On November 10, 2020, Moscow announced its decision to send peacekeeping troops to Nagorno-Karabakh following the attack of its Mi-24 helicopter over Armenia, thus putting an end to more than six weeks of intense fighting and several decades of skirmishes between the pro-Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan.
Russia’s choice is resembling that of the Judgment of Solomon in which King Solomon of Israel ruled between two women both claiming to be the mother of a child. Solomon revealed their true feelings and relationship to the child by suggesting the baby be cut in two, each woman to receive half.
For Azerbaijan, Russia’s intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh is only a partial success. After several weeks of fighting, Baku’s troops had an undeniable advantage with more modern equipment, including drones from Israel which made it possible to destroy Soviet Armenian equipment used by separatists on the territory. The liberation of Shusha (Shushi) on November 8, 2020, and the progressive exhaustion of the pro-Armenians heralded a total victory. The news of the arrival of peacekeepers was unfortunate at a time when everything seemed to be going in a positive direction for Baku.
In the eyes of Yerevan, this news is also mitigated. The Armenians and separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh thus avoided a possible total defeat, but the arrival of Russian troops marks the return of Shusha (Shushi) and multiple occupied territories on the periphery of the historic land of Nagorno-Karabakh under the control of Azerbaijan.
For Russia, this choice is not an easy one, both financially and diplomatically, and announces multiple upheavals on an international scale. To begin with, the Kremlin will henceforth be responsible for the protection of civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh (on both sides), insofar as a withdrawal of Russian troops will lead to a return of hostilities which will target inhabitants on both sides. Furthermore, Moscow will once again appear to be a disruptive force in the eyes of the West and in particular the Minsk Group at the OSCE. Russia, the United States and France are co-chairmen of the Minsk Group, and the presence of Russian troops means that the Kremlin is, therefore, the only country able to decide the future of the conflict, giving the Kremlin an undeniable advantage that France and the United States are unlikely to appreciate. Finally, on a financial level, ensuring a permanent military presence comes at a financial cost. Moscow is going to have to invest in a force on the ground, without being able to withdraw it and not gaining any benefit from it as the two countries will continue to hate each other. This is why the USSR was reluctant to send troops to Nagorno-Karabakh during and after the 1988-1994 war.
In the end, the Kremlin would notably benefit indirectly from a military presence in a region of the world where Russia was absent, but also through the export of arms to the two protagonists. Armenia has all the interest in aligning itself with Moscow’s diplomatic position and continuing to buy Russian equipment in order to win the Kremlin’s favour and avoid a withdrawal of peacekeepers. Azerbaijan should do the same and purchase even more Russian equipment and move closer to Moscow diplomatically to attract Russia’s endorsements to reclaim even more occupied territories.
Contrary to the Judgment of Solomon, Armenians and Azeris are not ready to accept the separation of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Russia is entering a new part of the world without knowing if it will ever be able to withdraw from it. This could lead to unpredictable consequences within the Minsk group and in relations with Turkey, which had given diplomatic support to Azerbaijan.
The 1988 CIA report “Unrest in the Caucasus and the Challenge of Nationalism” already mentioned the reasons underlying Moscow’s reluctance to intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh, not being able to stem the Armenian and Azeri aspirations to regain total control over the territory and incurring a considerable financial cost for the Kremlin. Russia sending peacekeeping forces on November 10, 2020, including 1,960 soldiers, 90 armoured vehicles and 380 units of special vehicles and equipment, goes back on the decision taken by the Kremlin in 1994. It is not yet known how Ankara and the new American President will react to such news.
From our partner RIAC