Russia, Turkey Seek to Expand Influence in Caucasus
On November 10, 2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia officially entered into an agreement ending all hostilities in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. As part of that arrangement, 2,000 peacekeepers from Russia's Ground Forces received a mandate to act in an intermediary role between Yervan and Baku while simultaneously ensuring regional stability. In its role as arbiter of the treaty, the Russian Federation will consolidate its position as a regional power in the Caucasus, and gain a military foothold in an area the former Soviet Union was forced to abandon. Moscow, however, is not alone in its ambitions for growth. The Republic of Turkey has also taken steps to deploy peacekeepers to the area, signifying growing regional ambitions for a historically aggressive nation.
The conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has a long and storied history. In order to understand the current geopolitical situation unfolding in the Caucasus, one must understand how Russia and Turkey became involved in the first place.
On July 7, 1923, the Soviet government officially established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR) within the legal borders of Azerbaijan. For unknown reasons, policymakers in Moscow did not foresee the issues that would be created by placing the NKAR within Azerbaijanian territory. This is odd, especially given the fact that nearly 92% of the region's population was composed of ethnic Armenians. Even so, from the 1920s through the 1980s, the Soviet Union was able to contain tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the NKAR and mediate minor disputes over border territory.
When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) began to collapse in the mid 1980s, both Baku and Yerevan took aggressive steps to advance their strategic interests in the disputed region. This came to a head in 1988, when residents of Nagorno-Karabakh voted to declare independence from Azerbaijan and to unite with the Armenia. The Azerbaijani's did not react well, and in 1992 a full scale conflict erupted on the border of the two nations. By the conclusion of the war two years later, the Armenian military had secured control over the majority of the NKAR. After the newly established Russian Federation mediated a ceasefire between both parties, Azerbaijan was forced to accept strategic and tactical defeat.
Despite some small scale clashes along the agreed upon 'Line of Contact', the situation remained largely calm until 2016. In that year alone, nearly 101 soldiers from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh perished, while anywhere from 41 to 102 Azerbaijanian soldiers were killed. Although things eventually died down, the mutual hatred and mistrust that already existed grew to new heights.
On September 27, 2020, Azerbaijani artillery, air, and armor assets began targeting ill-prepared Armenian defensive positions along or behind the Line of Contact. This was done not only to cause confusion amongst the ranks of Nagorno-Karabakh's defenders, but to also to soften up defensive fortifications for advancing Azerbaijani infantry and armor units. Within the first four days, the majority of Armenian units had withdrawn from their first lines of defense to hardened positions further behind the border. Although Armenian personnel assigned to rear guard positions successfully preformed multiple delaying operations, advanced Azerbaijani technology in the form of loitering munitions and command and control (C2) infrastructure proved decisive in ensuring Baku's success on the battlefield.
Over the next four weeks, Azerbaijani units advanced slowly across Nagorno-Karabakh and inflicted horrendous casualties on Armenian formations. By day 26, Azeri special operation units were less than 15 kilometers from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. This left Baku with two realistic options: an advance on Stepanakert, a strategic victory, or a move towards Lachin, a major Armenian supply line. Either move, if successful, would've crippled any hope Yervan had for victory.
Sensing the end was near, Armenian President Armen Sargsyan reluctantly agreed to surrender several areas in Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan's control. This leaves Baku in charge of roughly 1/3rd of northern Nagorno-Karbakh, with the larger part remaining under the control of Yervan.
Russian Peacekeeper Deployment
On November 11, troops of the Russian Ground Forces began establishing forward operating bases (FOBs) and checkpoints along the Lachin corridor, Armenia's passageway to the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. Since then, they have secured the nearly 20-kilometer-long, 5-kilometer-wide line separating Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Numbering only 2,000 in size, the Russian Ministry of Defense has indicated the peacekeeping force is only equipped with 90 armored personnel carriers and 380 support vehicles. The Intelligence Ledger has also tracked the covert deployment of Russian BM-21 Grad and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers to Nagorno-Karabakh over the past two weeks. Despite these assets, the peacekeeping force will be thinly stretched and overwhelmed if the conflict between Azeri and Armenian troops should resume unexpectedly in the near future.
In the month that has elapsed since their original deployment, Russian troops have displayed a high degree of proficiency and professionalism while preforming their duties. Massive explosive ordinance disposal operations are proceeding, although somewhat behind schedule, while frontline disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan are being resolved without challenge. This reflects well upon the Russian military, as it shows equipment and C2 architecture has improved significantly in conventional units since the mid-1990s.
Turkish Peacekeeper Deployment
On November 18, the parliament of Turkey agreed with Recep Erdogan that a Turkish peacekeeping force should be deployed to Azerbaijan to assist in cease-fire monitoring. Likely composed of infantry personnel and limited armor assets, the move will signify to Moscow that Russia is not alone in its regional ambitions.
In the days following the vote, Russian representatives made clear to Armenia and Azerbaijan that it would not accept Turkish troops in Nagorno-Karabakh directly. As such, any Turkish peacekeeping force will likely be limited to observation positions in sovereign Azerbaijani territory. It appears some light units have already entered Azerbaijan, as Turkish troops took part in an Azerbaijani victory parade on December 10.
Although the presence of Russian and Turkish troops reduces the chances of a conventional conflict in the near term, it does not eliminate it as a possibility. In fact, The Intelligence Ledger assesses with a high degree of probability that sporadic violence will resume in Nagorno-Karabakh within two years. At the moment, Armenia is struggling with severe political instability as a result of defeat on the battlefield. Once this is resolved and an extensive military modernization is complete, it will extremely interested in evening the score with its longtime rival. Thus, the current conflict is only frozen, and is far from settled.