The April shootouts in Nagorno-Karabakh that took dozens of lives from each side signaled to the world community that the conflict around the above-mentioned region is not frozen, as it was previously claimed.
Ethnic clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh , a mountainous province inside the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, arose in 1988 toward the end of Soviet rule. The conflict of a local scale developed into a full-fledged bloody war between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union: Azerbaijan tried to maintain its control over the region, while Armenia backed the separatist movement of the ethnic Armenians.
Although Azerbaijan was admitted to the United Nations with its Soviet-time territory that included Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian side managed to occupy both the province and the adjacent districts and proclaimed the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. As a result of the conflict, which cost the both sides more than 30,000 lives, nearly one million Azerbaijanis got expelled from their homes in the occupied territories and since then have dwelled as refugees in their own country.
The Russia-brokered negotiations secured a truce in 1994 and ceased the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan but failed to ensure sustainable progress. Controlled by the Armenian separatists, Nagorno-Karabakh has maintained de facto autonomy since the cease-fire, while the region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.
Official mediators of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Russia, the USA and France, initiated several proposals and organized direct meetings of Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents. Yet any attempts to finally resolve the conflict have failed: Baku has repeatedly offered a wide autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, while the Armenian side demands independence for the breakaway region.
The full-scale hostilities in April that involved almost all types of weaponry, have been defined as “the worst” since 1994. The sides, according to an unofficial estimation, lost around 90 troops each. However, the clashes labeled “four-day war” by the media have not fully ended as cross-border violence still continues to harm civilians and their estates.
The recent fight raised once again the issue of deploying Russian peacekeeping forces in the disputed area. Some hints and even open statements on this matter have been pronounced by pro-Russian media and several politicians several times over the past years although the idea was never implemented.
In April 2015, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Kremlin`s unofficial spokesperson, claimed that the war in Karabakh would be stopped by Russian peacekeepers. His statements, sometimes utterly unbelievable, should be considered seriously as he usually proclaims the Kremlin`s position or future plans.
In September 2015, Stratfor offered a scenario, according to which Russian peacekeepers would replace Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh. In April 2015, by referring to a Russian daily Izvestia, Stratfor revealed Moscow’s plan to deploy Russian peacekeepers to the conflict zone.
During and in the aftermath of the clashes, the introduction of peacekeeping forces in the region emerged anew. Having received an unexpected blow by the Azerbaijani Army and lost several important positions along the frontline, Armenia`s president Serzh Sargsyan noted in one of his recent interviews that his country is not against peacekeeping forces in the region. However, it was not fully revealed in the context whether it could be Russian or international troops.
International media also recalled this issue, by referring to the aforementioned Stratfor`s report. A recent article on OSW, Poland`s Centre for Eastern Studies, also mentioned that the major political beneficiary of the four-day conflict is Russia, which has strengthened its position as the de factoprincipal conciliator and guarantor of the ceasefire. It cannot be ruled out that the current phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is part of a broader Russian plan aimed at changing the situation and at introducing Russian troops into the region as peacekeepers. This would strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position in the Caucasus, and would mean that the Western influence is being marginalized.
The introduction of Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh does not seem an acceptable idea, however, for a number of countries, including the both warring sides and the powers interested in the region.
First of all, such development would let Russia regain full military control over the South Caucasus and undermine the independence of the regional countries. Interestingly, Azerbaijan was among the first post-Soviet countries that managed to achieve the withdrawal of remaining Russian troops in 1992-1993. Despite Russia`s own economic difficulties to afford the withdrawal and accommodate Russian troops at that time, the relevant agreement is marked as one of the most important events in the history of independent Azerbaijan. To compare, the withdrawal of Russian troops from another South Caucasian country, Georgia, was quite painful and took longer. But Russia could still maintain its forces in Georgia`s breakaway areas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Meanwhile, Armenia, where a Russian military base is still stationed, is sometimes referred to as Russia`s outpost or its remote province.
With heavy anti-Russian sentiments, local societies both Azerbaijan and Armenia protest the deployment of Russian troops in the region, simply aspiring to keep it as a quarrel between the two and realizing Russia`s involvement would lead to loss of the territory for either warring party. A last year`s online survey by an Azerbaijani media outlet revealed that the majority of respondents believe Nagorno-Karabakh could be permanently lost for Azerbaijan in that case. Besides, for the current generation in Azerbaijan, the Russians are seen as direct and indirect perpetrators of the two most terrible events which have occurred in Azerbaijan’s contemporary history: Black January (when Soviet soldiers entered Baku to suppress the independence movement and killed over 100 people in 1990) and Khojali massacre (when a Russian regiment aided Armenian gangs to slaughter unarmed civilians in 1992 during the Karabakh War).
There are also calls on Armenian side against Russian peacekeepers as it also might lose the control over Nagorno-Karabakh: ‘The introduction of Russian troops will unleash a wave of hatred towards Russia’, says an Armenian political expert. Moscow`s sale of arms to Azerbaijan has ignited anti-Russian sentiments and led to big protests in Yerevan.
Furthermore, it is not guaranteed that Russian peacekeepers would bring the settlement for the conflict. The Russian troops currently stationed in similar breakaway regions, namely Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria have simply cemented the frozen status of the respective conflicts and keep prolonging the situation, which might eventually lead to the full independence and international recognition for the mentioned regions.
Big powers that have their own interests and vision in the region seem never to approve this scenario either. The United States, which has already allowed Russian engagement in the Middle East, a traditionally American sphere of interest, would not be happy about Putin`s another military involvement and further strengthening of the Russian positions in this neighborhood.
With recently severed confrontation with Russia, Turkey will not easily acquiesce to Russia`s military presence in Azerbaijan, which is Turkey`s natural ally through political and ethnocultural links. Establishing its military bases under the name of “peacekeeping forces” would enable the Russians to obtain control over important regional projects that Turkey, together with Azerbaijan, Georgia, the USA and the EU, has been effectively building and operating. Thanks to these combined efforts, South Caucasus has turned into an important energy and transport corridor. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, as well as Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum and TANAP gas pipelines have increased the significance of the region and contributed to the energy diversification of Europe. Thus, the latter would also be interested in having a stable alternative energy source/corridor in order to reduce its own dependence on Russia.
Furthermore, China`s recent attempts to revive Silk Road by circumventing Russia also promise to seal the status of Central Asia and Caucasus as a bridge between East and West. Therefore, Russian threats on the Silk Road project could harm the interests of China, the project`s initiator.
In this context, despite statements of several Russian politicians and experts on deploying Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, this development remains highly unlikely and quite unacceptable. Simply lobbying this scenario without intention to implement it might also provide several goals for Russia, including strengthening the Kremlin`s positions against its regional and global rivals, reminding authorities and societies in either belligerent country who is the boss in the region.