On September 27, 2020, the renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh completely changed the existing order in the South Caucasus. In terms of military Azerbaijan have managed and waged 21st-century modern warfare, destroying the part of the Armenian army based in Karabakh, and inflicted up to two billion dollars military equipment losses to Armenia. As a result of the fighting, the Azerbaijani military captured not only the southern part of the former Karabakh Autonomous Region and its historic centre, the city of Shusha but also other four regional centres around Karabakh, which since 1994 were no longer controlled by official Baku. The Azerbaijani army also made significant progress northward, capturing two important cities, a reservoir and a mountain range. Despite the apparent Azerbaijani military advantage, the fire in Karabakh ceased on November 10 and create a new reality on the ground.
As a result of the truce, a peacekeeping mission consisting of Russian troops was formed which occupy the rest of the territory of the former Karabakh Autonomous Region, which still held by Armenian forces, centred in Stepanakert. They also occupied the Lachin corridor, which connects Karabakh with Armenia. According to the agreement, the Armenian militia and armed forces must withdraw from all Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh by December. But as Russia is responsible for control, observe and overview peace on the ground it is possible for Armenian militia to remain in and around Stepanakert. No matter how this issue resolved, it is clear that the region gets a large Russian military base on the territory of de jure Azerbaijan. Despite that, the 26-year status quo has changed, which will result in Azerbaijan successfully recaptured all areas around Karabakh except Lachin, official Baku has not been able to fully retake Karabakh territory and de facto cede the control rest of territory to Russia and indirectly to Armenia. This changes the pre-existing order even more, as Russian military bases and, consequently, political leverage is found in the internationally recognized territories of the three South Caucasus countries: Georgia – in occupied Abkhazia and Samachablo, Armenia – in Gyumri, and in Azerbaijan – Karabakh and Lachin. As a result, Russian influence throughout the region is growing and creating a so-called Russian Peace (Pax Russica), a term portrays reality far from real peace, development and stability. If Armenia or Azerbaijan seeks to aspire an independent foreign policy from Russia and/or pursue projects that are unacceptable to the Kremlin, Russia, as a peacemaker, may launch a military-political maneuver to dissuade both of them.
Russia has set a precedent that any conflict in the South Caucasus will eventually come to end when Russia really insists. Throughout the war, both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides had communicated with Kremlin. The abrupt end of the conflict indicates that during all six weeks of fighting both official Yerevan and Baku had not only openly, but also covertly negotiated with official Moscow. Such a development indicates an increase in Russian political weight which threatens the Western interests in the region.
Despite the victorious war, Azerbaijan failed to fully restore its territorial integrity. On a short time scale with the change of the status quo, Azerbaijan gains a noticeable advantage and even manages to get rid of the label of a loser. It is also expected that official Baku will soon begin the process of returning 600,000 IDPs to its controlled territories. In addition, the Azerbaijani military is gaining the status of a leading and modern force in the region. Despite all of these significant successes, de facto control of Azerbaijan could not be exercised over the entire territory of Karabakh, which is compounded by the emergence of Russian military bases on the ground. This reality is, from a strategic point of view, a problem, a challenge, and to some extent a limitation of foreign political sovereignty for the country that won the war.
Another notable result is the stabilization the government of Ilham Aliyev and the achievement of political consolidation. The demand of Azerbaijani political diversity will not be tangible for some time. At the same time, Turkish influence in Azerbaijan’s domestic and foreign policy will increase, which has been growing dynamically in recent years. It is also important to note that in the long run the increased role of Turkey during and after the conflict will inevitably come into conflict with Russian interests, and this is clear to all actors.
Militarily, Armenia was defeated. The perception inside the country about the invincibility of the Armenian army is changing, which followed by the dissatisfaction and anger of the people. The investments of the Armenian Diaspora, used for the reconstruction of Karabakh, were destroyed in six weeks, and significant part of the territories inhabited by the Armenian population came under the direct control of Azerbaijan. Armenia’s military potential is significantly reduced, as well as its combat motivation. The country will definitely have to go through a reassessment process and think about who its real ally is and what the country’s foreign policy vector should be. The war has once again proved that the existence of Russia as its main ally is a mistake and contains wrong expectations especially when the Kremlin have a bad reputation of being an unreliable force. But still, it is unknown what conclusions Armenia will draw after the war.
The situation is changing in Yerevan as well. If the revolutionary government of Nikol Pashinyan and his project of modernization and democracy, to some extent, allowed the idea of playing independently from Russia, now this may change – Pashinyan has to fight for its own political survival.
Despite the defeat in the war, Armenia still manages to maintain fragile but de facto control over the small part of former Karabakh Autonomous Region – centred in Stepanakert. This means that the worst-case scenario was avoided by Armenia, which would lead to the complete loss of the Armenian-populated territories in Karabakh. It is clear that as a result of the war, Armenia’s foreign policy will become even more subordinate to Russia. Of course, recognizing and assessing military defeat after the victorious war in the 1990s will not be easy and consolidating revanchist forces may occur, but it will further destabilize the country.
Another very important outcome is the construction of road connecting Nakhichevan with rest of Azerbaijan which will build through the Syunik province of Armenia. If this project is implemented and Azerbaijan invests heavily then the road to Nakhichevan and then to Turkey will pass through Syunik, which will be economically and politically undesirable for Georgia a country with a life-line transport corridor for Azerbaijan. It is also important to note that the high-permeability concrete-asphalt road from Nakhichevan to Turkey already exists and can be widened. This further increases the motivation to implement the Syunik road project. It is still unknown who and in what form will control the road between Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan and whether there will be customs services on it, but the fact is that full loading of the road will not be in Georgia’s interests.
Imports of Turkish products in Azerbaijan reached 1.65 billion in 2019. A significant part of them was transported by land or air corridor of Georgia. If this is reality changes and corridor diversifies, it will reduce the geopolitical weight of Georgia, but mostly insignificantly and will not pose a threat to the existing gas or oil pipelines, which are one of the main energy arteries for the EU.
Overall, the post-war reality in the South Caucasus has changed. Georgia remained the only country that has an unchanging and unwavering pro-Western and independent foreign policy from Kremlin. What Russia has been able to do in Armenia and Azerbaijan, it failed to do in Georgia – despite the war in 2008, the Kremlin has not been able to remove this important Black Sea country from the Euro-Atlantic course. This indicates Georgia’s potential to become the Western lighthouse in the South Caucasus. Against the backdrop of growing Russian influence the region now the support from the European Union and the United States to Georgia is highly important and is the part of interests of the West. 2020 has shown that the promotion of democracy and security in Georgia becomes even more necessary and valuable for the Western world.