Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a deal to end a 44-day war over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh after Armenians, facing defeat at the hands of the Azerbaijani army, agreed to stop fighting and withdraw their forces.
Russia began deploying nearly 2,000 troops as peacekeepers on Tuesday under the accord struck with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that will create conditions “for a long-term and complete settlement of the crisis around Nagorno-Karabakh,” Putin said in a televised statement.
Though he’s not a signatory to the deal, the agreement also represents a strategic triumph for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose vocal support of Azerbaijan in the fighting has allowed him to muscle into Russia’s Caucasus backyard. Aliyev said Turkish troops will join the Russian peacekeeping mission in a televised address to the nation early Tuesday.
The peace accord also gives Erdogan potential land access across southern Armenia to Azerbaijan and the resources-rich republics of central Asia for the first time, even as Turkey rejects diplomatic relations with its Armenian neighbor and keeps their joint border closed.
The pact effectively sidelines the US and France, enabling Putin and Erdogan to dominate talks on the terms of any future settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia, France and the US tried and failed for decades as international mediators to persuade the two sides to reach a peace agreement after Moscow brokered a 1994 truce to halt a war that killed 30,000 and displaced 1 million amid the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“We got what we wanted,” Aliyev said in his TV address, in which he mocked Pashinyan for accepting “capitulation” in the war. “We forced them” to peace, he said.
“For Putin it’s the best deal under the circumstances given our reluctance and inability to fight the war on Armenia’s side,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a foreign policy analyst in Moscow. “It keeps a functioning relationship with Erdogan while avoiding a major fight.”
The pact provides for Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to have secure access to Armenia across a land corridor through Azerbaijani territory that will be policed by Russian forces. It also allows people in the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan bordering Turkey to travel across southern Armenia to Azerbaijan, again with Russian security on the ground.
It was “an extremely difficult decision” to accept the deal to halt the war, Pashinyan said in a Facebook post. “I made that decision as a result of a deep analysis of the military situation,” he said, after Armenian officials acknowledged they’d lost control of a key city just 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, to Azerbaijan.
“It’s not a victory,” Pashinyan wrote. “But there’s no defeat unless you consider yourself to be the loser.”
Protests erupted in the streets of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, after news of the agreement emerged. Demonstrators broke into the parliament and angry crowds gathered outside the government building and Pashinyan’s official residence, accusing him of betraying the country.
Armenian President Armen Sarkissian, who has a largely ceremonial role, signalled tensions with Pashinyan by saying that he’d only learned about the deal through media reports. There was no “discussion on this document with me,” Sarkissian said in a statement calling for immediate political consultations “at this crucial moment of national preservation.”
The agreement to halt the fighting that broke out September 27 sets out a timetable for Armenian withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani districts outside Nagorno-Karabakh in stages by December 1, effectively restoring Azerbaijan’s control of most of the territory it lost in the 1990s. It also provides for exchanges of prisoners and the return of refugees, while saying nothing about the final status of the disputed enclave.
The deal came after Azerbaijani forces took control of the city of Shusha, which is called Shushi by Armenians, on Sunday, putting them on the outskirts of Stepanakert. The government there, backed by Armenia, had warned that the loss of Shushi would lead to the fall of the entire region.
“I don’t know what assessment history will give to this decision but we were forced to take it,” Nagorno-Karabakh President Arayik Harutyunyan said, adding that Azerbaijani troops were 2-3 kilometers from Stepanakert.
The two sides have been fighting for more than six weeks over the enclave and seven surrounding regions taken by Armenians in the 1990s, which are internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the latest conflict, according to Russian officials.
Azerbaijan said it fought to restore control over its territory. Armenia said it was defending Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination after its Armenian majority voted for independence.