RCDS Insights: Ethnic Cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia

RCDS Insights: Ethnic Cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia





Nagorno-Karabakh was ethnically cleansed while a Russian peacekeeping presence was on the ground.




On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan launched an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, which lasted for 24 hours. Following this, Nagorno-Karabakh's leaders signed a capitulation statement, agreeing to disarm its self-defense forces and dissolve its self-governing institutions and hand over military equipment. Shortly thereafter, the President of Nagorno-Karabakh issued a decree abolishing the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. As a result of these developments, the entire population was forced to evacuate the territory and seek refuge in Armenia. These events raised concerns about Russia's future role in the region, as their peacekeeping contingent was the sole external force on the ground, tasked with preventing a major escalation and ethnic cleansing.


What happened


It became evident several months prior to the escalation that Russia had essentially endorsed Azerbaijani demands regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. This became clear on July 19, when the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan convened in Moscow. Following the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a statement that echoed all of Azerbaijan’s key points regarding the future of the disputed region. For instance, Russia’s stance aligned with Azerbaijan’s position, which asserted that there was no necessity for an international presence on the ground. It also suggested that the rights and security of Armenians could be safeguarded through Azerbaijani legislation and international conventions ratified by Azerbaijan. 


Moreover, on August 16, a Nagorno-Karabakh official leaked Lavrov’s proposals. The content of these proposals further confirmed Russia’s alignment with Azerbaijan on the issue of Armenian integration into Azerbaijan, notably lacking the security guarantees and international mechanisms that the Armenian side had been advocating for.


Russia actively sought to undermine US-mediated efforts between representatives of Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. When Washington attempted to organize a meeting in Sofia, Russian state agency RIA Novosti leaked information about the meeting, targeting Nagorno-Karabakh’s Foreign Minister who was involved in negotiations for a potential meeting with the Americans. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova utilized this leak to double down on criticism of the US role in Nagorno-Karabakh. 


A meeting in Bratislava had been preliminarily agreed upon by all the parties involved, including the US. However, the Russians presented a more favorable proposal to Azerbaijan, effectively supporting its stance that talks should take place on Azerbaijani territory and without the presence of international mediators. With this better offer from Russia, Azerbaijan declined the meeting in Bratislava.


Russia’s involvement in Azerbaijani actions was further substantiated by events during Azerbaijan’s military assault on Nagorno-Karabakh. Eyewitnesses among the Nagorno-Karabakh self-defense forces, who spoke to the Regional Center for Democracy and Security, reported that Russian peacekeepers withdrew from their positions minutes before the attack in several locations. Additionally, the absence of a strong reaction from Russia, despite several Russian peacekeepers being killed by Azerbaijan, suggests that Russia was inclined not to take an assertive stance against the hostilities.


Overall, Moscow’s official response to the war remained subdued. Russia issued called for “both sides” to abstain from hostilities. Additional pieces of evidence further imply that Azerbaijan’s operation had received tacit approval from Russia. For instance, the independent Russian media outlet Meduza published a leak revealing specific instructions by the Kremlin to Russian state media to assign blame for the escalation to Armenia. 




The forced exile of the entire Armenian population from the region raises questions about the relevance of the Russian peacekeeping presence on the ground. Nevertheless, there appears to be an agreement between Baku and Moscow that the peacekeeping contingent will continue its mission until at least 2025, as outlined in the 2020 tripartite agreement concluding the Second Karabakh War. 


Moreover, the official Azerbaijani stance concerning Russian peacekeepers has softened. Initially, Azerbaijan had asserted that the peacekeepers would stay only until 2025, often characterizing their mission as temporary. However, following the conflict of September 19 and the ensuing events, high-ranking officials in Baku now express confidence that the mission will certainly continue until at least 2025 and potentially even be extended. 


Russia and Azerbaijan share an interest in establishing a communication route from mainland Azerbaijan, through Armenia, to its exclave of Nakhichevan. Armenia seeks Armenian border and customs authority over this route, while Azerbaijan and Russia advocate for Russian control. Armenia has recently taken a firmer stance on this matter. Previously, it had publicly accepted Russian oversight of the border and customs for this route. However, since Azerbaijan established a military checkpoint on the Lachin Corridor in April 2023, Armenia has shifted its position to insisting on Armenian customs control. Recent statements by Turkey regarding this issue also pose risks for Armenia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.


These events have further exacerbated the crisis between Armenia and Russia, with both Yerevan and Russia assigning blame to each other. Russian propagandists, in the days following the assault on Nagorno-Karabakh and the forced exodus of its people, have also targeted the Armenian government and made calls for regime change. It is also evident that Russia’s inaction in Nagorno-Karabakh has fueled a rising tide of anti-Russian sentiment, especially among the Karabakh Armenian population.