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A Peacekeeping Power Play: Moscow Confirms Turkey’s Role In Monitoring Nagorno-Karabakh Ceasefire

Russian military vehicles enter Stepanakert (Khankendi), the main town in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh, on November 12, 2020.
Russian military vehicles enter Stepanakert (Khankendi), the main town in the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh, on November 12, 2020.

Russia on November 12 confirmed that Azerbaijani ally Turkey would play a role in monitoring the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, but not through peacekeepers or any presence within Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian area.

In a press conference livestreamed from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov contradicted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s November 11 assertion that Turkey “will join the peacekeeping forces in the [Karabakh] region.” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev earlier had stated the same.

Lavrov also denied Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Chavushoglu and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s statement that Turkish peacekeepers will work “on the same bases” as Russian peacekeepers.

This principle relates “exclusively” to a center that will conduct remote technical surveillance, including with drones, to monitor compliance with the ceasefire on the ground in Karabakh, Lavrov said. The Russian foreign minister called the Turkish personnel who will work in this center “observers” rather than “peacekeepers.”

The question of whether or not Turkish peacekeepers would work jointly with the 1,960 Russian soldiers to be deployed to Karabakh has sparked speculation throughout the South Caucasus as the region nervously watches a decades-long conflict turn into what is seen as a chess game between regional powers Russia and Turkey.

Turkey's inclusion as peacekeepers would have posed particular challenges for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, already the target of large-scale protests against the November 9 Nagorno-Karabakh peace agreement signed with Russia and Azerbaijan. Armenia has long viewed Turkey as its historic foe.

Lavrov, though, stated that Turkish activity will be restricted to the monitoring center itself, which will be on Azerbaijani-controlled territory that does not adjoin Karabakh, whose separatist de facto leadership Armenia backs.

On November 11, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Defense Minister Akar signed an agreement about Turkey's role at the center, Lavrov stated. He did not mention Azerbaijan, on whose territory the center will be located.

A separate agreement – between whom was not specified – will address the center’s location, according to the Russian foreign minister.

Turkey has not contested Lavrov's description of this arrangement.

In a November 10 interview with Current Time, Farid Shafiyev, chairman of the government-aligned Azerbaijan Center of Analysis of International Relations, projected that Turkish military officers likely will be dispatched to the monitoring center. Their number has not been made public.

Shafiyev, a former Azerbaijani career diplomat, dismissed concerns, often heard in the South Caucasus, about the introduction of Russian peacekeepers into Nagorno Karabakh. Since November 10, more than 400 such soldiers reportedly have arrived.

“Whether it likes it or not, [Azerbaijan] has to recognize reality,” Shafiyev said. “There weren’t especially any options, and in the given case, they had to accept Russian peacekeepers.”

He did not specify why Azerbaijan had to do so. At the time of the peace deal, which went into effect on November 10, Azerbaijan claimed that it held the military advantage in the field.

On November 8, President Ilham Aliyev announced that Azerbaijani forces had taken control of the Karabakhi town of Shusha (Shushi in Armenian). The strategic hilltop site, termed “the Jewel in the Crown” by presidential foreign-policy adviser Hikmet Hajiyev, is located just 10 kilometers from Karabakh’s administrative center of Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azeri).

One Ukrainian political scientist contends that Russia chose this precise moment to act.

With the fall of Shusha/Shushi, Putin understood that Azerbaijan, which already had reclaimed territory in the Armenian-occupied regions bordering Karabakh, was headed toward a “final victory,” commented Grigoriy Perepelitsa.

“Putin removed the jackpot from this war,” in a bid to reassert its own influence in the region, said Perepelitsa, director of the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine's Institute of Foreign Policy.

At the time of the peace agreement, Azerbaijani forces had been 2 kilometers away from Khankendi (Stepanakert), noted Shafiyev. “[P]ressure was placed on Azerbaijan that it would halt the fighting,” he said, without identifying the source of that pressure.

“If there’d be the possibility tomorrow, it would continue and successfully complete the operation,” he said.

The November 9 peace agreement stipulates that Armenia will restore the Kelbajar, Aghdam, and Lachin regions by December 1, 2020, but makes no provision for Karabakh’s long-term status.

Lavrov stated that this issue would depend on what rights are granted to those individuals currently living in Karabakh and those former residents – a reference to displaced Azerbaijanis – who would like to return.

“Trust must be restored, interethnic and interfaith peace must be restored,” he said, emphasizing in particular the restoration of Karabakh’s Armenian Apostolic churches and mosques.

He stated that “we” – whether Russia or all the agreement signatories was unclear -- are inviting UNESCO, the International Society of the Red Cross, and the UNHCR into Karabakh to help residents “to arrange a normal life.”

Once that has been accomplished, “I don’t have any doubts at all that the question of status will lose its urgency and can be resolved very, very quickly and smoothly,” Lavrov said.

Over the past nearly 30 years, however, negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group -- chaired by Russia, the United States, and France -- have not managed to do so.

The issue of status lies at the heart of the conflict. In December 1991, the region’s ethnic Armenian inhabitants voted in a referendum for independence from Azerbaijan. Full-fledged fighting with Azerbaijani soldiers started in early 1992. Armenia backed the Karabakhi separatists.

Russia itself was not a dispassionate observer: It supplied – and continues to supply -- arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Russian soldiers were observed fighting in Karabakh in the early 1990s.

With that past in mind, some observers have advised caution about bringing Russian peacekeepers into Karabakh.

Russian troops acting as “peacekeepers” only prolonged Georgia’s territorial dispute with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Ukraine’s with pro-Moscow separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, they say.

Similarly, Perepelitsa advised against viewing these soldiers, made up primarily of troops from Russia’s 15th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, as full-time peacekeepers.

“We should clearly understand that Russia does not have a peacekeeping force as such,” he elaborated. “In the combat regulations of the Russian armed forces, there is no such operation as a peacekeeping operation. Because there, a peacekeeping operation is seen as a type of military activity.”

Under the agreement signed with Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Russian troops deployed to Karabakh will stay on site for five years. Their exit can be requested with six months’ notice.

Perepelitsa predicted a later departure date than 2025, however: “They’ll stay [there] also like they’ve stayed in Transnistria [in Moldova], in Abkhazia – for an undefined period.”

Before its 2008 war with Russia, Georgia had requested that Russian peacekeepers leave the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia , but Moscow did not comply. Both regions are occupied by Russian troops today.

Shafiyev, however, is not concerned by this past. Despite Georgia and Ukraine’s experiences, “our relations with Russia are a lot better [than theirs], and, this experience, perhaps, will be different,” he forecast.

He believes that the agreement about Turkish “observers” stems from a compromise by Moscow, which recognizes Turkey’s geopolitical weight in the South Caucasus.

Moscow, however, has set limits for any such compromise. Lavrov underlined that the chairmanship of the Minsk Group would not be expanded to include Turkey – a past proposal of Azerbaijan.

Nonetheless, he stressed to reporters, no discord exists with Turkey, which is a member of the Minsk Group. The two countries, he said, share “common duties in Nagorno Karabakh" -- monitoring the ceasefire.

-With additional reporting from Anadolu Agency, APA, Interfax, and TASS