How Russia Pushed For—and Achieved—a Military Presence in Artsakh

Illustration by Armine Shahbazyan EVN Report

On the night of November 9, 2020, a joint statement by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia put an end to the war in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and set the way for the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in territories remaining under the de facto control of Artsakh and along the Lachin Corridor.

Now, over a year after Russian troops were deployed to Artsakh, it is time for a look at what we know about the Russian presence there, with the historical background for Russia’s long push for troops in Artsakh.

The Russian Drive for Boots on the Ground

Russia has long aimed to place its troops in Artsakh. After a ceasefire agreement was reached between Armenia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and Azerbaijan at the end of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in May 1994, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev sought to introduce a Russian peacekeeping force of 1,800 troops, but the proposal was rejected by Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Mammadrafi Mammadov.[1]

For several years before the 2020 Artsakh War, and especially in the wake of the 2016 Four Day April War, Russia proposed what was dubbed the “Lavrov Plan” (named after Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov), which stipulated a withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven districts around the original Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and the deployment of a Russian peacekeeping force in the region.

In an essay published several months after the recent war, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan wrote that the Russian proposals, finalized in 2015, “provided for the return of seven regions to Azerbaijan according to the 5 + 2 formula, the return of refugees and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.”

When the war began, there was a silent consensus in Yerevan, Stepanakert, and Baku against the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Analyst Richard Giragosian went as far as to suggest that it is the “only one point of agreement” between the sides. A week into the war, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Russian peacekeepers could be introduced only through the consent of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. In mid-October 2020, Lavrov made it clear that the deployment of peacekeepers, preferably Russian, was their vision for the end of hostilities.

As Azerbaijan gained the upper hand in the war, Armenia softened its opposition to the idea. Whereas Pashinyan had told Russian outlets on September 30, 2020, that Armenia is not considering the deployment of peacekeepers in Artsakh, a few weeks later, in three interviews between October 22 and November 7, he said that the deployment of Russian peacekeepers is acceptable for Armenia—and Artsakh. Two days before November 10, 2020, tripartite ceasefire statement, Pashinyan defended the looming deployment of Russian peacekeepers as the “most effective” because “Russia is present in the region, Russia knows the region” and there would be a minimal language barrier between the peacekeepers and the locals.

Stopping Azerbaijan on the Edge of Stepanakert

During the six weeks of the war, Russia did not intervene in the conflict, at least to the best of our knowledge. The closest Russians physically got to Artsakh was to set up a field camp, first photographed on October 23, near Tegh, the last village in the Republic of Armenia before entering the Lachin Corridor. Russian assistance to the Armenian side was likely limited to the supply of arms, ammunition, and expertise. In the last days of the war, Armenia deployed Russian-made Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), possibly supplied from the Russian base in Gyumri.

Just before the armistice statement was made public, an Instagram story by Airat Gibatdinov, the vice-speaker of the legislature of Russia’s Ulyanovsk Oblast, announced that the 31st Air Assault Brigade of the Russian Airborne Forces, based in his home province, was heading to Artsakh. Hours later, Azerbaijan shot down a Russian helicopter near Yeraskh, near the border with Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan region, while it was escorting a convoy of Russian troops heading to the south of Armenia, likely to enter Artsakh hours later.

A Win for Russia

The deployment of troops in Artsakh is widely viewed as a victory for Russia. Not only did Moscow succeed in establishing a military presence in the conflict area, but it has also significantly increased its presence in Armenia and has new leverage over Azerbaijan. Even before the latest war, Russia was seen by many to be playing both sides, as a way to keep both countries in its orbit.

There is much debate as to why Azerbaijan agreed to the deployment of Russian peacekeepers on what it considers to be its sovereign territory. A New York Times report suggested that “according to several people briefed on the matter” in Baku, Putin delivered an ultimatum to Aliyev that, if Azerbaijan did not cease its operations after capturing Shushi, the Russian military would intervene. Putin himself seemingly gave a boost to this theory in a post-war interview when he said that “Stepanakert could have been taken and [Azerbaijanis] could have continued to move on.”

Since their deployment, Aliyev has been ambivalent about the presence of Russian peacekeepers. He has assessed their activities positively, while noting that the peacekeepers violate the agreement to keep “foreigners” (i.e. citizens of Armenia) out. Nevertheless, Aliyev says the peacekeepers “provide security for our residents as well.”

The Russian Mission in Artsakh

The core of the Russian contingent was formed from the units of the 15th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade (Peacekeeping) of the Central Military District, stationed in Samara Oblast. They were deployed to Artsakh through Armenia—after arriving at Yerevan’s Erebuni Military Airport from the Ulyanovsk Vostochny Airport.

While the tripartite statement says the Russian peacekeeping force consists of 1,960 troops, in their June 2021 report, the International Crisis Group quoted Armenian and Artsakh officials as estimating the size of the Russian mission, including soldiers and emergency services staff, at nearly 4,000 people.

The peacekeepers have set up 27 observation posts and checkpoints in Artsakh, including several in the Lachin Corridor. Since August 2021, they have begun patrolling various parts of Artsakh and, according to Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, “deploy to the front only when alerted to a problem by residents, the general staffs of Azerbaijan or Armenia, or reports from aerial drones.”

The tripartite statement states that the Russian peacekeeping force will be armed with “firearms, 90 armored vehicles, and 380 motor vehicles and units of special equipment.” Their equipment officially includes BTR-82A armored personnel carriers (APC), Tigr, Typhoon, and Rys armored vehicles, Mi-8 helicopters, Orlan-10, and Forpost UAVs. A Russian military source told Izvestia that the Leer-3 electronic warfare systems, consisting of Kamaz vehicles and Orlan UAVs, have been deployed to Artsakh. There is also visual confirmation of this. They were seen in a video report by Global News a few days after the ceasefire. Moreover, a Rys armored vehicle with a counter-IED jammer was photographed in Stepanakert in December 2020.

There have been reports of other equipment deployed by the Russians in Artsakh. In November 2020 Kremlin-affiliated outlets reported that Grad multiple rocket launchers were heading towards Artsakh and were deployed near Shushi.

Reuters independently confirmed the presence of two Grad launchers and a Russian tank in the Lachin Corridor manned by Russian servicemen. The Reuters piece noted that “their deployment suggests Moscow is not taking any chances with the security of its peacekeepers.” There has been no follow-up or any fresh visual evidence of rocket launchers or tanks in Artsakh.

Humanitarian Activities

The Russian mission is involved in much-publicized humanitarian efforts, which range from demining the region, to aid and gifts for families and children, and daily searches for remains of those killed in the war. By the end of 2021, Russian sappers had cleared 2,328 hectares (23.28 sq. km) and 683 km of roads. They also discovered and destroyed over 26,000 explosive objects.

The peacekeepers also regularly escort Armenian pilgrims to the famed monastery of Amaras, now located near the Line of Contact. Before May 2021, Armenian pilgrims were also regularly escorted to Dadivank, another prominent monastery that lies just outside the borders of the original Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO).

In August 2021, when Stepanakert was experiencing severe problems with drinking water, the Russians delivered 200 tons of drinking water to the city’s residents. The peacekeepers have assisted farmers in safely cultivating their land and have provided healthcare services to hundreds of locals. The peacekeepers have prided themselves in having presented gifts to 8,000 children in Artsakh. In January 2022, they transported a child heavily injured in a car accident from Stepanakert to Yerevan in a helicopter.

Joint Monitoring with Turkey

Just four days after the armistice agreement was signed, reports suggested that a joint Russian-Turkish center will be established to monitor the ceasefire in Artsakh. On December 1, 2020, Turkey’s Defense Ministry noted that a memorandum of understanding had been signed on November 11 by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu. On January 30, 2021, Russian peacekeepers began deployment at the joint center near the village of Qiyameddinli, in Azerbaijan’s Aghjabadi district.

According to Azerbaijan, the center is staffed by up to 60 servicemen each from Turkey and Russia. The monitoring center, covering less than 4 hectares (9 acres), is located some 3 km east of the pre-2020 Line of Contact (LoC) and around 20 km from the current LoC.

The center has shown minimal activity since its inception. A video by the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry showed the Russian and Turkish flags on TV screens in a room filled with computers. Another video from July 2021 showed Russian and Turkish officers playing chess and checkers. The Russian Ministry of Defense has released several videos of its troops flying UAVs from its vicinity to monitor the ceasefire.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has argued that, by agreeing to its establishment, Russia essentially recognized Turkey’s presence in the Caucasus. However, the Turkish presence is limited, since all surveillance from the joint center is carried out using drones, and officers do not leave its premises.

Settling In: Turning the Airport Into a Base

After the deployment of Russian troops, there was much talk about the looming operation of the Stepanakert Airport, which had been fully renovated and made operation-ready back in 2012, for both civilian and military purposes. In December 2020, Russian troops began demining the area with unmanned ground vehicles. Artak Beglaryan, Artsakh’s Presidential Chief of Staff, told Hetq in February 2021 that the Russian peacekeepers were working to open the airport and are also building residential housing nearby. The airport has not been opened, at least officially and publicly.

Instead, the Russian troops marched in a parade there on May 9, 2021, celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. They also built a mosque and an Orthodox church on its grounds for the servicemen to pray in. The church was ceremonially opened on November 10, 2021, the first anniversary of its deployment.

The Russians are using the airport, but civilian flights between Stepanakert and Yerevan still have not taken place. Footage from parade rehearsals in April 2021 shows at least one Mi-8 helicopter stationed at the airport. Satellite images from as early as August 2021 show two Mi-8s.

Russia has turned the airport into a large base with a serious presence of troops and equipment. Political analyst Tigran Grigoryan has rightfully noted similarities with the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, which Russia has operated near Latakia’s international airport since 2015. Simultaneously, Russian military presence has increased post-war in the Republic of Armenia.

The Russians have set up barracks and other facilities around the runway. Construction at the site, designated to be the main base of the peacekeeping mission, began on December 5, 2020. The base includes 4 barracks for 250 servicemen each and 3 barracks for 15 men. Thus, a little over half of the entire Russian peacekeeping force is stationed around the airstrip. In late March 2021, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Dmitry Bulgakov visited the base.

Symbolically, in the satellite images, one can see the words “Армия России” (Armiya Rossii, Army of Russia) painted on the roofs of the barracks, to make the Russian presence visible even from space. What’s more, in November 2021, the “Alley of Russian Glory” was inaugurated within the grounds of the base. It features a statue of a peacekeeper and a girl, and banners with portraits of Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and others, along with busts of prominent Russian figures from Alexander Nevsky to Anton Chekhov.

Besides the base in Stepanakert, Russians have established outposts near Askeran, in the town of Martuni, and a fortified camp in the Lachin Corridor.

Uncertain Future

Despite Russia’s increasing presence, the effectiveness of its mission has been questioned. The International Crisis Group report suggests that it is “too small to enforce the ceasefire and protect civilians throughout Nagorno-Karabakh.” The Armenian population of Artsakh currently stands at 120,000—according to both the Russian peacekeepers and Artsakh officials. Laurence Broers, a fellow at Chatham House, has convincingly compared the state of Artsakh’s Armenians to the Palestinians under Israeli occupation—“surrounded, entrapped and bypassed by a more powerful state seems intent on imposing its preferred solution.”

Putin has claimed in a post-war interview that, “It is to ensure the safety of [the Armenians of Artsakh] that the Russian peacekeeping force has been deployed there.” The Artsakh authorities have shown their loyalty to Russia by, for instance, making Russian an official language and endorsing the recognition of Russian-backed separatist republics in eastern Ukraine. Arayik Harutyunyan, Artsakh’s President, has stated that the Russian peacekeepers “should stay in Artsakh indefinitely, until a final and just solution of the conflict and additional international security guarantees are provided.”

[1] De Waal, T., Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, NYU Press, 2003, p. 239.

Hovhannes Nazaretyan EVN Report

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