Russia's dilemma in Nagorno-Karabakh: you cannot leave you cannot stay -

Russia's dilemma in Nagorno-Karabakh: you cannot leave you cannot stay

Russia's dilemma in Nagorno-Karabakh: you cannot leave you cannot stay

Since December 12, 2022, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) remains under blockade. Azerbaijan unilaterally established control over the Lachin corridor, which contradicts the Trilateral Statement of 2020. In less than two years, in May 2025, the future of the Russian peacekeeping contingent (RPC) in Nagorno-Karabakh will be determined: Yerevan and Baku will either extend the mandate of the contingent or declare that there is no need for its presence and will prepare it for the exit. Russia's loss of its monopoly role as a mediator in the negotiation process and its inability to lift the blockade and regain control over the corridor increase the likelihood of the second scenario.
Changing needs and status of Russian peacekeepers
The deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of the 2020 war was conditioned by the need to maintain security until the conclusion of a peace agreement. In this context, there are several key components.
Firstly, initially, the peacekeepers were in the "gray zone", since the status of Nagorno-Karabakh was not determined. It was this situation that created the need for the presence of an external third force. However, after Armenia recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan at the highest level, the configuration changed. Now, from the point of view of both Baku and Yerevan, Russian peacekeepers are stationed on the territory of Azerbaijan.
Secondly, in the perception of many Russian experts and decision-makers, the results of the 2020 war were positive for Russia: Moscow has expanded its military presence in the South Caucasus and received an instrument of pressure on Azerbaijan, the third country in the region, which it didn't have before. However, this approach had the opposite effect. Having established control over the Lachin corridor, Azerbaijan already restricts the work of the contingent and puts pressure on it. Today, Moscow is already carefully choosing the wording and bypassing the sharp corners in order not to offend its partners in Baku, since the future presence of peacekeepers depends on it.
Thirdly, the need to deploy the contingent was due to the absence of a peace agreement. Today Yerevan and Baku have reached the finish line: Armenia has made the necessary unilateral concessions and the technical details are being discussed. Azerbaijan is exerting pressure to sign an agreement as soon as possible, which will allow it to announce in May 2025, "The conflict is already in the past, the long-awaited peace has come to the region and there is no need for peacekeepers anymore."
Fourthly, the military presence "on the ground" in Nagorno-Karabakh was supposed to guarantee Russia a monopoly in the negotiation process: any agreements reached can be implemented only with the participation of the Russian side. However, Yerevan and Baku are reaching the main agreements at the sites in Brussels and Washington. That is, the presence of peacekeepers did not play the role of a guarantor of Russia's leading role in the post-conflict settlement.
We can record that the expectations from the deployment of peacekeepers as a valuable tool capable of influencing the processes in the region have not been justified as of today. On the contrary, Russia faced the difficult task of resolving the humanitarian catastrophe in Nagorno-Karabakh and maintaining positions that would guarantee an extension of the mandate of the peacekeepers.

Main options for Russia

In order to determine possible scenarios for the development of the situation around the peacekeeping contingent in Nagorno-Karabakh, it seems necessary to answer the key question: is Russia interested in maintaining its presence?
Traditionally, when analyzing this problem, researchers knowingly lay down a positive answer to this question. However, the current trend in Russian foreign policy, largely based on the approaches of political neorealism, indicates the need to adjust national interests based on available opportunities. In other words, if the cost-benefit ratio is in favor of the former, then Russia will reconsider the initial approaches. The indicators described above indicate a possible revision of priorities.
In fact, the presence of Russian peacekeepers rests on three pillars: the uncertain status of Nagorno-Karabakh; the absence of a peace agreement between Yerevan and Baku; the preservation of the Armenian population, which refuses to "integrate" into Azerbaijan. Leveling the first two pillars should lead to Russia's concentration of attention on the latter. However, even in this case, there is a negative trend associated with the preparation for the mass departure of the local population.
Firstly, the ongoing blockade creates unbearable conditions for staying in Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, the opening of the Lachin corridor may lead to mass emigration to Armenia, since most of the population returned after the war, based on considerations of a stable life due to the Russian presence. Secondly, the absence of a direct dialogue between Stepanakert and Baku will create a situation in which Azerbaijan will implement decisions unilaterally, based on agreements with Yerevan. An example is the complete blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, launched after Armenia recognized this territory as part of Azerbaijan. It is important to note that Russia failed to regain control of the Lachin corridor with political and diplomatic tools, lift the blockade, provide the minimum necessary conditions for the stay of the population, and launch a permanent negotiation mechanism between Stepanakert and Baku with the mediation of Moscow. Thus, if the current trend continues, we can expect the weakening of the last pillar of the presence of peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
This prospect will have a domino effect. The "settlement" of the conflict on Baku's terms will lead to a sharp decrease in the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh. And the signing of a peace agreement between Yerevan and Baku with designated security guarantees will reduce the need for a large-scale Russian military presence in Armenia (the guarantee will no longer be provided by an external force but by a bilateral agreement). At the same time, the prospect of Moscow's presence in the new regional configuration will also decrease: discussions are underway at the highest level about the absence of the need for the presence of FSB border troops on unblocked communications, as originally envisaged in the 2020 Statement. In this regard, the only basis for the need for the RPC to remain as the first "knuckle" of the domino of the Russian presence in Armenia is the preservation of the unresolved situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The rhetoric of the Russian Foreign Ministry that "the culmination of a large negotiation process will be the signing of a peace treaty that will draw a line under the efforts of Armenians and Azerbaijanis" testifies to Moscow's desire not to create sharp corners for which it will be possible to cling and guarantee the extension of the RPC's mandate. At the same time, the progress of negotiations on Western platforms may naturally cause Moscow to put all processes on pause. This will allow us to gain time: to resolve the humanitarian catastrophe in Nagorno-Karabakh and ensure the return of our positions as a mediator. This is what the statement of the Russian side says, "an attempt to hastily conclude a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia to the detriment of quality and proper preparation will result in new conflicts in the future." In other words, the current trend of the post-conflict structure does not correlate with the Russian perspective of ensuring its interests.
Based on this, we can conclude that the only option for Russia as of today is to guarantee a stable situation until an agreement is concluded with the subsequent implementation of agreements "on the ground". Only the solution to these problems will allow Moscow to create a basis for guaranteeing any presence in the future.

Sergei Melkonian, Ph.D., Research Fellow, APRI Armenia.

These views are his own.


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