A web of interests and relationships and a lost war in 2020 sealed the fate of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, writes Veronika Sušová-Salminen. Photo: prezident.az
After months of tension, blockade and because of the lost war in 2020, the history of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh seems to have ended. On 19 September, the Azerbaijani army launched an “anti-terrorist” operation against the unrecognised republic. Its aim is the final integration of the region into Azerbaijan, which is underway now. However, the latest development was only the end of a more extended development and, it must be said, an expected final.
In Armenia, the new developments have quite understandably aroused great political emotions. Demonstrators in the streets have again called for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and their anger has also been turned towards Russia, a military ally of Armenia and which has been the key mediator in the Karabakh problem for years. Armenian critics say Russia has not fulfilled its obligations as an ally. Prime Minister Pashinyan has also repeatedly criticised Russia and, most recently, even said that relying only on Russia as a guarantor of Armenia’s security was a strategic mistake. The Kremlin spokesman reacted to such criticisms with incomprehension.
Several factors came together in the last chapter of the Karabakh story. As already hinted, the latest events result from the lost war in 2020. It was a turning point in the post-Soviet chapter of Artsakh, which had won a fragile autonomy in the bloody conflict of the late 1980s and early 1990s. While Artsakh had the support of Armenia, it did not recognise it as an independent state or as part of its territory. Similarly with Russia and, of course, with Azerbaijan. The autonomous republic in Karabakh was considered by many (including in Russia) to be a historical accident, and it is a fact that the balance of power has changed since the 1990s in favour of Azerbaijan, which has also become an important energy hub between Europe and Asia. In the last three years, Baku has been firmly pursuing its goal of integrating the region or “restoring the country’s sovereignty” as defined by Azerbaijani politicians led by President Ilham Aliyev.
Russia may have been sympathetic to the Armenian issue in Karabakh, but this did not mean that it embarked on a path of military support for the unrecognised Artsakh, and certainly not as part of an allied commitment to Armenia in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. That Moscow was primarily interested in the stability of the South Caucasus was already apparent in 2020, when a series of agreements were reached to regulate the newly erupting conflict. This was demonstrated by a phone call with Azerbaijani President Aliyev shortly after the “anti-terrorist operation” launch.
For years, Russia has played the role of mediator and businessman: for years of the latent Karabakh dispute, it has supplied both neighbours – Armenia and Azerbaijan – with its weapons. At the same time, it has always been interested in other relations and interests of other actors in the South Caucasus region.
A lot has also changed since 2020. The South Caucasus, especially the Caspian Sea region, has grown in importance. Firstly, there is a logistically important north-south corridor. This will become an essential hub for Russia, which is cut off from European routes, and its importance in the current context is enormous (see map). Furthermore, Ukraine has become the main priority of Russian security and foreign policy, where a significant part of Russia’s resources is currently directed. Another war in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood would hardly be a welcome option.
The good relations between Moscow and Baku have complicated the overall situation for Karabakh. On the one hand, Azerbaijan has diversified its foreign policy, but not at the cost of a sharp deterioration in relations with Russia. On the contrary. Aliyev’s government has pursued a constructive policy towards Russia and has not been seduced into an anti-Russian trend as part of building a new statehood and national identity.
Another factor was the special relationship between Azerbaijan and Turkey, which engaged in the Karabakh conflict on behalf of its ally. Turkey is one of the players entering the South Caucasus region and Central Asia with the Turkic card in its hands. For Russia, this means competition, but Moscow indeed prefers Turkey as a non-Western power to the influence of Western countries, especially the US, in the South Caucasus. On the contrary, it can be said that it sees competitive relations with Turkey as a tool to avoid a more robust US and EU presence in this strategically important region.
Turkey’s importance to Russia has grown after 2022, mainly in logistics and trade or tourism. However, Erdogan’s foreign policy oscillates between Russia and Ukraine and Russia and the West. Nevertheless, one can probably surmise that a possible open conflict over Karabakh would lead to Turkey’s military involvement.
Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan has probably never been an optimal partner for Russia, given that he came to the premiership through the ‘colour revolution’ in Moscow’s eyes. Pashinyan’s policy was to diversify Armenia’s foreign policy. It must be admitted, however, that after he became prime minister, he did not follow the path of open conflict with Russia, which incidentally has one of several foreign military bases in Armenia. In addition to seeking partners in the West and attempting to engage the EU and possibly the US in resolving the Karabakh problem and rebuilding the country’s foreign policy, Pashinyan also turned to two non-Western powers. The first is Iran, which has its interests in the region and a significant Azerbaijani minority on its northern borders. But alongside this, Pashinyan has turned to India, another non-Western country that could possibly guarantee Armenia’s security. Thus, Pashinyan seems to be balancing Russian influence (and dependence on Moscow) with Western (see the military exercises with the US in Armenia) and non-Western partners. However, this could not help him to hold Armenian Artsakh.
It seems likely, however, that Pashinyan will use the current developments to make foreign policy changes, as evidenced by his latest speech. The Karabakh fate will then serve him to argue the need for change and a weakening of security dependence on Russia.
The question of Russia’s position in the South Caucasus and the post-Soviet space remains without a definitive answer due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. There has been repeated criticism from Armenia of the poor performance of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh, which the Russian side has rejected. Recent developments have heightened tensions between Yerevan and Moscow. It is pretty apparent, and developments in recent months have shown this, that Russia must concentrate its forces on Ukraine, which weakens it in other parts of the neighbourhood. It is not only a military-economic weakening but also a reputational one: the invasion of Ukraine and the violent violation of the post-Soviet borders, which Russia had previously recognised, inevitably has consequences for Russia’s credibility in the eyes of its neighbours. In the hard sums of realistic foreign policy, however, Russia is now fighting for its future as a regional power in Ukraine.