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It's been a whirlwind 24 hours in the Armenian enclave, whose sudden surrender is reshaping the power dynamics in the volatile Caucasus region, leaving lingering questions about the future of a region long under the Russian sphere of influence.
It happened quickly, much faster than anyone could have imagined. It took the Azerbaijani army just 24 hours to force the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh to surrender. The fighting, which claimed about 100 lives, ended Wednesday when the leaders of the breakaway region accepted Baku's conditions.
Thus ends the self-proclaimed "Republic of Artsakh" — the name that the separatists gave to Nagorno-Karabakh.
How can we explain such a speedy defeat, given that this crisis has been going on for nearly three decades and has already triggered two high-intensity wars, in 1994 and 2020? The answer is simple: the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh backed themselves into a corner.
Armenia v. Russia
Two major actors in this geopolitical and humanitarian tragedy played a key role in this defeat: the Republic of Armenia and Russia. From the beginning of the fighting, Armenia made it clear that it would not intervene, sealing the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh.
A sign of Moscow's diminishing influence in the Caucasus region.
Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan knew that coming to the rescue of the Armenians at the helm of the enclave meant risking war spilling onto its own territory — a war waged by the Azerbaijani army, much more powerful than Armenian forces. To save Armenia, he therefore had to sacrifice Nagorno-Karabakh.
As for Russia, it remained passive, whether as a result of strategic calculation or because it is otherwise occupied on the Ukraine front. This can be seen as a sign of Moscow's diminishing influence in the Caucasus region, where other powers like Turkey (a vocal supporter of Azerbaijan) are asserting themselves.
Moscow's hostility toward Armenia
Russia has a military base in Armenia, and about 2,000 troops deployed in the Nagorno-Karabakh area under a previous peace agreement. These troops did not intervene, not even as peacekeepers, but they still facilitated yesterday's ceasefire, leading to the de facto surrender of the separatist enclave.
The Kremlin's actions are also undoubtedly influenced by its strong hostility toward Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018 in the wake of one of those "color revolutions" that Vladimir Putin despises so much. The liberal Pashinyan developed friendly relationships with Western countries and is viewed very unfavorably in Moscow.
Yesterday, the head of the Russian propaganda channel RT, Margaret Simonyan, stated that Russia owed nothing to Armenia and reused an insult that had be thrown at Nikol Pashinyan, calling him a "bald Judas."
Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan on July 25, 2023.
The specter of ethnic cleansing
The full meaning of the Azerbaijani victory remains to be seen. A new era begins Thursday as negotiations open between the government in Stepanakert and Baku representatives.
A coup is not out of the question.
On the agenda: the disarmament of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, as well as its reintegration into Azerbaijan. Under what conditions, with what future for its Armenian population, and with what guarantees? These are weighty questions, with the looming specter of ethnic cleansing.
But there may be more geopolitical changes ahead. Pashinyan's hold on power in Yerevan is not a given, as he faces the anger of a portion of the public pronged by pro-Moscow networks. A coup cannot be ruled out.
Last but not least, Russia's influence in the region is being challenged in this new balance of power imposed by the Azerbaijani army. These 24 hours of fighting have indeed significantly reshuffled the cards in the Caucasus.
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