Russian peacekeepers start withdrawal from Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh

Soldiers begin to leave region in South Caucasus long fought over by Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Russian peacekeepers drive trucks in direction towards the Armenia-Azerbaijan border
Russian peacekeepers were deployed to the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020 [File: Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters]

Russian peacekeepers have begun withdrawing from Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, ending Moscow’s years-long military presence there, according to officials.

“This is indeed the case,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday in response to media inquiries without giving a timeframe for the withdrawal.

Nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeeping soldiers were deployed to the breakaway South Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020 under a Moscow-brokered deal that halted six weeks of fighting between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces.

Despite the deployment, Azerbaijan retook Nagorno-Karabakh by force in September last year in a move that triggered an exodus of 120,000 ethnic Armenians living there and the arrest of the breakaway area’s ethnic Armenian leaders.

Armenia’s political leadership accused Moscow at the time of failing to protect Armenian interests, a charge Russia rejected. The peacekeepers had originally been due to stay until November 2025.

The Azerbaijani news agency APA reported late on Tuesday that Russian peacekeepers had begun withdrawing and the first personnel and equipment had left from a monastery revered by Armenians in Azerbaijan’s Kalbajar district a few days ago.

Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, was cited by the state news agency Azertac as confirming a withdrawal agreement had been struck.

“The early withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers, temporarily stationed in the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan in accordance with the trilateral statement signed on November 10, 2020, has been decided by the leaders of both countries,” it quoted him as saying.

“The process has already begun with the ministries of defence of Azerbaijan and Russia implementing appropriate measures for the execution of that decision.”

The withdrawal comes as Russia faces pressure in the wider region with neighbouring Armenia demanding Russian border guards leave its main airport and protesters in Georgia confronting what they say is a Russia-leaning government.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has publicly questioned his country’s traditional alliance with Russia, which has a string of military facilities inside Armenia, and has started to forge closer ties with the West.

Armenia has asked Russian border guards to leave their posts at the airport in the capital, Yerevan, from August 1.

The former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan have long fought over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has a mostly Christian Armenian population but whose 4,500sq km (1,750sq miles) of territory lies within predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan. It is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies