Why did Russian peacekeepers leave?

Why did Russian peacekeepers leave?

On April 17, it was announced that the Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in Karabakh since the end of the 44-day war in November 2020, are leaving the region upon an agreement achieved between the leaders of Azerbaijan and Russia. Initially, the mission was supposed to remain in Karabakh until at least November 2025, and then it would have been withdrawn in case any of the parties, Baku or Yerevan, made an official request to do so. That’s why the news about the peacekeepers’ exit came out of the blue, although the point of their presence became highly questionable when the Armenian population of the region mostly left following the September 2023 military operation. The reasons of this decision are now a matter of intense debates, and indeed they are quite hard to discern.

First of all, it must be emphasized that the political expediency of the peacekeeper mission for Moscow has changed a lot since 2020. By deploying it, the Kremlin initially envisaged an efficient tool of projecting influence and putting pressure on the two countries. Instead of pursuing the demilitarisation of that part of Karabakh that remained in control of de-facto Armenian “authorities” and a smooth reintegration of the local Armenians into Azerbaijan, Russia intended to keep the post-2020 status quo, limiting Azerbaijani sovereignty and encouraging Armenia to retain its pro-Russian orientation by pinning hopes on Moscow. The peacekeepers failed to properly investigate continuing armed accidents along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border or the line of contact in Karabakh, while Baku on several occasions openly accused them of facilitating the passage of armed people and weapons to Armenia. The diplomatic spat which occurred between Baku and Moscow after Azerbaijani troops took some positions on the Farrukh mountain within the zone of peacekeepers’ control in March 2022, demonstrated the depth of Baku’s dissatisfaction with the Russian position.

However, many things have changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Western countries, forced to focus their efforts on Ukraine, started to more actively push Baku and Yerevan to accelerate peace talks so that this region becomes less prone to Russian meddling and doesn’t pose major security challenges which could further distract Western attention. This change translated into the active EU mediation, the withdrawal of demands for the autonomy of Karabakh etc., by most Western states, Azerbaijani operation in September 2022 and subsequent recognition of Azerbaijani territorial integrity by Armenia at the Prague Summit of the European Political Community later in October. At the same time, Russia found itself pushed to the wall, unable to reverse this process and getting dependent on the former Soviet republics. It needs Baku for its important role in the connectivity to the South (and in general, appreciates its policy of non-integration with the Western institutions), while Yerevan became a crucial hub for the re-export of sanctioned goods.

So, when Azerbaijan de-facto closed the Lachin road in December 2022, causing anger and frustration among Karabakh Armenians, Russia wasn’t really eager to intervene. However, there is evidence that Moscow was trying to convince the leaders of “the Republic of Artsakh” not to give in to Baku’s demands, exacerbating the crisis, in the hope that Azerbaijan’s assault would cause a major bloodshed and trigger Western sanctions against Baku, pushing it towards Russia. However, Azerbaijan’s lightning-speed military operation on 19 September 2023, that destroyed the remaining separatist infrastructure and resulted in the full reintegration of the whole region into Azerbaijan, didn’t cause any civilian casualties and this scenario didn’t play out, though the overwhelming majority of its Armenian population chose to move to Armenia. After that, the peacekeepers’ withdrawal from the region became the question of “When?” rather than “Whether?”. Most probably, soon after 20 September a decision was taken in the Kremlin to discontinue the mission at the first convenient moment, as Russia ended up in the situation where its presence became a net liability. The peacekeepers, geographically isolated from Russia and now also from Armenia, could do very little on the ground, and the room for exerting some pressure on Azerbaijan disappeared after the complete reunification. For Armenians, they became an object of contempt as Russia is overwhelmingly viewed as a “traitor”, its prestige hitting the rock bottom. For Baku, which has otherwise kept good working relations with Moscow, the mission clearly remained an irritating factor as it gave grounds to speak of Russian occupation and had many negative connotations. Anyway, terminating the mission before an official request to do so is made from Baku, also allowed for some face saving.

Most probably, the decision to leave Karabakh at this particular moment is directly related to the situation on the frontline. Russia is intensifying its war effort in Ukraine and is believed to plan a major offensive this summer in the hope to ultimately break Ukrainian resistance. For Russian leadership, it’s an “all-in”  moment in what they believe to be the existential struggle for the country’s vital interests and prestige. The deployed troops currently number around 600 thousand, and any additional mobilisation puts a huge strain on Russian military machine, not to mention that Moscow is also present militarily in Syria, Central Africa and some Sahel countries. Keeping almost 2,000 well-trained men and 90 armoured vehicles where they aren’t really needed, is thus an unaffordable luxury for Russia right now. 

Moreover, erasing the final remnants of the post-2020 order in Karabakh precisely at the moment when Pashinyan finally started the process of withdrawal from the four Azerbaijani villages and border demarcation- which is perceived by many Armenians as an act of ultimate weakness- should also reiterated Russia’s message about the “treacherous” government that sacrificed Karabakh in order to get rid of Moscow’s presence. Russian officials, including President Putin and MFA Lavrov, on certain occasions stated that the Kremlin’s volte-face on Karabakh stemmed from the Armenian unwillingness to accept Russian help, directly mentioning that Pashinyan rejected Russian proposals aimed at preserving the status-quo in the region. The latest step may be calculated to convey a message to other countries within the Russian orbit, persuading them not to turn their backs on Moscow.

Finally, the quiet end of the Russian presence emphasized Baku’s success in building an efficient modus vivendi with Moscow. This far, it has managed to preserve the freedom of manoeuvre, providing significant humanitarian aid to Ukraine and keeping away from integration into the Russian-led institutions while maintaining friendly and cooperative relations with the Kremlin. Speaking on April 23 upon returning from his visit to Moscow, Aliyev once more reiterated Azerbaijan’s lack of intention to join the Eurasian Economic Union. For Baku, pursuing this policy when Russia is under encompassing Western sanctions and got excluded from many international mechanisms, is enough of a compromise. The withdrawal of peacekeepers is rather a reluctant recognition of the new status quo in the South Caucasus rather than part of some major geopolitical deal.