20 November 2020

Winners and losers of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

While a ceasefire agreement has been reached by Armenia and Azerbaijan following weeks of intense clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh, the latest conflict has realigned power dynamics in the South Caucasus region.

After six weeks of intense clashes in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a truce brokered by Russia to end the fighting effective 10 November, three days after the ethnic Armenian separatists of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh lost the region's second largest city, Shusha, to the Azerbaijani advance. The truce was deemed necessary in order to avert the loss of the unrecognised republic's de facto capital, the now badly damaged city of Stepanakert, after suffering thousands of casualties and mass displacement of civilians. The truce will not only have major implications for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also cement a reshuffle in power dynamics in the South Caucasus.

The most obvious winner in the six-week conflict is Azerbaijan, which will regain control of areas that the Republic of Artsakh annexed to the historic territory of Nagorno-Karabakh after 1994 as buffer zones. The truce will see Azerbaijan regain control of Agdam, Kalbajar and Lachin districts, as well as parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that Azerbaijani forces reclaimed during the six-week fighting. In addition, the truce will enable Azerbaijan to establish a transport corridor with its exclave of Nakhchivan, located between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. While the separatists launched long-range rockets into Azerbaijani cities in the hopes of demoralising the civilian populace and triggering escalation, public opinion remained strongly supportive of the war throughout the brief conflict. Flush with victory, the government headed by the ruling Aliyev family is better placed to marginalise its domestic opposition, unwilling to consider concessions of any kind and plans to resettle refugees displaced decades ago in the districts vacated by the separatists.

Another obvious winner in the conflict is Turkey, which asserted itself as a major player in the region after successfully backing Azerbaijan in its fight against Armenia. Turkey backed Azerbaijan diplomatically throughout the conflict and also provided significant support in the form of strategic and tactical guidance, combat jets and foreign contract fighters, as well as drones, the use of which alongside special infiltrator units proved decisive against the separatists.

While Turkey's gains may come at the expense of Russia's hold over the region, the truce will also ensure that Russia remains a major player in the South Caucasus. While Russia had kept its silence and remained largely absent in the region until the very end of the fighting, the truce will see the deployment of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers in the region, expanding Russian military presence in the 'near abroad' of former Soviet countries.

Perhaps the only country to emerge as the loser of this conflict is Armenia. With no military backing from Russia, Armenia's foothold in the region has been severely diminished. Under the truce, Armenia will cede control of most of the disputed region, including all areas of Nagorno-Karabakh along the Armenian border. Nagorno-Karabakh will be largely cut off from Armenia, with the newly established 'Lachin corridor' serving as the sole link between Armenia and areas remaining under the control of the separatist government.

At home, the truce has jeopardised the future of the government. Shortly after Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced the signing of the truce early on 10 November, thousands of protesters gathered on the streets of Yerevan and stormed parliament. The feeling that the Turkish-Azerbaijani alliance amounts to encirclement and will lead to ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, thousands of whom have already destroyed their homes and fled to Armenia proper in fear of this, is strongly felt across the political spectrum, and in the politically influential Armenian diasporas in Europe and the United States (US).

On 14 November, the country's National Security Service (NSS) claimed to have foiled an assassination attempt against Pashinyan involving its director and several politicians, underscoring the continuing turmoil and anger. If the outrage continues long enough to result in Pashinyan's ouster, then the change of power would present Moscow with yet another opportunity. While Pashinyan has maintained the country's pro-Moscow stance, he rose to power after the 2018 Velvet Revolution, a 'colour revolution' that Moscow opposed. Pro-Russian elements will point to the distance Pashinyan established between Russia and Armenia as one of the reasons for the loss of the disputed territory, even though as disputed territory, the region was and is exempt from any treaty obligations Russia has to Armenia.

The six-week fighting highlighted two power dynamics at play: one between Armenia and Azerbaijan and another between Russia and Turkey. While Armenia and Azerbaijan remain historic enemies, with the latter growing increasingly powerful from its oil and gas reserves, relations between Russia and Turkey remain a delicate balancing act. Having already encountered each other's proxies in Syria and Libya, Russia and Turkey are not quite enemies but also definitely not allies.