The Road to Karabakh: Russia’s New Role in Border Control
When the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Ceasefire Agreement went into effect on November 10, 2020, several existing international laws were reaffirmed. Since the beginning of occupation in the early 1990s, international law has stated that Nagorno-Karabakh and its seven surrounding territories are an integral part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed the agreement, they agreed to this simple fact: Nagorno-Karabakh is Azerbaijan.
While some parts of Nagorno-Karabakh remain populated with ethnic Armenians, Azerbaijan has largely regained control of its territory. From the beginning of the signing of the peace agreement, one of the priorities has been to rebuild all of the infrastructure and property that has been destroyed. With the assistance of deployed Russian peacekeeping forces, the ninth clause of the agreement stipulates that Armenia must guarantee the safety of transportation links between Azerbaijan and its exclave, the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. On the other hand, Azerbaijan became responsible for facilitating unimpeded movement of citizens, vehicles, and cargo.
As stated in the agreement, Russia’s role should be limited to monitoring the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Republic of Azerbaijan’s territory, maintaining a peacekeeping center for monitoring the ceasefire, including a center jointly-controlled with Turkey, and for maintaining the security of transport routes.
Previously, it was announced that more than 50,000 ethnic-Armenians had returned from the Republic of Armenia to the Armenian held parts of Nagorno-Karabakh. The population of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh before the 2020 war was approximately 150,000, with slightly more than 50,000 residents living in the capital city of Stepanakert (known as Khankendi, de-jure).
After this large group of ethnic Armenians had migrated back to the lands where they were residing before the 2020 war, it was announced that Russia had taken on an additional responsibility. Beginning in early February, all visitors to Nagorno-Karabakh would have to receive permission from Russian peacekeepers before entering. On February 8, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the de-facto government existing within the region stated that this process was being introduced for ‘security purposes.’
Authorities of the regime occupying part of Nagorno-Karabakh attribute the need for this additional layer of security to a concept that was promoted during wartime: the use of mercenary soldiers. Armenia repeatedly reported that Azerbaijan, with the help of Turkey, employed Syrian and other mercenaries during the war, although no evidence has shown this to be the case. In an interview with Armenian Public Radio, David Babayan, the Foreign Minister of the de-facto regime of Nagorno-Karabakh, stated that control by Russian peacekeepers was part of the ‘new reality in Karabakh.’
Nagorno-Karabakh has always been part of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and this fact was solidified under the trilateral agreement. Any argument that Nagorno-Karabakh should be independent or a separate entity governed by ethnic Armenians was immediately quashed with the peace agreement, as the Prime Minister of Armenia himself agreed to the terms and conditions that negate all claims to the territory.
Azerbaijan maintains a ‘blacklist’ of foreigners who traveled to the occupied territories without permission before the 2020 war. Azerbaijan views any visit to its territories by crossing the border from Armenia as a violation of its immigration law; if one’s name is added to the blacklist, one can be banned from entering Azerbaijan for life.
That being said, before the 2020 war, Azerbaijan saw monitoring who entered and exited the occupied territories as an important measure of national security. Now that Azerbaijan has liberated much of the previously occupied lands, it would be logical to assume that the Azerbaijani government would have greater control over the affairs of these territories. Instead, Russia has been handed an additional role outside of the agreement, leading many to question why Russian forces are being given the authority to operate in this capacity outside of the borders of the Russian Federation.
Despite having a peace agreement that confirms the ownership of the territories, many questions remain. This is particularly apparent in the territories that were not liberated or returned to the Azerbaijani government as there has been no concrete decision on how to determine the operating status of the territories still held by ethnic Armenians.