Russia and the Karabakh War. Is Moscow still the Game Leader?
On 27 September this year, the Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan exploded again and with rare intensity. This conflict was commonly considered to be frozen but sparks never stopped lighting up the embers. This time the crisis is deeper. So much so that, faced with the determination of the Azerbaijani military forces who entered the historic heart of Karabakh, in the town of Shoushi (or Shousha) Armenia had to accept, somewhat coerced and forced, a cease-fire that resembled a capitulation for Yerevan. Indeed, according to the agreement sealed under the aegis of Russia during the night of 9-10 November 2020, Azerbaijan will recover its 7 districts adjacent to Karabakh, of which it will control the largest part, giving only a thin corridor to Armenia so that it can be connected to what will remain of Armenian Karabakh. And, taking advantage of its powerful position, Azerbaijan also secured a corridor crossing Armenia which will allow it to be connected to its province of Nakhichevan—in between Armenia, Iran and Turkey with no territorial continuity with Azerbaijan. This will make it possible to establish a line of continuity between Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Caspian and the rest of the Turkish world, i.e. Turkish speaking countries in Central Asia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizstan and Kazakhstan. In short, this offers a great geopolitical tool for Ankara, whose role has been important in this war.
Russia has always played a leading role in the arbitration of a territorial conflict that represents territorial disputes in the post-soviet space, where the new states have not always accepted frontiers inherited of former USSR, as was the case in Abkhazia, Ossetia and Transnistria. Each time the clashes have resumed, Russia has been the main arbiter of the halting of armed struggle. However, after more than a month and a half of violent fighting—a period during which Moscow remained surprisingly deaf and silent—it has just shown that it is still in control of the situation by supervising the peace agreement between the two parties to the conflict. A major player, of course, but Moscow has to admit that it no longer has exclusivity in its close neighbourhood. It must come to terms with the presence of a newcomer, Turkey, which by its activism confirms to its Western partners that it is in a new configuration.
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Karabakh. Map by Dorian Ryser, CERI
A Conflict in which Russia has Always Supported Armenia
Imperial Russia and its successor have always presented themselves as protectors of Christians, in the name of a common adherence to Christianity, justifying among other things annexing Armenia (1813 -1829). Russia’s protective role towards the Armenians was extended after the Soviet era, and in the Karabakh war it showed itself in major military and political support for independent Armenia who sought to annex that Armenian enclave in Azerbaijani territory. Thus, in the first phase of the war, between 1988 and the cease-fire signed in 1994, “volunteers” from the Soviet Russian army fought on the Armenian side, and Russia armed Armenia much more lavishly than Azerbaijan. Since the theoretical/relative suspension of hostilities in 1994, thanks to Russian support, Armenia controlled not only the desired enclave but also seven Azerbaijani districts, to disenclave Karabakh and to establish territorial continuity with Armenia. This resulted in large “exchanges of population”, and, notably, that these were more extensive on the Azerbaijani side, as there were more Azeris fleeing their homes in Armenia, Karabakh and the occupied districts.
Russia had reasons beyond those of identity and culture for supporting Armenia. Among its political and strategic interests, support for Armenia figured among its hankerings for regional integration. For Yerevan, this was in particular a question of joining the Eurasian Union and the collective defence structure, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, Moscow’s NATO. By contrast, Baku always showed itself more uneasy about any form of association with Moscow, always seen as the successor to the Russian tradition of colonialism. However, despite the historical links that made Armenia a protégé, some might even say a protectorate, and obliged “eternal Russia” to come to the aid of its little sister, it has to be said that since the 27 September, a new pattern is emerging.
What does Russia’s restraint in, even retreat from, the Azero-Armenian conflict signify? Why is Russia not coming to the aid of its protégé which is part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, its military family? This undeniable change that has suddenly come to light is in fact the fruit of a long-term evolution, or revolution, in which all the local and regional actors in the conflict in Karabakh have changed. In fact, the two front-line protagonists, Armenia and Azerbaijan, are still there, along with the regional actors, Russia, Turkey and Iran, but the international political context is new and radically changes the power relationships.
More than 25 Years After the Cease-fire the Local and Regional Context is Now More Favourable to Baku
It is above all in Azerbaijan, in the mutations of its internal and external politics, that one has to look for the reason why Russia has no longer the means it once had to exert influence on the present conflict. Humiliated by the Armenian occupation of Karabakh and adjacent districts, Azerbaijan has never stopped preparing ideologically, politically and militarily for recovering them and re-establishing its territorial integrity. The 25 years of diplomacy that have failed to achieve peace, have only cemented a precarious status quo—unacceptable in international law—and fuelled the Azerbaijanis’ desire for revenge and reparation. Mobilising the media and the schools, Azerbaijani war propaganda has studiously sustained the national desire for retribution—and exploited the conflict to nationalist ends—to such good effect that the matter of Karabakh has become a sacred affair, the one thing that can reconcile power and opposition, and secure an ever more bellicose public opinion.
In terms of foreign policy Azerbaijan is no longer the weak and isolated country it was in the first years of its independence. Power has hardened and stabilised under the presidency of Heydar Aliev and his son, at the head of the country since 1993, resisting putsch attempts by certain warlords who nearly provoked partition of the country during the first years of the independence, in 1992 and 1993. On the contrary, national leaders have been able to construct a multidimensional foreign policy with good relationships with Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States and Israel, which with its Turkish ally has contributed in a big way to the country’s military and technological preparation for a war in Karabagh. In this respect the links between Azerbaijan and Russia warrant special mention.
While Baku has not signed up to the structures of military and political integration promoted by Russia, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Eurasian Union, conceived as rivals to NATO and the EU, the country has been able to avoid alienating Moscow, notably by no longer seeking a rapprochement with the West, a mistake committed, in Moscow’s eyes, by both Georgia and Armenia. Similarly, in distinction from a number of countries of the former Soviet Union, Azerbaijan underwent no colour revolution, tainted with that anti-Russian spirit which Russia could never tolerate. Furthermore, at the heart of Azerbaijan society there is little feeling of hostility towards Russia, whose language and culture still have a certain cachet, especially among the educated Baku elite. Last and not least, the economic links and interdependences between the two countries since the fall of the USSR are major factors in the Russo-Azerbaijani geostrategic balance.
Stepanakert, September 2020. Copyright: Shutterstock
Too Many Miscalculations?
On the other side, Armenia, and above all its governing elites, have gone on committing political mistakes which, without breaking the traditional alliance with Russia, has made it more difficult for Russia to keep up its unwavering support. And these political errors were such that they contributed to the rapprochement between Russia and Azerbaijan .
Among these errors are those committed by all Armenian governments since the cease-fire of 1994, and those, doubtless more serious, committed by the present government. The first derive from what one might call “nationalism of the weak” which obscures their capacity to value the regional situation ever evolving to their disadvantage. The Armenian elites, their minds always on the matter of the 1915 genocide, even if that was committed within the Ottoman Empire and not the Russian, reject any concession over Karabakh, not even restitution of some part of the occupied districts. More seriously, the new Prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in 2018 following an anticorruption and pro-Western colour revolution not to Moscow’s taste, swept away the “Madrid principles”,1 and above all dared to suggest that Karabakh should be reattached to Armenia, despite 25 years of discussions between the two parties under the aegis of the Minsk Group tasked by the OSCE with settling the conflict. In the face of such intransigence on the part of such a small and economically weak country it became hard for Moscow to continue unconditional support. But, apart from the behaviour of the two countries at war, there have been changes in Russia which have prompted her to reduce support for Yerevan to the indirect benefit of Baku. To explain this, we need to dwell briefly on the other two major regional actors in the conflict, Turkey and Iran.
The Iranian position
Iran was traditionally pro-Armenian despite its religious links to Azerbaijan (Shiism predominates in both countries) of which it is wary for essentially political reasons, particularly for Baku forming good relations with the United States and Israel. But the country has also shifted in a way unfavourable for Armenia. And the Yerevan leadership had not seen it coming. While it may still have been possible in 1994 for Tehran to defend the Armenian cause against Azerbaijan’s, such an attitude is not possible today in an Iranian society where the Azeri factor is now so strong. And the independent and neighbouring Azerbaijan is no longer what it was in 1990, having become since the Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan pipeline in 1996 a rich and influential oil and gas producer supplying the region and Europe.
The Turkish Position
Turkey has turned towards a muscular Islamo-nationalism in both internal and external politics after the Syrian quagmire and the failed coup d’état of 2016.2 The country has broken away from the Western orientation that forced on it some moderation in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and a certain restraint in respect of Russia with whom it will henceforward compete on its own patch. Again, Yerevan underestimated the profound upsets engendered by internal changes in Turkish power.
But if there was a really fatal blindness for Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Karabakh, it was in not having been able to read the changes in the largest regional actor, Russia, ex-Soviet tutelary power, admittedly disconcerted by its “near abroad” but still commanding a fundamental role, and with interests now different from those of Armenia.
Russia No Longer has the Same Interests Nor the Same Power for Intervening in Karabakh
It is apparent that Russia, faced with an intransigent but feeble and isolated Armenia and a determined and strengthened Azerbaijan, had no choice but to neutralise the first in order to deal with the second. One has to add to these national parameters the change in the balance of the reality of regional geopolitics, since on one side Iran kicks into touch—by not supporting Armenia as it had always done and showing greater solidarity with Azerbaijan because of new geopolitical circumstances—and on the other Turkey enters the fray more actively to establish an economic “rival partnership” with Russia, in opposition to Western powers, that Turkey uses strategically in its politics of support to Azerbaijan.
In fact, understanding the new Russian policy in the Karabakh conflict necessitates a detour by way of the new attitude of Turkey in this war, its internal and external changes, and, more vitally again, the complex new configuration of bilateral relations which goes far beyond the question of Karabakh.
Tartar, Azerbaijan - 10 October 2020. Copyright: Nurlan Mammadzada, Shutterstock
Turkey has Adopted a New Attitude
Turkey is ruled by a coalition government including one element, the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, Party for Nationalist Action, known as its name indicates for its nationalism and its solidarity with nationalist circles in other Turkic countries including Azerbaijan, which has always been more permeable than other countries in the Turkic world to pan-Turkish arguments. But the government’s nationalism is not limited to just this group, whose role in the power structure should not be overestimated. In reality it is above all the chief party in power, the AKP [Justice and Development Party] and its leader who after two relatively liberal and pro-European prime-ministerial mandates (2002- 2011) have taken a direction which is more nationalist and critical of the West—seen as hostile to Turkey and to ally Azerbaijan—due to the Syrian crisis and its unsettling effects on domestic political life. Feeling itself to be (like Russia) misunderstood and unloved by Western countries it finds too favourable to Armenian arguments over Karabakh, Turkey has increased its commitment to Azerbaijan. This has now a military dimension, in the form of advisers, the supply of arms, especially drones. Turkey seems with the secondment of Syrian mercenary fighters to stand alongside the Azerbaijanis. But beyond this direct Turkish engagement it is the new Turkish-Russian relationship that has to be analysed for the reasons behind the new Russian policy in Karabakh.
Firstly, Russia is forced to see with some bitterness that 30 years after the demise of the Soviet Union it no longer has means of aspiring to determine the destiny of its former vassal states. Like Azerbaijan, most of these states have grown in autonomy and national sovereignty. Secondly, new actors, in theory strangers to the zone, have made their mark, like Turkey in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, and China, which is nibbling away hungrily, at least in economic terms, at areas habitually given over to Russia. In the Caucasus, where Turkey is pushing hard, the military and security situation in particular is critical for Moscow because it is a century and a half since any foreign power dared to challenge Russia on its very borders. In other words, Russia is constantly being disputed for the post-Soviet space, economically, politically and ideologically, but this is the first time for a long time that competition has entered the military domain. Thus, decisive Turkish military engagement which would undoubtedly enable Azerbaijan, the ally, to retake the territory it has lost, would come as a bitter snub for Putin. Turkey is seen as rising again militarily in the Caucasus, where the Ottomans were chased out by the troops of the Tsar. An imbrication of reasons may explain why Putin accepts a military Turkish incursion in the Caucasus. He needs Turkey, both rival and buffer country, in other theatres of operation than the Caucasus, notably in Syria and Libya, and at the same time as an ally against the West which both Russians and Turks want to keep out of the way in settling regional conflicts.
The Syrian Conflict
Putin has been able to profit from the discord between Turkey and its traditional Western allies to weaken and even destabilise NATO, partly successfully. However, he has got to the point where he has to pay the price for this—i.e. making concessions to Turkey in the Caucasus by accepting the Turkish intrusion in an area traditionally dominated by Russia—, as he cannot control the ebullient Erdoğan. In effect, in Syria where the Arab spring popular revolution has transformed into a civil and regional war that has drawn in Turkey, Ankara’s power has become more authoritarian. Distancing itself from the West, which it blames for only taking account of its own security interests to the detriment of its own, Turkey has drawn closer to Russia. When the Syrian crisis was unravelling NATO, although Moscow and Ankara took opposing position in Syria, Russia showed itself more cooperative and attentive to Turkey’s security concerns. As the de facto mandatory power in Syria, Russia let Turkey intervene on the ground to defend its long frontier with Syria once permeable to the anti-Turkish PKK guerrillas—an organisation labelled terrorist by the Western countries themselves—, reinforced by direct Western support in the context of the battle against the Islamic State. And further, profiting by the Western distrust in providing Turkey with Patriot missiles, Putin succeeded in selling S 400s missiles to Ankara, making Turkey an unhoped-for Trojan horse for undermining his Western rival. Besides, cooperation with Turkey economically and over energy is so extensive and diverse that their two economies are interdependent. In other words, politically, strategically and economically Russia has accompanied Turkey’s emancipation from the Western fold, only to see it spread out into the Caucasus—a move that has favoured Azerbaijan whose good relation with Turkey is well known.
Curbing Turkey’s ambitions in the “near abroad” comes down to striking by proxy on the Syrian front, without real success however, but the opening shots are unambiguous. Aware that for Turkey the frontier with Syria is of prime concern, Russia is activating its networks in Idlib, as it may do in other regions it occupies, to bombard the pro-Turkish rebels, and to remind Ankara that Turkey must not claim to be all-powerful in the region. But the more Russia targets rebels protected by Turkey in Syria, the more Turkish support for Azerbaijan grows. This power struggle obliges Moscow and Ankara to negotiate and strike a balance of influence between them.
Several conclusions can be drawn from the six weeks Karabakh war In Yerevan, the power of Nikol Pashinyan is weakened and the Prime Minister could be pushed to resign, a signal for any Armenian government that would try to emancipate itself too much from Moscow. On the other hand, in Azerbaijan the authoritarian power of President Ilham Aliyev should be strengthened.
A new regional order is being put in place, with the following characteristics:
– Russia, which has supervised the peace plan signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has shown that it remains the main force in its own backyard, where it is even growing stronger. Indeed, for the first time in the history of the conflict, it will be able to deploy a military force of 2,000 men, something it hadn’t hoped for, especially given Azerbaijan’s reluctance to any form of Russian military presence in the Caucasus.
– Turkey is gaining ground in the Caucasus, its support for Azerbaijan was decisive in Baku’s victory. In terms of remuneration, it obtained a corridor between Nakhichevan and Azerbaijan, which for it means a connection with the rest of the Turkish-speaking world, a line of communication from Istanbul to the steppes of Central Asia, that is to say the realisation of the old Turkish dream.
– The West is fading a little further into the region since the co-presidents of the Minsk Group, France and the United States, were almost absent during the six weeks of the conflict that ended with negotiations to which they were not invited. For their part, Turkey and Russia have shown that they can act together in several places, Karabakh, Libya, Syria, even if their positions and interests are divergent, as is the case in Syria and Libya and even elsewhere, to manage conflicts despite their differences, keeping aside a West invited to acknowledge the changes in an international order that is no longer what it used to be.
Translation by Moya Jones.
- 1. The Minsk Group of the OSCE presented in 2007 the "basic Principles for a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict." These Madrid Principles serve as the basis for the peace process conducted by the Minsk Group and comprise the following points: 1. return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control; 2. an interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh providing guarantees for security and self-governance; 3. a land corridor (Latchin) linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh; 4. future determination of the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will; 5. the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence; and 6. international security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation. (Source: Security policies: CSS analyses du CSS, n°131, April 2013).
- 2. On 15 July 2016 a failed coup against the power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, orchestrated by various groups within the army with the support of the Fethullah Gülen Nebula, provoked a counter coup by President Erdogan that resulted in a more authoritarian and repressive domestic policy and led the country towards a foreign policy closer to the authoritarian regimes—Russia, Iran and China—than to the traditional Western allies.