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A Risky Role for Russian Peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh
A Risky Role for Russian Peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

A Risky Role for Russian Peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh

Originally published in ISPI

When Russian peacekeepers arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh as part of a ceasefire deal between Azerbaijan and Armenian, they found it empty, blanketed in a thick November fog. After 44 days of brutal war, most [people] had fled, not believing the fighting was over. A year later, the region’s main city of Stepanakert is no longer a ghost town. Most of its residents have returned, followed by thousands of Armenians displaced from territories won over by Azerbaijani forces in the conflict. The scars of war are everywhere — damaged buildings, craters caused by missiles, and photos of the dead and missing hung for passers-by — but elders gossip on city stoops while children are playing in the streets once again. That renewed sense of security is largely thanks to the Russian presence there.

Nevertheless, the Russian peacekeeper contingent lacks a detailed mandate. As set out by the November 9th ceasefire deal, its presence is relatively modest, limited to 1,960 personnel with small arms, 90 armoured personnel carriers, and 380 other motor vehicles.[fn]Statement by President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia and President of the Russian Federation”, official website of the President of Russia, 10 November 2020.Hide Footnote They man 27 checkpoints, most far from the front, along the key transport arteries in the Armenian-populated areas of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Lachin corridor – a narrow, mountainous road of eight kilometers that connects the region with Armenia. Since August, they’ve begun daily patrols in different parts of the region but deploy to the front only when alerted to a problem by residents, the general staffs of Azerbaijan or Armenia, or reports from aerial drones. The contingent’s monitoring drones are manned from a joint Russian and Turkish command center about 20 km from the front, next to the Azerbaijani village of Qiyamedinli. Russian peacekeepers also lead on the demining process in the Armenian-populated areas of Nagorno-Karabakh and support a number of humanitarian initiatives, including regular search operations for remains of soldiers and civilians killed in the conflict.

On top of these operational tasks, residents close to the front lines often appeal to the peacekeepers to escort them safely to their farmlands, guard them while they fix irrigation channels and roads next to the trenches or even to retrieve cattle who have gone missing. “The peacekeepers told us to dial their hotline if we lost a cow again”, one Mkhitarishen villager said after Azerbaijani soldiers slaughtered and ate one of his herds.[fn]Crisis Group’s report N°264, “Post-War Prospects for Nagorno-Karabakh”, 9 June 2021, p.11.Hide Footnote

Moscow’s decision to send peacekeepers to such a volatile region was a risky one. The 2020 war was the most brutal in the South Caucasus in decades, with over 7,000 killed in only six weeks of fighting. It followed over 25 years of deadlocked talks led by Russia as well as France and the United States, its two fellow co-chairs in the OSCE Minsk Group, which has been with managing the peace process since the region’s 1992-1994 war. With this deployment of its forces, Russia extended its involvement beyond diplomacy, and shouldered responsibility for keeping the peace in the conflict zone.

So far, it has managed this role well. Most incidents between the parties are resolved quietly via direct contacts with the Azerbaijani and Armenian joint staffs. But the longer it lasts, the more difficult the mission will become. Both sides have dug trenches and built new military positions mere meters away from each other in places quite close to civilian settlements that risk being caught in the crossfire of any renewed violence. Exchanges of fire have become more frequent in recent months, forcing Russian peacekeepers to investigate incidents and prompting them to begin daily patrols.

The situation ... will remain particularly fraught as long as Azerbaijan and Armenia refuse to return to the negotiating table.

The situation on the front line will remain particularly fraught as long as Azerbaijan and Armenia refuse to return to the negotiating table to deal with urgent issues, ranging from enabling access to aid to war-torn areas to demarcating their borders – which shifted with Azerbaijan’s seizure during the war for a territory that the Armenian troops have held onto since the 1990s – to allowing goods and people to pass freely through key transport routes through each other’s territory. The OSCE Minsk Group has struggled to introduce an agenda that could bring the two sides together for negotiations.[fn]Crisis Group’s report N°264, “Post-War Prospects for Nagorno-Karabakh”, 9 June 2021, p.5.Hide Footnote Baku declares the conflict over and sees no reason to return to the talks with the same format.[fn]Speech of President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev in video format was presented at the annual General Debate of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly”, official website of president of Azerbaijan, 24 September 2021.Hide Footnote It took a full year from the onset of the conflict for the co-chairs to be able to convene a meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on September 24th. It remains to be seen whether the meeting will revive the negotiating process. But when — and if — the sides return to talks, maintaining the ceasefire along the front lines should be their priority.

In the absence of high-level talks, Azerbaijani and Armenian have an even greater need for contacts at the local level to resolve issues on opposing sides of the front line. Since their deployment, the Russian peacekeepers have facilitated such meetings, for example, to discuss access to water and electricity. In other post-conflict areas of the former Soviet Union, such as neighbouring Georgia with its two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; Ukraine and Donbas; along with Moldova and Transnistria, regular trouble-shooting meetings on day-to-day issues like safe passage to farmlands and grazing areas have improved the lives of residents on either side of the front. That kind of mechanism would be well worth replicating.

There is also an urgent need to revitalize discussions on a clear mandate for the Russian peacekeepers, whose terms of deployment are currently governed by just three sentences in the hastily agreed ceasefire statement. Moscow had begun talks with Baku and Yerevan on a document that would set out rules of engagement, but it hit a wall.[fn]Crisis Group’s report N°264, “Post-War Prospects for Nagorno-Karabakh”, 9 June 2021, p.13.Hide Footnote It was able to reach a consensus with the sides on most issues apart from who ought to sign the agreement: whether Baku alone or Yerevan, too. So far, no party to the conflict has pushed back on the broad range of activities taken on by Russian peacekeepers. However, experience from other conflict zones suggests this could quickly become an issue in the event of an escalation in tensions: in that scenario any disparity between the two sides’ visions of Russia’s role will come sharply into view. Some in Moscow advocate for clarifying the mandate now and avoiding such a scenario. Warns one analyst close to the Kremlin: “You will see, the moment something goes wrong in (Nagorno-) Karabakh, Russia will be blamed.”[fn]Crisis Group’s report N°264, “Post-War Prospects for Nagorno-Karabakh”, 9 June 2021, p.14.Hide Footnote Given the important role Russia is now playing in sustaining stability in the conflict zone, it is essential that it be given all the needed tools to succeed.