“Russians never leave,” or how Azerbaijan proved the opposite

“Russians never leave,” or how Azerbaijan proved the opposite

On April 17, 2024, an extraordinary development – something that does not happen every day – swept through the region and shocked the observers: the Kremlin confirmed the early withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Karabakh, a year ahead of schedule. Back in 2020, around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers arrived following Moscow's mediation of a ceasefire that halted the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh. Their intended duration was a five-year stay until November 2025, extendable with mutual agreement from both parties involved.

The rapid deployment of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh in 2020 was met with rather confusion and dissatisfaction in Azerbaijan. On the eve of complete victory over the Armenian forces in early November, sudden appearance of Russian soldiers on the ground felt like a cold shower across Azerbaijan: the perception of the victory stolen by a hegemonic rival, whose return gave flashbacks of colonial dominance for many Azerbaijanis.

The discourse within the expert community echoed similar sentiments, with various theories emerging about Russia's intentions in Karabakh. Foreign experts began to voice concerns, suggesting that "Russians never leave" and speculating that Karabakh could evolve into the largest Russian military base in the South Caucasus. With Russian peacekeeping forces now deployed in Azerbaijan alongside their existing presence in Armenia and Georgia (notably in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), some analysts suggested that Russia was consolidating its strategic footprint across the region. Some experts went further, suggesting the potential for a process akin to Ossetianization in the region, implying a shift toward greater Russian influence and control.

The concept of Ossetianization suggested a potential strategy similar to what occurred in South Ossetia. This could include strategies such as passportization—issuing Russian passports to the Armenian community in Karabakh—and borderization—expanding control along the contact line, potentially altering territorial boundaries and administrative control de facto. These opinions circulating among experts and analysts heightened fears within Azerbaijani society even more. The prospect of increased Russian presence and potential maneuvers reminiscent of those seen in other conflict regions fueled apprehension about the future trajectory of Karabakh and its implications for Azerbaijan's sovereignty and security.

However, last month's withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers served as a stark revelation that challenged these prevailing fears. The announcement, though anticipated by the most optimistic, still came as a significant shock to many. Azerbaijan's ability to demonstrate that Russian forces could indeed depart was a pivotal moment—one that distinguished it as the sole South Caucasus country without a Russian military base on its soil. But how was it possible?

The actions taken by Azerbaijan to dismantle the November 2020 agreement and accelerate the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Karabakh can be conceptualized as maneuvers that capitalized on the shifting geopolitical landscape catalyzed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The start of the invasion provided Azerbaijan with a window of opportunity to “test the pulse” in the Russian-controlled area of Karabakh. The first pivotal event was Azerbaijan's retaking of the village of Farrukh in March 2022. Under the terms of the tripartite statement signed on November 10, 2020, Farrukh had come under the temporary control of Russian peacekeeping forces. However, during the operation to regain control of Farrukh, the Russian peacekeepers did not intervene in the process.

The most significant blow to the Russian presence came with the disruption of the Lachin Road, which began in December 2022, blocking all traffic in and out of Karabakh except for vehicles of the Red Cross and the Russian peacekeeping mission. According to the ceasefire agreement that ended the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Russian peacekeepers were supposed to control the Lachin Corridor, the only passage in and out of Karabakh. The blockage supported by mostly Azerbaijani civilian protesters discredited the Russian soldiers, who on the ground, felt helpless and could not re-open the road.

An important milestone in the Lachin road saga became the installation of an Azerbaijani checkpoint on April 23, 2023, despite Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov's earlier statements which predicted no Azerbaijani control over the route. This checkpoint was set up on the Hakari Bridge, adjacent to the base of the Russian peacekeepers, triggering criticism in Armenia of Russia and its peacekeeping forces. This move discredited not only the Russian peacekeepers but also Russia's entire policy on Karabakh, demonstrating Azerbaijan's assertiveness and determination to manage its affairs independently.

The Armenian-Azerbaijani-Russian Karabakh timeline witnessed one more – the final – significant event in September 2023, when Baku launched a lightning military operation dubbed as "anti-terrorist activities" in Karabakh. The move was viewed as unusual by many, considering the presence of Russian peacekeepers on the ground. Despite this, Azerbaijan took control over or liberated according to the official discourse in Baku the remaining part of Karabakh; during this operation, several Russian soldiers were also lost to Azerbaijani fire. However, the Russian side downplayed the incident and never made a big deal of it.

Azerbaijan, which for years, has been conducting a policy of equidistance by refraining from siding with either the Western/Transatlantic community or the Russian/Eurasian integrationist structures, geopolitical rivals, has been able to afford this luxury for several factors such as financial independence (as a petro-state Azerbaijan never seriously needed Western funding or Eurasian financial incentives) or Turkey as a security umbrella (in contrast, the neighboring Georgia, for instance, does not have its own Turkey). Add to this the high-level personal communication between Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Putin of Russia, which may help to avoid any interstate problems.

Moreover, following the invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia, the geopolitical importance of Azerbaijan has elevated for the Kremlin, who had to tolerate Baku`s assertive policies in Karabakh, which culminated with the region`s full reintegration. In desperate need to get an access to Turkey or Iran via Azerbaijan, Moscow has also turned a blind eye for Azerbaijan`s other whims, such as substantial aid to Ukraine or increased gas export to Europe.

Despite the earlier stark statements by the region observers such as Thomas de Waal, Richard Kauzlarich, who pushed “the Russians never leave” myth, the Azerbaijani expert community remained quite optimistic about the withdrawal of the Russian troops by or even before the deadline. This optimism stemmed mostly from the historical context, which had already seen Azerbaijan force Russians out twice since 1991: the former became one of the first post-Soviet nations that achieved the cease of the Russian military presence in 1992. The only notable exception was the Gabala Radar Station, which was operated by the Russian military until 2012. This radar station, originally built in 1985 to detect missile launches, symbolized a unique relic of post-Soviet military cooperation. However, negotiations about the renewal of the use of the facility failed as the Azerbaijani party was reluctant to further host it and resulted in the station's closure and equipment transfer back to Russia.

Although little international attention covered the Russian withdrawal from Azerbaijan, it was in fact a historic and precedent-setting event. Tiny by size yet important geopolitically, Azerbaijan successfully implemented the withdrawal of the Russian troops, who are supposed to never leave once they enter the territory. It should, therefore, be no surprise that Azerbaijan is nowadays seen as “one winner of Russia`s war against Ukraine.”

This article was originally published here.