11 November 2020

Nagorno-Karabakh: The tragedy that turns into an opportunity. This time, for Russia

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

After 2015, when the Russian military aircraft Su-24 was taken down in the air space of Turkey’s border with Syria, Russia showed that it can exclusively use tragedies and military incidents ended with casualties to achieve its pragmatic objectives. The traditional Russian model of immediately and forcefully responding to such events got replaced by the immediate, detailed and precise estimation of all military or economic advantages that such an event can bring Moscow.

Image source: Profimedia - militari ruşi din forţa de menţinere a păcii

The incident that stopped the war

The Azerbaijanis’ bad luck was the shooting down of a Russian Mi-24 helicopter and the killing of two crew members in Armenia’s air space. Minutes from that event, a Russian journalist, Dmitry Litkovin, the military reporter of the Novaia Gazeta, speculated that Russia will have to interpose and that, among the consequences, will also include the „maintenance” the Azeri authorities already made some references to in the diplomatic apologies press release.

The conclusion of the military analyst was that the price paid for that incident would be both a political one, which is the end of the conflict, and an economic one, represented by new acquisitions Azerbaijan could make in the following period. The level of Azerbaijanis’ Russian military technique acquisitions is worth around 1 billion dollars.  Most likely, this money included also the 300 launchers and 1.500 air defence missiles of the Igla-S air defence missile systems, procured in 2011 and 2012, which were used, apparently, to take down the Russian helicopter.

Moscow is not ethically or morally bothered if the Russian weapons are used against its military but, if that happens, the perp must pay for that. A lot.

As for Azerbaijan’s case, the weapons and munitions losses registered in the six weeks of conflict are huge, and the stocks should be fixed up, thus Kremlin’s offer is welcomed during such hard times.

But the Russian journalist did not stop here with making hypotheses and asking questions. The place the Russian helicopter was taken down, close to the border with Nakhchivan, is quite far from the fight area and there are not clues indicating that there would have been any attempt to change the flight’s trajectory or to break the Azeri territorial border. Then why that over-emotional and hasty reaction was produced (or imposed?) by the Azeri air defence?

Russia got (back) the right to interfere

The tragedy of the two Russian pilots untied Kremlin’s hands, which cannot break its neutrality, which was anyhow suspiciously seen by both sides of the conflict. Now Moscow can become a broker of the strategic developments in South Caucasus. The press release is, quite vaguely, saying the following:

-the total armistice starts Tuesday, October 10th, at 9pm;

- the sides will keep their current positions (which means that the territory the Azerbaijanis occupied – 15-20-% of the entire Nagorno-Karabakh and some part of the seven adjacent districts – will get back to the Azerbaijanis, including the Shusha city);

- a Russian peace keeper force composed of 1960 soldiers, 90 transport vehicles, 380 cars and other equipment will be deployed in the region, especially in the Lachin Corridor area;

- the mission will last five years and there is a possibility to extend the period if the sides will not get to an agreement;

-Armenia will give Azerbaijan back the districts Agdam (November 20th), Kalbajar (November 15th) and Lachin (December 1st);

-the Lachin corridor, 5-km long, will connect Armenia with Nagorno Karabakh, on a road that will bypass Shusha;

-the refugees and relocated people will be able to get back to their houses. The process will be monitored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees;

-they will have a prisoners’ exchange. Also, the bodies of people who died will get to their families;

-Armenia will guarantee the functioning of a surface transport corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan, on its territory;

Source: Twitter

There are no details on the future of the Armenian people from Nagorno Karabakh, besides general details like the right to return home, and the agreement also lacks information on a negotiation format on future agreements.

Moscow’s quick reaction, the speed the agreements were carried with, the decisions they made with less talks seem to indicate that Moscow has planned this step that it was going to use as an opportunity.

The conditions of the truce prove Azerbaijan’s obvious military superiority and the idea of taking over an entire Armenian enclave. The incident with the Mi-24 has offered Russia enough maneuver space to convince Baku to stop an offensive which, otherwise, would have become a victory.


 - Moscow wants to be an arbiter in the South Caucasus developments. In Baku, a possible “line arbiter” presence was called upon, Turkey, but the details of such a contribution, if that happens, were not confirmed yet;

- for the “shame” provoked by the attack on a Russian military aircraft, Azerbaijan will increase the equipment and Russian military technology procurement.  Even the infamous Igla-S mobile systems (SA-24 Grinch, NATO’s terminology) could still be on the list;

- in order to delete the “shame” of the military defeat and get ready to a possible revenge, Armenia will also increase the Russian systems volume, soon to be bought in order to fix up its military arsenal. Most likely, the priority will be represented by the equipment that proved to be useful in the conflict, drones, artillery systems and missile systems. In the most serious speech from its political career, the enclave’s president, Araik Hurutiunian, stated that the “difficult condition of the armed forces (Karabakh, but we can also think of the Armenian armed forces) is not a secrete, it is the result of the decades-long policies and will be fixed up in the following period”.

-Armenia will be even more dependent on Moscow; its foreign option will become increasingly limited, given the regional post-conflict conditions;

-Azerbaijan will thank Turkey for the military support, but also Russia, for getting its victory through a negotiated solution (the debate is open here…), and for not using the helicopter incident to support Yerevan as anyone who knows that there is a strategic partnership between the two sides might have thought. So, the sun will be out for Baku as well, somewhere in the North;

-Putin confirmed that the leaders who got to lead the countries through different revolutions are not Kremlin’s favorites and, sooner or later, something bad will happen with their career;

-Turkey will have to wait to get to strategic visibility and military strength parity with Russia in the South Caucasus region. Most likely, the Astana format – the Caucasus wing will be on the agenda but, the agenda might be kept in a drawer;

- but Turkey has proved that a trained military force following its methods, using its equipment, eventually also some parts of its doctrine on operations’ development will be the key to success on a state level. This could seem attractive for some states in Central Asia and beyond;

-Pashinyan has confirmed that the people will not get only pure democrats, individuals wishing for consensus and dialogue to power, but also demagogues, populists, nationalists. The exaggerated hope the people have projected in them is turning, in case of an unexpected defeat, into a huge disillusion and will lead to chaotic manifestations, similar to those who allowed power’s takeover.

Armenia loses 5 of the 7 Azerbaijani districts occupied in 1994, as well as some part of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Shusha is the most significant loss, because we are talking about a cultural capital of the region and the village wherein before the conflicts that took place before the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts was lived mostly by Azerbaijanis. This turns its occupation in a huge revenge for Baku.

All in all, it is lost (or won, depending on whose side one is) almost half of that it was, before the conflict, the Artah Republic.

“The most difficult night”

 The two sides, the Armenian and the Azerbaijani, have tried to “sell” the truce to their own people as a necessary step. It was, indeed, much simpler for the Azerbaijani president, who called the document a proof of Armenians “capitulation”. Prime-minister Pashinyan tried to look like a pragmatic leader, taking about a “necessary action”, agreed after discussing with experts “on the field”, stating that “there is no defeat if you do not see yourself as defeated”. He did not admit it, but this is how things were.

The conditions of the truce show that Nagorno-Karabakh’s president, Araik Harutiunian, according to whom the truce was necessary to save Karabakh, relies on an extremely difficult situation for the Armenian side on the battlefield: “The fights got 2-3 km away from Stepanakert, and if the war would have continued, we could have lost it all”.

Harutiunian continued to address the nation on TV: “It was the most difficult night of my life. I do not know how history will present it, but it a forced night”.

Until history will get to decide how it was, the Armenians are going to do it first, as they already got out on the streets and are demanding their leaders to take the responsibility over the failure.

The Armenian president, Sarkissian, already has initiated “political consultations, and the Armenian opposition, so far united by their helplessness, has initiated a statement, signed by 17 political groups, to lay off the prime-minister”.

The “street” that got Pashinyan to power in 2018 could be the one to lay him off from a position that seems to have been too much for him. When it comes to post-conflict loses, prime-minister Pashinyan included, after the visit of some angry Armenians at his home, a “computer, a watch, perfumes and a driving license”, all presented through a Facebook post.

It is a result he indeed did not anticipate in August 5th 2019, when he stated in the Central Square from Stepanakert, “Artah is Armenia. That’s what it is”, calling for the unification of the two territories. And thousands of Armenians from the enclave applauded him at that time.

The glorious night from August 2019 was followed by the most humiliating and long night in November 2020. So much for that!

Translated by Andreea Soare