Strange things are happening in Transcaucasia, where until yesterday Moscow seemed to be watching the developments numbly, without reacting. The situation was inexplicable, so one wonders if there was a particular reason for the Kremlin’s stance, which was incompatible with the image we are accustomed to. However, the conclusion of the tripartite agreement between Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, with the Azeri army advancing on the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, creates a new landscape, as long as things remain as they are.
By Zacharias Michas and Sotiris Dimopoulos
Before the agreement became known, two very important events took place: First, the occupation of the second most important city in Nagorno-Karabakh, Sushi, located at the most strategic point of the unrecognized Armenian state. The fall of Sushi essentially foreshadowed the occupation of the capital Stepanakert.
Second, the downing of a Russian helicopter by fire coming from the Nakhichevan region in western Armenia. Azerbaijan has claimed responsibility, citing fears of provocation by Armenians. However, the scenarios are many … The essence, however, is the downing of the Mi-24 of the Russian forces stationed in Armenia.
All the while, Moscow’s stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had embarrassed analysts, even the Russians. It seemed like an inability to act as a mediator between the opposing parties in its soft underbelly. It also seemed like an attempt not to come into direct confrontation with Turkey and Islam in general.
Until now, Russian interventions for peace had been in vain due to the Turkish incitement to war. Given the Azeri advance, reinforced by thousands of jihadists and Turkish officers, Russia would soon face the threat of Azerbaijan building a kind of state unity with Turkey, and even joining NATO if Ankara wanted, or if it wanted to approach the west. This scenario would be a disaster for Russian foreign policy in Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Among other things, it would have a catalytic effect on the Muslim populations of these two areas.
Putin and truce
On Monday night, however, the picture changed dramatically. Moscow has announced an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh through its own mediation. Its own troops, which have already been transferred to the area, will monitor compliance. All the occupied territories, including Sushi, as well as the seven provinces that formed the so-called security zone, pass to Azerbaijan.
Only unoccupied territory remains in Artsakh, with the capital Stepanakert, as well as a 5km zone connecting Yerevan with Karabakh. At the same time, of course, the Azerbaijan-Nakhichevan communication corridor will be opened.
Naturally, a huge wave of anger and indignation broke out in Armenia against the pro-Western government, which is definitely responsible for the tragic end of the war. There is no doubt that Pasinian cannot stand in power and that there will be stormy reshuffles. However, the reality does not allow the followers of the continuation of the war to achieve their goal.
On the contrary, it is very likely that a section of society will turn against Russia because it did not protect the Armenian Christian population. Nevertheless, no one but Russia can guarantee the security of either the remaining Nagorno-Karabakh or Armenia itself. Therefore, Armenians are forced to bow their heads and lick their wounds once again in their history.
According to information that had circulated at an unsuspecting time, during Passinian rule, many officers who had studied in Moscow were removed from the Armenian armed forces and secret services. At the same time, the country took some steps in its relationship with NATO, investing in its relations with Georgia.
Punishment from Moscow
Moscow has been following developments inside Armenia with obvious dissatisfaction, and the current agreement is a kind of punishment for the Armenians, who, by choosing a pro-Western government, have indicated their intention to move away from Moscow. The developments, then, are also a message that if Armenia withdraws from the Russian fold, its national security will be further endangered. Armenians should have learned from the suffering of Georgia several years ago.
In addition, the war is pushing both sides to buy modern Russian weapons systems. This is especially true of Armenia, which has painfully found itself at a disadvantage at this level. The purchase of Russian weapons by Azerbaijan is causing fear in Moscow, mainly due to its special relations with Israel. The Russians do not want to leak technological secrets. A potential client is also Iran, which has reasons to foresee long-term problems with the Azeri minority in its territory.
Through its handling, Moscow has shown a good face to the Muslim population inside and outside the Russian Federation, as it has not automatically sided with Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey. At the same time, it confirmed and legitimized Turkey’s arbitrary presence in an area critical to Russia’s own security. It remains to be seen whether Turkey’s military presence will be legalized, as it is not described in the agreement.
Certainly, the issue of Turkey is not closed, because, as the President of Azerbaijan, Aliyev, said, there will be Turkish “peace-keeping” troops in Azerbaijan. If this is achieved, it will be another point of forced balance between Moscow and Ankara. The Russian military inside Azerbaijan, however, is preventing Erdogan from playing an anti-Russian role in the region, in an effort to serve the West in the new environment created by Biden’s election.
Despite the somewhat justified anger over the abandonment of the Armenians, Moscow does not end up damaged, although the situation is far from being ideal for its interests. It knows that the activation of the Turkish factor in the Caucasus will cause security problems, in the sense that they will have a destabilizing effect on the Muslim populations in the wider region. However, given the circumstances, what the Kremlin has achieved may be considered the best of a bad situation.
In any case, we must bear in mind that Russia has recently faced a number of serious challenges in its vital space. Challenges that threaten its influence on the area. In particular, the pressure on the periphery is increasing on at least four other fronts:
The first is Belarus, where social protests against Lukashenko continue in the most “brotherly” country to Russia, and yet nothing can be considered guaranteed. The plight of the Armenians is also a message to the Belarusians.
The second is Central Asia, focusing on Kyrgyzstan, where there is a power vacuum, with many exogenous and anti-Russian actors trying to put their stamp on it.
The third is the nationalist upsurge in Ukraine, which is also being rewarded by President Zelensky. Following Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh, there has been talk of an attack on the pro-Russian Donbas, and especially the strategic city of Gorlovka. Yesterday’s agreement, however, may put Ukrainians in second thoughts.
The fourth front, where things seem to be going anti-Russian, is in Moldova. The defeat of Dodon’s pro-Russian leadership is seen by observers as a given, after his performance in the first round of elections. The finalization of the defeat is considered to open the issue of Transnistria. It is clear that in the case that Russian control is lost there, the union of the region with Romania is extremely likely. This means that NATO will take another step closer to the Russian border.
In conclusion, the developments in Nagorno-Karabakh, when the dust of combat settles, will show the gains of each side, although the gains of Azerbaijan are unquestionable, as are the losses of the Armenians. It remains to be seen, however, whether Moscow will win or lose in this story. It is obvious that it was strengthened geostrategically, but also that it lost in moral prestige as an orthodox force.