On November 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to broker a deal for a complete ceasefire and cessation of hostilities in the recently renewed conflict between Armenian and Azerbaijan. The two former Soviet republics have been locked in a standstill conflict since 1994 when a ceasefire brokered by Russia was established but was interrupted on several occasions, most recently in 2016. Nagorno-Karabakh is officially a part of Azerbaijan, whose territorial integrity was reaffirmed by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and even more resolutely supported by the U.N. General Assembly in 2008, which demanded a complete withdrawal of Armenian troops. However, since the ceasefire in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh had functioned as a de facto sovereign entity.
The renewed fighting put Moscow in a difficult situation. After all, Russia is the main great power in the former Soviet space, and it feels responsible for what it declared in 2008 as its “regions of privileged interests.” Furthermore, Armenia is Moscow’s close ally and a fellow member of both a military alliance, the Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO), and an economic bloc, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The two sides have close bilateral ties and an alliance that requires Moscow to come to Armenia’s aid should it need it. Back in 1997, they signed a treaty of “friendship, cooperation and mutual assistance” which includes a provision for military assistance. Armenia officially reached out to Russia for assistance and on October 31, the Russian foreign ministry reiterated Moscow’s preparedness to fulfill such commitments.
However, from the onset of the war, Russia was interested in a peaceful resolution to the problem, given that it also enjoys good relations with Azerbaijan. It is one of the few former Soviet republics that has managed to steer an independent foreign policy path and remain outside many Russia-led integrative projects but still maintain good relations with Moscow. Putin highlighted this by pointing out that around 2 million ethnic Azerbaijanis live in Russia. Russia’s leader recently said that no state was more interested in settling the conflict than Russia was, considering its sensitivity to the people of the region.
Therefore, after about a month and a half of fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region’s status, Putin brought together the two opposing sides in a trilateral agreement that also sees Russia involved as a guarantor of the peace. At this point, the war was starting to favor Azerbaijan, which retook most of the territory it lost in 1994. As per the agreement, Russia will deploy 1,960 service members from the 15th separate motorized rifle brigade with 90 armored personnel carriers and 380 other military units, which, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, had experience with supporting and protecting humanitarian operations in Syria. Their initial mandate will be for five years, and the parties provisionally agreed to prolong it for an additional five. According to reports, the peacekeeping force will be deployed alongside the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh, although their tasks are yet to be specified.
At face value, the peace seems like yet another diplomatic win for Russia and an expression of strong statesmanship by its president. Some hailed this as a victory for Moscow, which saved the exhausted Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh from a complete defeat, maintained good relations with Azerbaijan, and allegedly positioned themselves as the main players in the future of the conflict. Moreover, Russia is able to place its military on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, where it had been previously absent, and thus extend its regional clout. Russia also saved face after an earlier October 10 ceasefire collapsed and bypassed the involvement of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which seems to be in need of reform.
However, there is no shortage of skeptics. Some analysts do not see any immediate benefits for Russia coming out of this apparent resolution of the conflict, given that Moscow will have to bear the challenging burden of protecting the civilians, incur the financial costs of military deployment, and be seen as an overpowered disruptor in the West. The West wanted to see a multilateral solution to this, and there are doubts about the ability of a rather limited Russian force to fulfill such a challenging peacekeeping task. Some even argue that Russia’s lack of more resolute backing of Armenia is a sign of its gradually diminishing hegemony over the region and acceptance of the increased influence of other players (like Turkey). Another analysis suggests that Ankara’s prestige and regional influence came at the expense of Russia’s given that it was Turkish support that turned the war in Azerbaijan’s favor, while Moscow’s client Armenia did not receive the same level of backing and was being defeated.
One missed opportunity for Russia was a decision not to use its military alliance – the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – in the peacekeeping mission. In fact, during the recent crisis, the CSTO was entirely sidelined.
The organization comprises four additional states other than Russia and Armenia: Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It has been argued that the CSTO was originally created to emulate and compete with Western institutions like NATO. Over the years, several scholars have argued that the CSTO served to primarily limit Western (NATO) military presence in the former Soviet space, prevent defection from Russia’s smaller Central Asian allies into the Western camp, and limit the undermining of Russia’s defensive arrangements. More broadly, the CSTO plays both global and regional roles in Russia’s strategy in former Soviet regions by promoting global multipolarity and addressing various security threats.
In practice, the CSTO emerged as an essentially defensive military bloc that sought to protect the region from many challenges that arose following the break-up of the Soviet Union. These include terrorism, invasion of armed groups into neighboring states, radical nationalism, and inter-ethnic tensions. Over the years, the CSTO developed respectable military capabilities, including a veritably international military force called “Collective Rapid Reaction Forces” or CRRF that is up to 25,000 strong and includes units from all member states and conducts regular drills.
What is significant is that the CSTO had also created its own peacekeeping capabilities in 2007 by setting up a Collective Peacekeeping Forces (CPF) where each member state would provide permanent contingents. The CSTO’s peacekeeping capabilities have evolved since then, with the development of a legal framework and a competent force of 3,600 servicemen. In fact, during October, while the fighting was raging in the Caucasus, CSTO’s peacekeepers were rehearsing humanitarian assistance in Belarus. Moreover, the organization was recognized by the U.N. and rehearsed in front of international observers. U.N. documents praised the cooperation between its Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the CSTO, its member states’ individual contributions to peacekeeping, and the organization’s overall efforts “to strengthen its peacekeeping capacities and the system of regional security and stability.” In recent years, Russia exhibited an interest in sending CSTO peacekeepers and a trained police unit on international duties under U.N. auspices, especially to the scenarios of mass refugee influx and separation of aggressors. Russia even had more ambitious ideas and showed interest in deploying peacekeepers from Central Asian states – Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – abroad to places like Syria. However, its allies resisted the idea.
The CSTO was not expected to act in defense of Armenia during the recent conflict, given that its collective defense clause applies in case of aggression on the territory of one of the members. The fighting was predominantly restricted to de facto Azerbaijani territory, a fact Putin emphasized. However, the organization was remarkably inactive. Its secretary general extended reassurances of the CSTO’s support to Armenia should its territory be threatened, but later balked at the idea that CSTO’s peacekeepers should get involved. After the agreement was reached late on Monday, the CSTO formally supported it, as well as the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.
However, this crisis inevitably feels like a missed opportunity for Russia to give this organization greater visibility. Russia has spent the last two decades building regional institutions not only as bodies that were modeled on Western organizations like the NATO and EU, but also as vehicles for seeking regional primacy. Moscow long emphasized the meaning of multilateralism and global and regional fora. Its main foreign policy papers describe the CSTO as “one of the key elements of the current security framework in the post-Soviet space,” which Russia seeks to develop “into a prominent multifunctional international organization capable of overcoming challenges and threats today’s world is facing amid the growing pressure from various global and regional factors within the CSTO’s area of responsibility and in the adjoining regions.” Moscow highlights the need to ensure “capability of the CSTO Member States to take prompt and effective joint actions.”
Russian scholars have long emphasized that in the security arena, the CSTO could be challenged in Eurasia. Ivan Safranchuk pointed out how rather than NATO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could be a long-term challenger and that CSTO might lose out should such competition ensue. A decade ago, Dmitri Trenin wrote how the CSTO needed broad support from its member states and a clear mission definition.
The recent crisis in the Caucasus seemed like a good opportunity for the organization to show some of its capabilities, in particular following the dismal performance, or lack thereof, of the CSTO in June 2010 when it failed to act in Kyrgyzstan to stop the violent ethnic clashes between Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks. Back then, Russia’s unwillingness to intervene was due to risk assessment, the lack of clear mandate from the CSTO (Article 4 of its Charter stipulates that CSTO has to strengthen its member states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity), and a desire to avoid a repeat of international criticism like Russia experienced following the war with Georgia in 2008.
While Russia’s own peacekeeping forces are undoubtedly more experienced than those of the CSTO, the two could have been deployed concurrently. Russia would still keep its diplomatic win and get help from its allies. A more multinational CSTO peacekeeping force would have greater legitimacy and generate lower suspicion from Azerbaijan. Moreover, it might have helped offset the rise of Turkish influence.
In the end, Russia pursued another relatively successful bilateral action outside of the CSTO framework. While it yielded several desired outcomes (the cessation of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia, affirmation of Russia’s credentials as a conflict settler, and exclusion of extra-regional players), such action had one clear casualty. It took away an opportunity to test capabilities and boost the profile of a Russia-led regional security organization, which had originally been created to deal with exactly these types of situations.
Janko Šćepanović, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher at the School of Advanced International and Area Studies of East China Normal University (ECNU), in Shanghai, the People’s Republic of China.