The Stability of the November 10 Ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh

In July 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan attacked each other in the shadow of their Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The military casualties reached 7,630 on the Azerbaijani side[1], and 2,317 on the Armenian side[2] – which makes this recent conflict a war according to academic standards.[3] Reports also suggest that about 70,000 civilians in the Nagorno-Karabakh region were displaced as a direct result of the war.[4] Besides, 91 Azerbaijani civilians[5] and 300 to 400 Armenian civilians[6] are reported to have lost their lives directly due to combat-related reasons.

On November 10, 2020, Azerbaijan seized Shusha, a strategically vital city of Nagorno-Karabakh. Consequently, Armenia’s Pashinyan administration found a ceasefire better than the resumption of military action. Under Russian mediation, both sides signed a treaty that has strong parallels with the Madrid Principles that they already had agreed upon in 2009.[7] According to this treaty, Russians will exclusively monitor the peace process for 10 years, and Azeris are going to keep the towns they invaded. However, the ownership of Nagorno-Karabakh will not be completely left to any of the belligerents.

So far, the ceasefire prevented the resumption of hostilities from taking place unlike the three previous failed attempts since July 2020. Nevertheless, the ability of the Russian peacekeeping forces to prevent further bloodshed is in question. There are violent revolts in Armenia and demands to replace Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. On the other hand, Azerbaijan’s Aliyev administration demonstrated its discomfort with exclusive Russian peacekeeper presence in Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, the current status quo will likely change in the near future. Such change can eventually lead to either side demanding revisions for the current ceasefire terms, and even to the resumption of hostilities.[8]

The question is what factors affect the stability of the Russian-brokered ceasefire, or the fragility thereof. Given the present circumstances, 3 factors come to mind and merit in depth discussion. Interestingly, these factors involve Turkey, Russia both of which have a direct stake in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and also Syria.

The first factor that will affect the stability of the current ceasefire is Russia’s involved commitment to peacekeeping. The greater resources Russia commits, the fewer incentives Armenia and Azerbaijan will have to fight.[9] There is evidence that Russian peacekeeping is not only going to involve 1,000 soldiers and several terrain vehicles in the Lachin corridor between Karabakh’s capital and Armenia[10], but also defensive missiles.[11] In addition, since November 10th, there have been reports of significant air and land traffic[12] from Russia to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. All these suggest that Russia’s presence will make it costlier for Azeris and Armenians to continue the fight.

The Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, however, is unhappy with Russia’s exclusive peacekeeping initiative. He repeatedly insisted on adding Turkey to contribute to the peacekeeping forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.[13] Historically, Russia supported Armenia, which casts doubt on its ability to act unbiasedly. In 1990s, Russia even threatened Turkey with deadly force if the latter mobilized in support of Azerbaijan.[14]

Additionally, there is always the risk that Russia will let possible provocations of the Armenian armed groups go by. After all, the Aliyev administration’s rapprochement with Turkey and NATO already raised Russian eyebrows.[15] These circumstances remind of us about the Russian peacekeeping in South Ossetia. In 2008, Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia were accused of letting Ossetian militants shoot Georgian soldiers who could not retaliate.[16]

The second factor that can affect the risk of the war recurrence is President Ilham Aliyev’s resolve in expanding the margin of his victory. Two notions will increase his resolve. First, Aliyev needs to maintain domestic unity more than before. It is true that his army’s recent victory had a “rally-around-the-flag” effect.[17] However, in the most recent national elections, he met serious political opposition.[18] In addition, the Azeri economy was devastated due to decreasing oil prices as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.[19] Under these circumstances, Aliyev can certainly use additional victories in the international front to ensure that his domestic tenure remains challenged to a minimum. Pushing for revisions in the current peacekeeping structure may help the Azeri President in that pursuit.

Second, the Turkish combat drones will increase Aliyev’s confidence in the effectiveness of the Azerbaijan’s military capabilities, and hence his resolve. During the war, the Azeris predominantly relied on Turkish drones to shoot down Armenia’s Russian-imported jets, and armored assets. One could even argue that Aliyev’s belief in a decisive victory against Armenia was linked with the undisclosed quantity of drones that he purchased from Turkey.[20] It is for this reason that Turkish drones will likely increase Aliyev’s resolve in renegotiating the peacekeeping structure with Russia – in the shadow of a new war.

There are, however, limitations to Aliyev’s trust in Turkish drones. Russians recently field-tested their newest anti-drone system, the Sapsan-Convoy. This system allows Russians to break drone signals in a wide area.[21] The important news here is that Russia will use the Sapsan-Convoy system in Idlib, Northern Syria as a support for President Bashar Al Assad.[22]Assad’s Russian-backed victory will likely challenge the Turkish drone superiority in the region. Then, relatedly, Azerbaijan will lose any reason to be optimistic about challenging Russian peacekeepers with Turkish drones in Nagorno-Karabakh. Simply put, Russia’s performance in Syria will significantly affect Aliyev’s decision calculus.

The third factor that will affect the stability of the peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh is civil unrest in Armenia. Armenians are unlikely to let their country’s most recent defeat slide without holding their leaders accountable. The current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan took a serious risk by abandoning the 2009 Madrid Principles.[23] In doing so, he likely sought to legitimize his 2018 Velvet Revolution with a military victory. This was, however, a gamble, and he lost the gamble. Currently, martial law is declared in the streets of Yerevan. Despite this, tens of thousands of protesters asked for Pashinyan to step down while accusing their prime minister with handing in territories without consulting with people.[24]

Chances of a leadership change in Armenia are not thin. The foreign minister in the Pashinyan cabinet already resigned.[25] In addition, his political rivals spread misinformation about Armenia’s territorial loss to further inflame hate on the streets.[26] In case of a leadership change in Armenia, the new leaders will likely restore relations with Russia, which took a downturn during Pashinyan’s tenure.

Ultimately, one of the two following possible scenarios will transpire subsequent to a leadership change in Armenia. In the first one, Russia’s new technology will prove to have mediocre or no effect against Turkish drones in Syria during the upcoming Idlib campaign. Then the new Armenian leaders will not have many incentives to mount a counter-attack against Azeris. In the second scenario, the Russian Sapsan-Convoy will perform successfully against Turkish drones. Then, the new Armenian administration will become optimistic that they can kick the Azeri armed forces out of Nagorno-Karabakh. In this latter scenario, there is the risk that Russians will gladly turn a blind eye on a pro-Russian and anti-Western Armenian administration’s offensive move.[27] Eventually, a leadership change in Armenia will increase the risk of the resumption of violence – if not guarantee it.

Concluding Remarks

Currently, the stability in Nagorno-Karabakh hinges on Russia’s performance in Syria. If Russian anti-drone technology achieves significant success against Turkish drones in Idlib, then the Azeri side will lose significant bargaining leverage to change the status quo. However, Azerbaijan’s decreasing bargaining leverage can in return increase Armenia’s appetite to resume hostilities in case Pashinyan steps down. The new Armenian administration will be more likely than Pashinyan to have direct support from Russia against Azerbaijan, hence also significant protection against Turkish drones. This drastic change in the balance of military capabilities can lead to the resumption of bloodshed.

What guarantees a more stable truce than what Russia enforces is a UN-led peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh. There is already some empirical evidence that a comprehensive UN-led peacekeeping force is more effective in preventing hostilities than unilateral missions – such as what Russia currently does.[28] However, any UN mission in Karabakh seems like a farfetched scenario given Russia’s veto power in UN Security Council.

Ultimately, the West lost a great opportunity of having a say in Karabakh by ignoring the war that started in July 2020. In fact, their absence was, according to some experts, the reason of the high number of casualties in the first place.[29] Since Russia stepped in as the peacekeeper, there is little or no possibility for a UN mission in the region soon. The case of Nagorno-Karabakh accordingly illustrates the consequences of isolationism for the Western world. In the absence of Western peacekeepers, Russia or similar countries with regional ambitions will have a great influence. 


[1] This figure is from an Armenian source: https://en.armradio.am/2020/11/08/azerbaijans-military-death-toll-reaches-7630/, and not confirmed by Azeri authorities.

[2] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/14/villagers-burn-karabakh-houses-ahead-of-azerbaijan-takeover

[3] https://correlatesofwar.org/data-sets/COW-war/the-cow-typology-of-war-defining-and-categorizing-wars/view

[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54488386

[5] https://www.azernews.az/aggression/171582.html

[6] https://www.thedailybeast.com/attack-drones-dominating-tanks-as-armenia-azerbaijan-conflict-showcases-the-future-of-war

[7] https://www.aniarc.am/2016/04/11/madrid-principles-full-text/

[8] See Geoffrey Blainey (1973) “Causes of War” for a more detailed explanation about how wars generally tend to recur.

[9] See Alastair Smith and Alan Stam. 2003. “Mediation and Peacekeeping in a Random Walk Model of Civil and Interstate War” International Studies Review 5(4): 115-135

[10] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54885906#:~:text=Nagorno%2DKarabakh%3A%20Russia%20deploys%20peacekeeping%20troops%20to%20region,-6%20days%20ago&text=Hundreds%20of%20Russian%20peacekeeping%20troops,end%20conflict%20in%20the%20region.&text=The%20enclave%20is%20internationally%20recognised,by%20ethnic%20Armenians%20since%201994

[11] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-armenia-azerbaijan-rockets/russia-moves-rocket-launchers-towards-nagorno-karabakh-after-peace-deal-idUSKBN27W2H0

[12] See the open source intelligence analysis by Yoruk Isik (video in Turkish) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bk5HVCpgQg&ab_channel=Medyascope

[13] https://www.trtworld.com/turkey/azerbaijan-demands-inclusion-of-turkey-in-karabakh-solution-process-40298

[14] Svante E. Cornell. 1998. “Turkey and the Conflict in Nagorno Karabakh: A Delicate Balance” Middle Eastern Studies 34(1): 51-72

[15] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/82933

[16] See Matthew Bryza’s commentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byFgkaaSL2o&ab_channel=AlJazeeraEnglish

[17] ibid

[18] See https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/19/azerbaijan-relentless-crackdown-opposition and https://www.rferl.org/a/azerbaijan-s-despotic-ruler-throws-tantrum-in-unprecedented-crackdown-on-pro-democracy-rivals/30757480.html and https://eurasianet.org/little-to-lose-opposition-in-azerbaijan

[19] https://ge.boell.org/en/2020/09/15/socioeconomic-impact-covid-19-and-oil-price-fluctuations-azerbaijan

[20] https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20201014-azerbaijani-president-ilham-aliyev-we-never-deliberately-attacked-civilians

[21] https://edam.org.tr/rus-sapsan-convoy-elektronik-harp-sisteminin-suriyeye-konuslandirilmasina-iliskin-siyasi-askeri-degerlendirme/

[22] https://en.zamanalwsl.net/news/article/57665/

[23] https://www.aniarc.am/2016/04/11/madrid-principles-full-text/

[24] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byFgkaaSL2o&ab_channel=AlJazeeraEnglish

[25] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/16/armenian-foreign-minister-resigns-says-ministry-spokeswoman

[26] https://tass.com/world/1222977 

[27] https://carnegie.ru/commentary/82933

[28] https://scholarship.rice.edu/bitstream/handle/1911/106011/SIMMONS-DOCUMENT-2019.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[29] https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/11/the-realist-victory-in-nagorno-karabakh/

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