Early Russian withdrawal from Karabakh: how has Azerbaijan’s ‘calculated risk’ strategy paid off?
    Contemplations with Orkhan Amashov

    ANALYTICS  21 April 2024 - 10:03

    Orkhan Amashov

    In the latest episode of ‘Contemplations’, Orkhan Amashov reflects why the early departure of the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ from Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region was an absolute necessity, and how the steps taken by Baku between 2020-23 affected this outcome, eventually eliminating any tiny speck of encumbrance upon its sovereignty.

    Few would disagree with the assessment that the early withdrawal of the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ from Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory in Karabakh on 17 April 2024 was an absolute necessity and entirely plausible development. Indeed, few would disagree with this evaluation today. However, there are those in Armenia and some Western capitals who believe that the Russian contingent should have been more pro-active in the area between 2020–23 by taking steps to prop up the separatist unrecognised entity self-styled as the ‘NKR’ in Karabakh, limiting Azerbaijan’s efforts to entrench its sovereignty over the region, which would have ultimately led to extension of its stay or, although the preferable option would have been replacement of this very contingent by an international peacekeeping force in 2025.

    In many ways, this unfulfilled expectation appears to be embodied in the view of Principal Deputy Spokesperson for the US State Department Vedant Patel that Russia did not prove itself a “trustworthy ally and partner” of Armenia in September 2023. The obvious conclusion is that, if to follow Patel’s logic, Russia should have counteracted Azerbaijan’s legitimate actions on the ground within its own sovereign territory, saving the illegal separatist junta from collapse, and by not doing so the Kremlin failed Armenia. Very interesting indeed.

    Let us address the question as to why the early withdrawal of the Russian contingent from Karabakh was inevitable. The reality is that, following the full restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the region in September 2023, with the separatist junta being consequently disbanded, and the local Armenian residents departing the territory en masse, of their own volition, due to their deep-entrenched belief of the inadmissibility of the idea of living under Azerbaijani jurisdiction, the fate of the Russian contingent was practically sealed. Their early withdrawal was only a matter of time.

    When questioned regarding this matter by Donald Arleth of TVP World – Poland’s first English-language TV channel - in early October last year, two weeks after the 19–20 September counter-terrorism measures implemented by Baku, I articulated the self-same view:

    Extract from the interview:

    Donald Arleth: “What do you think Russia’s role in the region will be? Do you think it is in Azerbaijan’s interests, as it is in Armenia’s interests to get rid of the so-called Russian ‘peacekeepers’?

    Orkhan Amashov: “I think they are bound to retrench, in particular, after what happened in September. As you know, on 28 September, that separatists issued a decree on its self-dissolution, and according to the decree, they will cease to exist by 1 January 2024. So, what will happen to the Russian ‘peacekeepers’? I think everything is very clear. They are going to curb their presence and eventually pull out. This is absolutely inevitable.”

    Of course, one has to understand the process leading from the deployment of the Russian troops in Karabakh, in line with the 10 November 2020 tripartite statement, signed between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia, through to the bilateral decision made by Baku and Moscow on the contingent’s withdrawal on 17 April 2024. Despite the trilateral nature of the 10 November statement, the issue involving the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ was always a matter between the sending and receiving states, namely Russia and Azerbaijan. And Armenia, by being forced to recognise Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in Prague in October 2022, in principle, implicitly also acquiesced with this.

    In November 2020, Russia viewed the presence of its ‘peacekeepers’ on Azerbaijani soil as a well-deserved gain for being a broker in the ceasefire deal ending the 44-day War, a merciful act vis-à-vis Armenia, by saving its puppet separatist creation from utter annihilation, and as a premise for extending its stay in Karabakh, with a promise of being the ultimate arbiter in Baku-Yerevan dynamics for years to come.

    When, in October 2022, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan openly expressed his acquiescence with a “Russian peace plan”, stipulating that the Karabakh issue should be left for following generations, with the concomitant presence of the ‘peacekeepers’, during a trilateral meeting in Sochi, it became abundantly clear that Yerevan, in principle, subscribed to the Kremlin’s approach. For the EU, US and France, the Russian contingent was viewed a force to be retained until replaced by themselves.

    So far as Azerbaijan’s own perspective is concerned, for Baku the Russian contingent in Karabakh represented a certain element of ‘calculated risk’. The rationale of its approach was, from the very outset, centred around intensifying the process of implementing the provisions of the 10 November 2020 statement in such a way that, by 2025, there would have been no justification for the Russian troops remaining.
    First of all, Azerbaijan, despite agreeing to the deployment of the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ in Karabakh, never allowed them to have a specified mandate, limiting them to vague functionality construed as “exercising control over the ceasefire regime’, as stated in Article 5 of the 10 November 2020 statement. In reality, it was only in relation to exercising control along the Lachin Road that that the Russian contingent’s duties were explicitly recognised.

    Secondly, Baku’s efforts, from the outset, and particularly after March 2022, were built around the exigency of a) creating conditions on the ground to induce the implementation of Article 4 of the 10 November 2020 statement, namely relating to the withdrawal of the remnants of the illegal Armenian armed forces from Karabakh by gaining strategic heights surrounding the area where the Russian troops were present and counteracting any signs of military fortification and so forth by the separatist junta therein, and b) by establishing control over the entrance to the Lachin Road, in view of numerous cases of its misuse and on the fundamental premise of exercising its sovereign rights.

    All of these aspects incrementally resulted in testing and gradually limiting the reach of the Russian contingent, brilliantly executed by Baku. Furthermore, Azerbaijan did everything to encourage internal dialogue with the Armenian residents of Karabakh, with the separatist junta, however, assuming a more radical shape in August 2023, showing complete disinterest and manifest apathy regarding any form of communication with Baku.

    Ultimately, all of these factors culminated in the robust anti-terrorism measures conducted by Azerbaijan in September 2023, which were largely anticipated and predicted, their result being a foregone conclusion.

    Could the Russian ‘peacekeepers’ have stayed in Karabakh, in one way or another, after full restoration of Azerbaijani sovereignty over the area? They may have, had Azerbaijan allowed them to do so. In fact, it is rumoured on the grapevine that the Ukrainian war-weary Russian side was tried to convince Baku of the advisability of them staying until 2025, possibly engaging in demining and other humanitarian efforts.

    From the very outset, the Russian presence in Karabakh was only temporary, from Baku’s guise, with all efforts being made to ensure they would leave at a pertinent juncture, by 2025 at the latest.
    As Ahmad Alili, Director of the Caucasus Policy Analysis Centre, recently reminded us, as of April 2024, Azerbaijan is the only nation amongst the Eastern Partnership countries with no foreign troops on its territory. What does this signify if not true independence, admirable strategy and genuine sovereignty?

    Plus, the good news does not stop here. On 19 April, as a result of the eighth meeting of the State Commissions on the delimitation of the state border between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the latter finally agreed to return the four adjacent villages of the Qazakh district to the former. Brilliant. One hopes the sides will soon agree on the enclave villages too.

    Indeed, President Ilham Aliyev knows what to do and how to achieve the most desired outcome for his nation. Of that there has never been any doubt in our minds. For those who doubted Azerbaijan’s genuine intentions regarding the Russian contingent formerly stationed in Karabakh, there is only thing left to say. Touché and checkmate. Endgame.


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