Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan

The Future of Peacekeeping Operations in Nagorno Karabakh

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Azerbaijan’s blockade of the Lachin corridor and the emerging humanitarian crisis in the self-proclaimed Nagorno Karabakh Republic highlighted the immediate challenges faced by Nagorno Karabakh Armenians. The lack of basic food and medicine and interruptions of gas and electricity supplies have brought the population to the brink of starvation. Azerbaijan rejects calls from the international community to end the blockade, and Russia cannot use force to open the corridor due to its dependence on Turkey. The West does not want to impose economic sanctions on Baku as it is interested in receiving additional gas and electricity from Azerbaijan. In these circumstances, the immediate task of the governments of Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh Republic, and Armenians worldwide is to look for additional ways to put more pressure on Azerbaijan to stop the blockade.

In this emergency, it may seem that discussions about the future of Russian peacekeepers after November 2025 are entirely out of touch with reality. However, no one should forget that the existence of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh after the 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war depends on the presence of foreign military forces. No foreign military presence in Nagorno Karabakh = no Armenians there. Given the more than 30-year anti-Armenian propaganda in Azerbaijan, this equation will be valid for decades.

The Azerbaijani position is unequivocal: President Aliyev and other high-level members of the Azerbaijani establishment have repeatedly reiterated that Azerbaijan would demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh after November 2025. According to the November 2020 trilateral statement, Armenia and Azerbaijan may call for the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers six months before the end of their initial five-year mandate. It is challenging to predict regional geopolitics in 2025, and much depends on the course of the war in Ukraine.

If Russia ends the conflict on preferable terms, the Kremlin will probably be able to keep its peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh. In this scenario, facing a victorious and empowered Russia, Azerbaijan may agree to the automatic extension of the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate, in order not to anger Russia. However, Baku may demand the signature of a new bilateral Russia – Azerbaijan agreement on deploying Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh beyond November 2025, which will clearly state that Russian peacekeepers will be deployed in Azerbaijani territory. It is impossible to assess the potential Russian reaction to that offer. However, Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic authorities should be ready for such a scenario and prepare some course of action. Should Armenia, and especially Nagorno Karabakh, agree to this option, or should they demand that the peacekeeping mission extension occurs within the framework of the November 2020 trilateral statement?

On the other hand, the war in Ukraine may end with less favorable conditions for Russia. In this case, Azerbaijan will be happy to exploit Russia’s weakness and push the Russian peacekeepers out of Nagorno Karabakh. Russian failures in Ukraine in early September 2022 contributed to the perception in Azerbaijan that they could play hard in the region. It was not a coincidence that Azerbaijan launched a large-scale aggression against Armenia only a week after the successful Ukraine counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region.

One of the options which Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh may choose is to stand by and wait for the results of the war in Ukraine, hoping that its end will not encourage Azerbaijan to be more active in its efforts to push out Russian peacekeepers and finish once and for all the issue of Nagorno Karabakh, kicking out most, if not all, Armenians from the region. Meanwhile, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh can argue that Russian peacekeepers should remain in Nagorno Karabakh an additional 15 or 20 years, and Armenia can state that it is ready to sign an agreement about the extension of the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate at any moment. However, this path is perilous and may lead to catastrophic implications for the Armenian population in Nagorno Karabakh.

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As long as the November 10, 2020 statement remains the only document guaranteeing the deployment of peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh, this option cannot be excluded, and Armenia can do little to change the situation. Armenia has zero capabilities to influence the outcome of the war in Ukraine. If Russia fails, Armenia has zero chances to prevent Azerbaijan from pushing out Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh after November 2025.

To be able to separate the results of the war in Ukraine from the continued presence of peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh, it is necessary to start exploring ways to secure the deployment of peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh beyond the November 10, 2020, statement. Thus, granting some international mandate or signing a new multilateral statement/agreement regarding the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Nagorno Karabakh becomes crucial for Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. If Yerevan and Stepanakert can secure such an outcome, it will detach the continued deployment of peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh from the outcome of the war in Ukraine. This is a challenging task. Any international mandate for peacekeepers requires either a decision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the UN Security Council.

Given the Russia – West confrontation, it would be too naïve to hope that the US, UK, and France will grant an international mandate to Russian forces for peacekeeping operations anywhere in the world, including in Nagorno Karabakh. A representative of the Russian foreign ministry recently stated that Russia did not believe there was any need for an international mandate for the Russian peacekeepers deployed in Nagorno Karabakh. It is also impossible to imagine an agreement by the OSCE or UN SC on some joint “Russia + other countries” peacekeeping operation anywhere. At the same time, Russia will veto any option to replace Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh with forces from other countries. Another obstacle is Azerbaijan’s position, which rejects the possibility of an internationally mandated peacekeeping operation in Nagorno Karabakh.

Thus, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh should not waste resources to reach these goals. The only possible solution, which still requires a lot of diplomatic skills and hard work from Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, is the launch of multilateral negotiations with all interested parties – Russia, the US, the EU, and Iran, about potential ways to secure the peacekeeping mission in Nagorno Karabakh beyond November 2025. This cannot be solely a Russian mission but should include a solid Russian presence. Of course, these parties may not agree, and even if they reach an understanding, Azerbaijan may reject any such idea. There are no straightforward ways to overcome Azerbaijani objections. However, starting this complicated and tricky path with no guaranteed success is better than pursuing the wait-and-see strategy, hoping that Russia will not be weakened too much by the war in Ukraine and Azerbaijan will not be able to push Russians out of Nagorno Karabakh after November 2025.

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