Armenia and Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal is quite the surprise

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan came to an abrupt end on Monday, just hours after it looked as though the conflict might enter a more dangerous phase that some feared would escalate into ethnic cleansing.

For the past six weeks, the Caucasus rivals have fought their second war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous territory about the size of Delaware. The area is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but it’s claimed and governed by ethnic Armenians. The two sides have failed to reach a lasting diplomatic resolution to the dispute since the first war, which killed at least 30,000 people, ended in a 1994 ceasefire.

On Sunday, the conflict — which since September 27 has killed between 1,000 and 5,000 people — looked like it was about to get much, much worse.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev claimed his military overtook the city of Shusha (Armenians call it Shushi), Nagorno-Karabakh’s second-largest city, which experts say is considered the cultural capital of the breakaway territory. It’s located high on a hilltop roughly nine miles south of Stepanakert, the capital, providing Azerbaijan’s forces a strategic location from which to shell the city.

More devastation, then, was everyone’s expectation as recently as Monday morning.

Tim Ryan Williams/Vox

But then the situation changed out of nowhere. “We all got blindsided,” said Roya Talibova, an Azerbaijani who was internally displaced by the violence of the first war and is now a PhD student at the University of Michigan.

On Monday night, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced on social media that he had signed a peace deal with Russia and Azerbaijan to end the war. “It’s not a victory, but there’s no defeat,” he said. “I made that decision as a result of a deep analysis of the military situation.” Hours later, Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the accord on television, but Pashinyan didn’t join the teleconference.

Russia has long played a role in the conflict. It’s a major player in the region and one of the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group, the diplomatic effort to find a peaceful resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Shortly after the peace deal announcement, hundreds of Armenians unhappy with the development stormed government buildings in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to show their displeasure. Most tellingly, demonstrators knocked Pashinyan’s name off his office door. “Nikol has betrayed us,” some chanted. “Where is that traitor?” others shouted.

It’s easy to see why so many Armenians are upset with the result. Their country lost military control of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan reversed the balance of power in the conflict that had been frozen in place since the 1990s ceasefire.

“Azerbaijan is happy, they won,” said Nate Schenkkan, the director for special research at Freedom House, a democracy advocacy group.

Furthermore, both Russia and Turkey — the latter of which backed Azerbaijan militarily — gained more power in the region, leaving Armenia by far the weakest player in the dispute.

Here’s what you need to know about the truce signed on Monday night and what it means for the future of the conflict.

What the Armenia-Azerbaijan-Russia peace deal actually says

The situation is still fluid and things could change, but here’s what experts say is the general outline of the deal as it stands right now.

Armenia lost the war, so it lost the most.

Under the terms of the agreement, Armenia must withdraw from three areas of Nagorno-Karabakh, along with seven surrounding territories, no later than December 1.

That leaves ethnic Armenians in control of the capital Stepanakert and areas mostly to the north, but experts say none of what the Armenians will keep is strategically significant. In effect, Armenia will maintain nominal political control over the capital and its rump of the region (the yellow part in the maps above), but that’s about it. The power Armenia has had in the territory for decades is basically gone.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan won the war, so it gained the most.

As of December 1, it will control the three withdrawn-from areas of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding seven territories, while also remaining in Shusha (or Shushi). That means Azerbaijan will control the most important areas in Nagorno-Karabakh (the green area in maps above) with its military forces.

The peace deal, then, certifies Azerbaijan’s victory. “This statement constitutes Armenia’s capitulation. This statement puts an end to the years-long occupation,” Aliyev said on Monday.

Further, Azerbaijan will also be allowed to build a road connecting the country proper in the east with its enclave, Nakhichevan, in the west. That will enhance its territorial integrity, making it easier to transfer military supplies and economic goods as needed.

But the warring parties aren’t the only ones involved: Russia is also a winner.

The Kremlin will maintain around 2,000 peacekeepers for five years in a three-mile area of the Lachin corridor, the main road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper. Experts say their main job will be to deter further Azerbaijani advances and defend Armenia, since Russia has a defense pact with that country. Those forces will also oversee the construction of a road from that corridor to Stepanakert that circumvents Shusha — underscoring Armenia’s loss of that city.

Having troops and a greater say in the conflict’s resolution gives Russia more regional influence than it had before the war, experts say. That’s what Russia wanted all along, providing it with its own victory of sorts. This could over time benefit Armenia, as having Russian troops in the area could give it the space to rebuild and strengthen.

Turkey also gained influence. The Turkish government fiercely backed Azerbaijan in the war, and its side won the fight. As a result, Turkey now has stronger ties with the winning side. What’s more, it seems Turkey will form a joint peacekeeping center with Russia, which would give it even more influence in the region. Experts, though, say that’s the flimsiest proposal so far, and there are no clear details on what such an organization would look like or how it would work in practice.

In total, the deal means Azerbaijan is the clear victor in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; Armenia is left reeling and in political turmoil; and Russia and Turkey both enhanced their presence and influence in the region. It’s a dramatic shift from what the situation looked like six weeks ago.

The question now is if the deal will hold. Three previous ceasefire attempts failed in this latest conflict, and political opposition to the deal in Armenia may force the current prime minister — or someone else who usurps his power — to withdraw from the pact.

At that point, the war would likely resume, potentially leading to the danger and tragedy that many feared would unfold before the events of the past 24 hours changed everything.

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