Armenia’s accession to a Russian-mediated settlement with Azerbaijan over their long-running conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh to Armenians, on November 10 marks a major, perhaps irreversible, loss for Yerevan. But it is not just Armenian forces who stand defeated. It also marks the trouncing of a liberal approach to the region and the supremacy of realist power politics.
In mid-September, Yerevan held significant de jure Azeri territory outside the borders of the Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO)—today, it is at the mercy of Russian peacekeeping forces to maintain control of a rump Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia moved to agree to the terms after the symbolically and strategically significant citadel city of Shushi (Shusha in Azeri) was seized by Azeri forces. Under the deal, Azerbaijan will retain Shushi, granting them control of the heights over Armenian-controlled Stepanakert, as well as its other territory gains in the recent fighting. Furthermore, Armenian forces also have to evacuate from crucial districts outside the NKAO that the country has held since 1994, and access to the Armenian mainland will only be possible through a five-kilometer-wide corridor overseen by Russian troops.
Though many other details of the settlement remain murky and undefined, including to what extent Armenian forces can stay in the remaining territory, there are additional losses for Yerevan.
A sense of dread and encirclement could follow if Azeri President Ilham Aliyev follows through on his comments to allow Turkish troops to deploy to the area, amid already significant fears of renewed ethnic cleansing of Armenians in territory being returned to Azerbaijan. Finally, there is genuine fear that the democratic government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan may not survive the capitulation—the announcement led to such an outpouring of anger that Armenians stormed the national assembly and assaulted parliamentary speaker and longtime Pashinyan ally Ararat Mirzoyan.
The second Karabakh war, however, does not just represent an Armenian defeat. It is proof that the liberal international order is completely absent from the South Caucasus, and unlikely to return anytime soon.
Pashinyan’s surrender has even been criticized by President Armen Sarkissian, the sole senior government official to remain in his position following the 2018 Velvet Revolution that brought Pashinyan to power. However, the reality is that a failure to stop fighting after Shusha’s capture and after weeks of fighting had made clear that Armenia was unable to hold off steady, and extremely deadly, Azeri advances would have been disastrous and extremely irresponsible.
Pashinyan will be well aware that the same corrupt forces he ousted from power in 2018, who almost to a man are veterans of the first Karabakh war, could seek to use the loss to oust him. Other forces, such as Gagik Tsarukyan, head of the largest opposition party, already spoke out against him. Russia arguably would even prefer such an outcome, having long been uncomfortable with Pashinyan’s image as a liberal reformer. The November 11 arrest of Tsarukyan and other politicians who fomented unrest in Yerevan in the wake of the deal may have staved off any such challenge, but further challenges are sure to come.
In his time in power, however, Pashinyan has been keen to avoid antagonizing Moscow. He has not moved Yerevan out of the Russian orbit politically or economically, despite having previously been a sceptic of Armenia’s ties with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Once in power, even when criticizing Russia’s gas politics and arms sales to Azerbaijan, he did so in a feint manner, sure to remind Moscow of its status as Armenia’s strategic partner.
While Pashinyan’s 2018 Velvet Revolution was hailed as a beacon of hope amid the populist waves coursing through Western politics by the liberal stalwart that is the Economist¸ conferring upon Armenia the honor of “country of the year,” Yerevan did not receive even a fraction of the political or economic support from the West offered to Ukraine after its 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. Nor has the West given any significant support to Armenia in the latest fighting, not even bothering to attempt to cast the conflict as one between liberalism and illiberalism as with the Russo-Ukrainian war. The European Union and United States may not have said so publicly, but its economic and strategic interests in Azerbaijan prohibited such a declaration.
Where the West was active in Armenia, its actions proved counterproductive. Highlighting the failure of the West to offer an alternative route for Yerevan is the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s failed investment in the Amulsar gold mine, cancelled this August in light of steadfast local opposition. The United Kingdom and United States wasted political capital pressuring Pashinyan into supporting the project, ignoring the fact that many of those protesting it were among the coterie that brought him to power in the first place.
It would be unfair to say that Pashinyan’s government had any hopes of significant Western support in its conflict with Azerbaijan. There was no significant Western response to the April 2016 fighting, which was until this year the most significant in Karabakh since 1994, nor was there when conflict flared up in July 2020 along the de jure Armenian-Azeri borders.
Even advocates of the liberal order face difficulty endorsing Armenia’s position given that its 1994-2020 control of not just Nagorno-Karabakh but also surrounding Azeri districts represented an effective redrawing of borders by force (though this is often confused), contravening the United Nations Charter and Helsinki Final Act. The same language has been used to oppose Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and recognition of the “independence” of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Furthermore, the realist interest pervades: Azerbaijan is not only a significant oil supplier, with BP having led investment in the sector since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but also the key to Europe’s Southern Gas Corridor strategy. Azerbaijan’s lack of democratic credentials has not proven an impediment to its purchase of Western arms. It has been a major customer of Israeli arms as well, with the relationship shored up by the fact that Baku is Tel Aviv’s largest supplier of crude.
It is improbable that the Second Karabakh War will change the West’s interests vis-à-vis Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan both stand credibly accused of using cluster munitions, and neither side has proven capable of enabling peaceful co-existence. Longtime observers of the region will recall that when the West did back a peace agreement in 1997—not too dissimilar from the November 10 statement signed by Pashinyan, Aliyev, and Russian President Vladimir Putin—that then-President of Armenia Levon Ter-Petrosyan was forced to resign by the following February.
This despite the fact that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden called in late October for a “stop [to] the flow of military equipment to Azerbaijan.” The statement also called for the United States to lead a diplomatic effort alongside its European partners, but the Azeri military advance and Russian-negotiated agreement have precluded that outcome. It also gives legal cover to the Russian military overseeing transportation and trade between NKAO and Armenia proper, as well as between mainland Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan, on Armenia’s west. While the agreement limits the number of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh to 1,960 soldiers, it includes no limit on the number of Russian border guards who will now oversee the latter corridor, which will run along the Armenian-Iranian border.
Much has been made of the fact that Russia has witnessed tumult on its borders in recent months, with unrest in Belarus, a coup-cum-revolution in Kyrgyzstan, and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, raising questions about whether Putin had lost his grip on Russia’s vaunted “near abroad.” While some have argued that this deal represents a potential loss for Moscow given Turkey’s key role—with Baku’s success in large part enabled by its use of Turkish drones—it remains to be seen how active Turkey will be in the new settlement. More likely than not, it will refrain from actions that risk upsetting its entente cordiale with Moscow, a relationship also enabled by Ankara’s adoption of a realist approach to power politics with Moscow.
However, the outcome in the Second Karabakh conflict, in which Moscow is a victor second only to Baku despite the defeat of its nominal ally, highlights that as an uber-realist power Moscow is able to turn such situations to its advantage, particularly in contrast to a West that still espouses liberal values but fails to follow through on them. Unless the West adopts a more realist approach, it is likely to remain in retreat not just in the South Caucasus, but across wider Eurasia.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.