After Azerbaijan’s 2020 military victory over Armenia, in which it reclaimed most of the territory it lost in a prior conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh more than two decades earlier, key decision-makers thought the country should return to the concept of 'strategic patience'.[i] This policy of waiting for the right moment to maximise its interests has guided Baku’s approach to conflict with Armenia for the past 25 years and helped Azerbaijan to become stronger, both militarily and economically, allowing it to maintain good relations with geopolitical actors that had a stake in the conflict.
Consistent with the strategic patience approach, in the post-2020 period, Baku sought to bolster its position in negotiations with Armenia through diplomatic engagement with Russia (it signed a strategic alliance agreement with Moscow in February 2022) and Turkey (hoping that Ankara would defend Azerbaijani interests via its own formal dialogue with Moscow). It hoped that Moscow would see disagreeing with Baku as the same thing as disagreeing with Ankara. But it had not expected the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which changed the status quo that Moscow had helped maintain since the ceasefire that brought the 2020 war with Armenia to an end. Under that status quo, Russia acted as sole mediator and arbiter when it came to Azerbaijan-Armenian relations, and deployed peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. The EU made attempts to mediate in December 2021 but became truly instrumental in bringing the sides together only after Ukraine invasion.
Baku saw Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to gain the upperhand on the battlefield, push for a peace treaty on advantageous terms, and advance its efforts to gain Armenia’s formal recognition of its sovereignty over territories including Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russian invasion of Ukraine, a changing balance?
The preference of many Azerbaijani officials for strategic patience was built on the assumption that it would have to outlast Russia’s interest in the conflict in order to achieve its objectives.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 war, Baku saw Russia as the main mediator in the Nagorno-Karabkh conflict, and any possible Western challenge to Moscow’s role was viewed with suspicion, or as unrealistic. For example, Azerbaijan discounted the idea that was sometimes circulated of replacing the Russian presence with a Western military or civilian mission as an alternative plan (including from a Western ambassador who suggested to Baku that Azerbaijan should consider bringing in Western troops to keep the peace). [ii] Each party interpreted the vaguely-worded 2020 ceasefire agreement according to its own best interests. For Baku, this meant planning for a diminishing Russian role in Nagorno-Karabakh by 2025, with troops leaving and/or taking on a civilian function. A full demilitarisation of the region, as Azerbaijan envisaged it, would see a withdrawal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh, and also contemplated ethnic Armenian forces answering to the de facto authorities in breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.[iii]
The Azerbaijani government suspected that Western countries were happy for Moscow, at the expense of Turkey, to be the dominant power in the region because Western capitals raised few objections to the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to maintain the cease fire. (Turkey did however gain some ground: In January 2021, Russia and Turkey opened a joint ceasefire-monitoring centre in Azerbaijan, using drones to track violations.) According to an Azerbaijani official, “the West saw Russia in a ‘savior’ role – a new, positive image, whereby Russia preserved the security of local Armenians in the region”.[iv] Azerbaijani officials (perhaps unrealistically) had expected financial support from the West, sometimes imagined to be a variation on the post-World War II ‘Marshall Plan’, with funding allocated for the rebuilding the regions Azerbaijan regained in 2020. Baku was disappointed when the resources failed to materialise. Baku also rejected the OSCE Minsk Group -- which the U.S. co-chaired with Russia and France – as the main platform for negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh. They argued that the Group had failed to resolve the conflict over 25 years and there was no space for repetition of past failures. Further, Azerbiajan disputed that Yerevan had any right to a say in the affairs of Armenian populated Nagorno-Karabakh.
With Russia’s invasion Ukraine, however, the strategic landscape began to change. Brussels took a greater role in mediation, becoming the only party, besides Moscow, to bring Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders together in a trilateral format. With this change in mediators, Azerbaijan’s views shifted: it began to see the moment as ripe to try to clinch a peace treaty with Armenia, on its terms.
In February-March, Baku presented its 5-point proposal for a peace treaty (it had first circulated the proposal to Armenia in 2021 through the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs). Yerevan reacted positively in April 2022, though it stressed that securing guarantees for Karabakh Armenians’ security and human rights remained a priority. But the proposed settlement left aside the most contentious issue, the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. At the end of war in 2020, Azerbaijan had said it would not grant any territorial or administrative status to local Armenians in Karabakh. It made clear that past discussions about granting high-level status to the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast or even ‘cultural autonomy’ for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians was off the table. But for Yerevan these remained critical issues.
Negotiation under Violence
At the same time as it was working through diplomatic channels to achieve its objectives, Baku worked to improve its battlefield position. In rough parallel to the positive diplomatic engagement in March-April 2022, fighting increased in and around Nagorno-Karabakh’s Russian-patrolled area. Baku appeared to want to force Armenia into on a peace agreement on Azerbaijan’s terms, through a mix of threat and diplomacy, at a time when Russia and other powers were distracted by the war in Ukraine. When ceasefires broke down in March and August, Azerbaijani troops were able to take control of strategic sites inside the Nagorno-Karabakh area patrolled by Russian peacekeepers.[v]
Another of Baku’s objective was to weaken the image of Russia as a security guarantor of the Armenian population. After the 2020 war, Azerbaijani policy-makers were concerned that the Russian peace-keeping presence could lead to Armenian populated Karabakh becoming a formal Russian protectorate. Some in Baku also thought that eroding confidence in Russian capacity would help convince the local Armenian population that region’s integration with Azerbaijan was the only option. At the same time, as much as the Azerbaijani officials talked about such integration, they never presented a public vision or document to explain how this might work. Officials in Baku say they have not done so because Karabakh Armenians refuse to discuss it and insist on independence.[vi]
Baku also tried to increase the stakes for Yerevan by challenging Armenia’s own international borders and making claims on Armenian territories. By making Armenia’s borders more insecure, it sought to shift Armenia’s focus to concern for its own territorial integrity and force it to give up any claims on Nagorno-Karabakh. In September, a major ceasefire breakdown saw Azerbaijani forces move past Armenian-held positions along their shared border into Armenia. International powers widely condemned the incursion as a violation of Armenia’s territorial integrity. But Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, rejected this.
Despite the ceasefire violations and bleak situation, the parties appear closer than ever to signing a formal written agreement, in the coming months. Will it be a mere piece of paper, or will it pave the way for a genuine peace?
The document is expected to contain 14-15 points[vii]: these include commitments relating to mutual recognition of territorial integrity, the non-use and non-threat of force and commitments on transport links in the region. How to ensure the implementation of an agreement remains up in the air. Also absent from the discussion is a timeline for establishing diplomatic relations and on transitional justice issues. A healing process, including justice for victims of the three-decades old conflict and investigation of war crimes, is necessary, as very little trust in peace remains between the sides.
As for Armenian populated Karabakh, the proposed peace agreement deliberately leaves many questions open, such as the Russian presence after 2025 (its end-date under the 2020 cease fire agreement) and the fate of Karabakh Armenians. Because Moscow will want the agreement to preserve the legitimacy of its peace-keeping force, at least until 2025, it could play the spoiler if the text does not go its way. But this is precisely the opposite of what Baku wants. Azerbaijan seeks a text that does not mention the status of Nagorno-Karabakh or speak to the security or rights of Karabakh Armenians. Its hope is that against the backdrop of this silence, it can use carrots and sticks to persuade Armenia to unconditionally and formally recognize Baku’s sovereignty over this territory, putting Baku in the position to ask Russia to leave by 2025. How to resolve this tension with Moscow (and the risks it involves) remains the main question for Baku.
Many in Baku appear to view the signing of a peace treaty as a cure-all after three decades of conflict. The truth is messier. Even if Armenia were to capitulate entirely, and Nagorno Karabakh’s Armenian population were willing to be integrated into Azerbaijan – neither of which is in the offing – there are open questions about how integration would work. Over the last two years, Baku has done nothing to encourage serious grassroots movements or efforts to help prepare the population for peace. Bureaucratic barriers faced by the local peacebuilding community still remain. Tragically, in the latest months, escalations and violence, both around Armenian populated Karabakh and at the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, have led some people in Azerbaijan to believe that everything can be solved by force. If such voices were once marginal, they are becoming more mainstream. Without government and civil society’s efforts to help lay the groundwork, it will be very hard to achieve a durable, peaceful settlement.
As for bilateral relations, the peace agreement between Baku and Yerevan that has been envisaged may eliminate several issues. It could even bring a measure of relative stability and improve regional ties and trade, including by helping to ease the way for diplomatic normalisation between Armenia and Turkey. But a truce cannot paper over 30 years of mistrust and enmity, particularly if it skirts the issues that tear at the relationship. To mend those rifts, there needs an attempt to resolve the most contentious issue between the sides: the security and rights of Karabakh Armenians. If the Azerbaijani officials see them as citizens of Azerbaijan, as they say, they should begin a direct dialogue with Karabakh Armenians and work toward reconciliation. More than strategic patience, there needs to be a strategic understanding for these long-time foes to repair ties and achieve real peace.
[i] Interviews with senior Azerbaijani officials, Baku, November-December 2020.
[ii] Interview with Western diplomat, Baku, April 2021.
[iii]Nagorno-Karabakh: Seeking a Path to Peace in the Ukraine War’s Shadow”, International Crisis Group, Briefing 93/Europe & Central Asia, 22 April 2022.
[iv] Interview with senior Azerbaijani official, Baku, December 2020.
[v] “Upholding the Ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia”, International Crisis Group, 28 September 2022.
[vi] Interviews with senior Azerbaijani officials, Baku, February-March 2021.
[vii] Interviews with Western diplomats, Baku, August-September 2022.