STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh – When a ruined old van pulled up at a checkpoint on the hillside, the Azerbaijani soldier inside angrily scrubbed his misty window and then gave a bright look at the Armenian a few meters away.
A few days before, they stood on the opposite side of a bitter war. But now he was controlled by the Russian peacekeeper next to them. He drove to the right towards the territory owned by the Azerbaijans. The Armenians advanced to the land on the left, controlled by the Armenians.
The evil war between Azerbaijan and Armenia led to a tense ceasefire over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh mountain enclave, carried out by heavily armed Russian troops. For Russia, which has long been a provocateur in the wider Caucasus region, a shift to a peace-building role is a new test and opportunity for a country seeking to maintain its influence in the former Soviet territories.
“They say things will be fine,” said Svetlana Movsesyan, 67, an Armenian ethnic group who remained in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, even as she narrowly escaped a strike in Azerbaijan at a market selling dried fruit and honey. . “I believe in Vladimir Vladimirovich in Putin.”
It was Putin, the Russian president, who in all respects stopped the war that killed thousands in the fall in the fiercest fighting in the southern Caucasus in a century. But he did so by deviating from the Russian ironing playbook that Russia used in other regional conflicts in the post-Soviet period, when it intervened militarily in Georgia and Ukraine while invading Crimea and annexing it.
These tactics, which have helped turn these countries into irresistible opponents, appear to be out of fashion in the Kremlin, which analysts say is increasingly using a finer mix of soft and hard force.
The Kremlin’s easier touch was seen in the recent uprising in Belarus, where Russia refrained from direct intervention and offered only lukewarm support to President Alexander Lukashenko, whose violence against protesters angered the population.
In negotiations to end the recent war, Mr Putin relied on the threat of Russian military power, forcing concessions on both sides of the conflict, but gaining confidence in rival camps. Russia has a mutual defense alliance with Armenia, but Mr Putin insisted that this did not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh. He maintained close personal ties with the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev.
The strategy appears to have paid an immediate dividend, provided military support to the Kremlin in the region, and firmly welded Armenia into Russia’s sphere of influence without alienating Azerbaijan.
“This is an opportunity to play a peacekeeping role in the classical sense,” said Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian Council for International Affairs, a research organization close to the Russian government. “I want to hope that we experience a learning process and a change in Russian strategy in the post-Soviet space.”
With Russia’s support, Armenia gained control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a region inhabited by ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan, following a long-running war in the early 1990s triggered by the break-up of the Soviet Union. Armenian forces have also occupied the surrounding areas, expelling more than half a million Azerbaijanis.
After a quarter of a century of diplomatic failures, Azerbaijan began an offensive on September 27 to forcibly recapture the area and gained quick benefits, thanks in part to its sophisticated Israeli and Turkish-made drones.
In early November, Azerbaijani troops under Armenian rule challenged Shusha’s hilltop citadel, scaling the wooded slopes, and fought hand-to-hand in the streets in close combat. Until November 9, Armenian soldiers were tossed along the road to nearby Stepanaker, where about 50,000 Armenians lived in peacetime, and an even bigger battle ensued.
Then came Mr. Putin, who had previously tried to mediate a ceasefire. Azerbaijan accidentally shot down a Russian helicopter that night, potentially giving Moscow a reason to intervene. The Russian president has issued an ultimatum to Mr Aliyev of Azerbaijan in the country’s capital, Baku, informing several people: If Azerbaijan does not cease operations after the capture of Shusha, the Russian army will intervene.
That evening, a missile of unknown origin crashed into an open area in Baku without causing injuries, Azerbaijani sources say. Some suspected that Russia indicated it was prepared to participate and could cause significant damage.
Hours later, Mr Putin announced a peace agreement and Mr Aliyev announced on television that all military operations would cease. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he has no choice but to go further and expects even more bloodshed on the battlefield.
Mr Aliyev saw the deal as a victory and a piece, with the exception of the Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh area, was returned to Azerbaijan. But he, too, had to make a compromise: nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers now stationed in Azerbaijan. This was a strategic blessing for Russia, giving Moscow a military foothold north of Iran, but also a risk as it plunged Russian troops into the middle of one of the most unmanageable ethnic conflicts in the world.
“I don’t know it’s over this time because there are no good examples of Russian peacekeepers in the Caucasus,” said Azad Isazade, who served in the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense in the 1990s. – I’m worried it’s over.
The bloody events of the 1990s, when Soviet tanks rolled on demonstrators in central Baku, came to mind in almost every Azerbaijan. Russian troops have since repeatedly intervened in the troubled corners of the Caucasus, often under the moniker of peacekeepers, but more like a burglary army. Now Russia will be key to the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, the long-term status of the region is still unclear.
– Russia does not want to leave this alone. They like this frozen state. , Said Farid Shafiyev, a former diplomat and director of the government-funded Center for International Relations Analysis in Baku. – They’re interfering.
However, the agreement with Mr Putin appears to have been in line with Mr Aliyev – only in part because Azerbaijani forces had already been pulled out and faced tougher winter fighting while bearing the additional burden of dealing with a hostile ethnic Armenian population., said one analyst.
“I don’t think Aliyev should have had much persuasion,” said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “He appreciates his relationship with Russia.
For the Armenians, many of whom wanted to forge closer ties with the West in recent years, the war was a stark reminder that Russia remained critical to their security. As Turkey’s main ally, Turkey, was an existential threat to many Armenians, Armenians have returned to “our default position: a reflexive view of Russia as a savior,” said Richard Giragosian, a political analyst in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
It was Russia that offered refuge to the Armenians and fought them against Ottoman Turkey during the 1915 Armenian genocide.
“Armenia is now increasingly closed on the Russian track, with limited opportunities and even less room for maneuver,” Giragosian said. “The future security of Nagorno-Karabakh now depends on Russian peacekeepers, which will give Moscow the missing leverage.”
The November 9 peace agreement says nothing about the long-term status of the area, and ethnic Armenians rushing home with buses overseen by Russian peacekeepers said they could not imagine life in the region without protecting Russia.
On the way down Stepanakert Military College, which currently houses Russian headquarters, Vladik Khachatryan (67), a man of Armenian ethnicity, said there was news around Stepanakert that gave hope for the future.
“We’ll get Russian passports soon,” he said. “Without Russia, we cannot survive.”
Opposite the Stepanakert Market, in Room 6 of the Nver Mikaelyan Hotel, a brown bloodstain covered bedding even more than a week after the end of the war. The boxers and towels of the last guests in the room hung on the headrests, which were pierced by the shards of an Azerbaijani bomb hit in October.
Echoing other ethnic Armenians in the region, Mr Mikaelyan said he saw a clear path to sustainable peace: Nagorno-Karabakh would become part of Russia. The idea seems far-reaching, but in Russia and Nagorno-Karabakh, political figures have hovered over the years, although Mr Putin has not.
– What else needs to be done? Mr. Mikaelyan asked, after taking another look at the door of the blown hotel room, the TV tearing off the wall, traces of blood still sticking to the third floor. “The European Union is not doing anything. Americans do nothing.
Anton Troianovski reported from Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh and Carlotta Gall in Baku, Azerbaijan.