews the results of the conflict and reflects on its consequences (both visible and potential). In light of how quickly and explosively the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict resumed after twenty-six years in the deep freeze, the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be considered stable. It is essential, therefore, not only to learn the lessons of the war, but also to track the forces it has unleashed.

Above all, we must begin with the fact that while the outcome of the conflict was a shock for the defeated side, it did not entirely satisfy the victor, either. If there is no opportunity for Armenia to get revenge in the foreseeable future, then Azerbaijan will achieve full and final control over the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has also been left in a difficult situation, as Pukhov and Makienko describe in detail in their chapter. Some international analysts lost no time in declaring the ceasefire agreement and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh a victory for Moscow, which now has troops on internationally recognized territory of all three South Caucasus states: Armenia (via its military base in Gyumri), Azerbaijan (peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh), and Georgia (units in Abkhazia and South Ossetia: breakaway states only recognized by Russia and a handful of other countries).  

Such analysis is not only superficial; it’s essentially untrue. Putting aside for a moment Russia’s bases in Armenia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, it’s important to note the conditionality of the Russian peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh. The five-year mandate for Russian peacekeepers—a temporary status that, in effect, makes territory still in the hands of Karabakh Armenians a Russian protectorate—was agreed in November 2020. There is a provision for extension, though it would be neither straightforward nor automatic. Along with its ally Ankara, Baku is already trying to put pressure on Moscow to return the entire region to Azerbaijan’s control.

Thus, the current status quo in the region has been unstable since its inception, and the previous Russian tactic of long-term support for the balance between its ally Armenia and its partner Azerbaijan, with Moscow remaining an arbiter in control of the situation in the conflict zone, is unrealistic. The ceasefire agreed with Moscow’s mediation in 1994 lasted over a quarter of a century, but in the end, it didn’t stop another war. Trying to build something similar out of the ruins of Nagorno-Karabakh is pointless.

For the moment, the Russian leadership has been relatively successful in its tactical maneuvering. By balancing between the two warring sides, Moscow has managed to retain Armenia as an ally and Azerbaijan as a partner. Russia conceded the reality of the Turkish presence in the Caucasus, saved some face as the only intermediary between Yerevan and Baku, and showed its willingness to work with any Armenian leadership loyal to Russian interests. At the same time, Russia has managed to avoid a discussion about the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. These maneuvers are all well and good, but they were either already used toward the end of the war, or only remain significant as a way of buying time. In the latter case, efforts must be made to ensure this time is not frittered away.

In terms of strategy, Moscow is looking to promote economic cooperation between the warring sides, increase the internal cohesion of a region that was divided after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and develop transport links and communications on both a north-south and an east-west axis. From a rational point of view, this is the right approach and there is a lot to be said for developing it and seeking concrete results. At some point, accumulated goodwill could in theory change the dynamics of the situation. Something similar was once tried in an attempt to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict and build a “new Middle East.” There is no particular reason, however, to believe that the results could be any more impressive in the South Caucasus, a place of chronic conflicts where the interests of many nations—including outsiders—collide.

The comparison to the Middle East is no coincidence. As the post-Soviet space ceases to resemble a post-imperial community, so the South Caucasus nations are moving further away from Russia and gradually aligning with the Middle East: one day they may even become a part of it. The prominent Yerevan-based political analyst Alexander Iskandaryan has written convincingly on this topic. The half-hearted participation of the United States and France—which are, along with Russia, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group on Nagorno-Karabakh—when it came to ceasefire negotiations was symptomatic. This is not a one-off case of a lack of attention. It is Turkey, Iran, and Israel, rather than the United States and Europe, which now hold growing influence over what happens in Azerbaijan and Armenia—and between them. This should focus Russian policy on the search for more appropriate approaches to the country’s South Caucasus neighbors in the broader context of the Middle East, rather than the post-Soviet or Russia-West context.

In the wake of the Second Karabakh War, Russia needs a new set of objectives for the South Caucasus region as a whole, and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in particular. It also needs a corresponding strategy for the protection and advancement of its national interests.

Many years of efforts by Russia and the other co-chairs of the Minsk Group have led to a very clear conclusion: no final resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be achieved purely via diplomatic means at an intergovernmental level. It demands real movement toward reconciliation from a broad swath of the elite and the public in both countries: something that is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. There is always the military solution, but that would now mean direct confrontation with Russian peacekeepers. While that is a serious obstacle, it shouldn’t be considered insuperable for a party that, with external military support, might attempt to decide things in its own favor. Compared with the first and second Karabakh wars, therefore, the stakes for Russia have risen dramatically. Russian troops stand between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians. In these circumstances, there is no way Russia can stay out of it, not least because being forced out under external pressure would mean serious reputational damage.

Russia’s strategic goal for the next five years should not be to achieve a lasting peace in Nagorno-Karabakh founded on a mutually acceptable peace treaty, since that is practically impossible, but to prevent a third war. The consequences of such a war would be far worse for Russia than the 2020 conflict. This goal could be achieved through a combination of the approach outlined above to restore economic cooperation between the warring sides and develop logistical ties along the north-south axis, with active policies on Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Turkey and Iran. The aim here is not only to engage the parties in work on restoring the connectedness of the South Caucasus, but to prevent them from putting pressure on Russia.

Such an approach would require a rethink and relaunch of relations between Russia and Armenia. The aim of Russian policy here could be to preserve the alliance and partnership on the basis of pragmatic interests. Moscow has already shown it does not intend to interfere in Armenia’s domestic affairs, and that principle should be respected going forward. Yet while Armenia’s foreign policy and economy is the business of Armenians, Moscow must make it clear to Yerevan that any major decision in those areas will have real consequences for its relationship with Russia. Armenia’s participation in the Eurasian Economic Union should be advantageous for both sides, and the obligations of both when it comes to security and defense need to be clearly defined and articulated in public.

The relationship with Azerbaijan, for which close links to Turkey are becoming a point of principle, also needs to be reassessed and recalibrated. Moscow’s aim could be to prevent Azerbaijan from becoming a Turkish satellite by preserving a friendly partnership, as well as economic, cultural, and academic ties. It would also make sense, however, to remind Baku of the value of good relations with Moscow. Considering the multi-vector nature of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, the most that can be achieved is maintaining a balance between Russia and Turkey.

Following the Second Karabakh War, Russian strategy should take account of Turkey’s political and military presence in the South Caucasus: Turkey is a NATO member and an ambitious regional power that played a key role in the preparation and execution of the successful Azerbaijani military offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow accepted that presence when it agreed to the participation of Turkish soldiers in the work of the joint monitoring center in Agdam. That said, any further expansion of Turkey’s military and political presence in the Caucasus will have negative consequences for Russian security. It must be stopped, if necessary by highlighting Turkey’s vulnerability in other regions.

The Russia-Turkey relationship, which combines both rivalry and cooperation, is becoming more competitive as Ankara increasingly focuses its ambitions and influence beyond countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire to regions including Central Asia, the North Caucasus, Crimea, and Abkhazia. Turkey’s successful interference in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has appreciably widened the scope of Ankara’s influence. Its efforts to forge an alliance with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are already creating a new situation in the Caspian region. A direct confrontation with Turkey is not in Russia’s interests, but backing down in the face of aggression is unacceptable. Turkey warrants a special strategy in which partnership and pushback are linked in one dialectic.

Finally, important conclusions need to be drawn at the military level. As convincingly argued by many authors of the CAST book, the Second Karabakh War was a vivid example of how a revolution in military affairs can impact local armed conflicts. For Russia, back at the start of the 1990s, Nagorno-Karabakh became the first link in a long chain of armed conflicts on the territory of the collapsed Soviet Union. In all of those conflicts, Russia was involved from the outset in one way or another. Accordingly, Moscow must now consider the impact the recent war in the Caucasus has had on the thinking and possible actions of the Ukrainian leadership when it comes to Donbas, or on Georgia when it comes to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The small Russian military contingent in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region is particularly geographically isolated. It’s obvious that not just political strategies, but military strategies, too, must be clarified and adjusted in all these regions. The book compiled by the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies invites the reader to do some serious thinking.

  • Dmitri Trenin