The forty-four-day long “Second Karabakh War”, which started on September 27, 2020 and stopped with the signing of the ceasefire agreement on November 10, 2020, ended with the definite victory of Azerbaijan. The war not only revealed the asymmetrical difference in the military and technical capabilities of the conflicting parties, but also exposed the radical changes in the international system.
The change in the status quo after 26 years in Nagorno-Karabakh, which could be described as the most caustic among the “frozen conflicts” of the post-Soviet geography, was essentially related to two fundamental developments. The first of these is Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia after the failure of the US-supported coup attempt in 2016; Second one is Western oriented policy adopted by Pashinyan, who came to power in Armenia as a result of a colour revolution in 2018. That was naturally a move away from Russia. It was obvious that this development would turn into a tension between Yerevan and Moscow and would open a window of opportunity for Azerbaijan and Turkey to settle Karabakh problem in favour of Baku. This was our prediction two years ago. (https://twitter.com/VozdemirV/status/1326603628866572288?s=20)
When the geopolitical balance in the Caucasus is examined closely before the war, it was seen that while Armenia was an official ally of Russia within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Azerbaijan was another country with which Moscow had very good relations in the region. Unlike the First Karabakh War in the 90s Russia, which was well aware the fact that balance of military power in the field was in Baku’s favour, by taking a neutral stance in the second war gave a kind of green light to the gains of Azerbaijan. As the Azerbaijani army expanded its operations to liberate the occupied territories, Moscow turned its back on Yerevan’s efforts to involve Russia in the war, interpreting the conflict as Azerbaijan’s internal security operation. With this policy, Russia basically aimed to drive Western powers out of the region and teach Pashinyan a lesson as he had tried to get Armenia out of Moscow’s sphere of influence.
At the end of the process, it can be argued that Russia, who placed the peacekeeping force in Karabakh and dealt a diplomatic blow to the Western powers in the Transcaucasia, was the second winner of the war after Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, achieved the greatest gain both by saving the majority of the its occupied territories and by gaining psychological superiority with the advantage of being victorious over Armenia. It consolidated its nation-state identity, defeating nearly thirty years of trauma following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lastly seizing control of Lachin, one of the rayons around Nagorno-Karabakh, on December 1, 2020 and the liberation of the culturally important historical city of Shusha in Karabakh also brought morale to Azerbaijani side.
Turkey, which openly supported Baku from the beginning, could also be counted among the winners with the victory of Azerbaijan. In addition, establishment of a joint control centre to monitor the ceasefire and participation of Turkish forces in this mechanism under a separate memorandum of understanding between Russia and Turkey could be seen a success for Ankara. Turkey has increased its influence in the Caucasus. It is extremely important for Turkey and Azerbaijan that Turkish army has a permanent presence in the region. The scope of the task will be clarified in the upcoming period though for now it is not a peacekeeping force.
The most striking point when analysing the ceasefire agreement is actually an issue that is avoided on purpose in the text at this stage: The status of the area to be protected by the Russian peacekeepers for five years! While Azerbaijan only talks about cultural autonomy for Armenians living in this area, Armenia will strive for a wide administrative autonomy. It can be interpreted that there is still work to do in this sense. Russia will want to found a balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan as much as possible. However, it should not be forgotten that the ceasefire agreement is not a final treaty and difficult negotiations will be made in the future.
The war has tremendously affected the geopolitical fault lines in the region. Ankara’s ex-strategy to solve the Karabakh conflict by acting together with the West for many years had always been thwarted by the Iran-Armenia-Russia bloc. Consistent with that direction, in 2009 due to the protocols signed between Turkey and Armenia, Ankara even faced with the risk of losing its only ally and brother country in the region. As explained above, the change of the status quo has only been possible with the change of respective position of the countries in different blocks. Instead of its unconditional alliance with the West, when Turkey took a more balanced position with Russia the result was settlement of Karabakh problem in favour of Azerbaijan. If the process continues in this way, it could be argued that in front of the Azerbaijan-Russia-Turkey triangle there would be new horizons.
The most important part of the Second Karabakh War was its unhiding of the end of the unipolar world order. The dysfunctionality of the OSCE Minsk group has once again been revealed but more importantly, for the first time after many years, the US was excluded from the reconciliation process in an international dispute to which it was officially a party through the Minsk group. For this reason, it would not be wrong to include the US and, of course, another Minsk group co-chair France, which with limited capabilities unconditionally supported Yerevan, besides Armenia, which was dragged into internal turmoil, to the losers’ camp.
It is clear that a new diplomatic process will begin to finalize the issue after the consolidation of current conditions, which we generally evaluate positively. Internal power struggle in Armenia will be the minor, while future of Turco-Russian relations will be the major determinants of this new process.