Russia is working against its interests in the South Caucasus

Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space continues to wane. It seems Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, is in denial. 

Juggling his oppressive grasp on domestic power in one hand and foreign pursuits in the other, Putin has resorted to brazen escalations, back-door dealings and last-ditch plays for power in his foreign affairs strategy. With the strategically important South Caucasus region, the Kremlin’s recent approach can best be characterized as a confusing, desperate attempt to cling to power. Russia continues to fund far-right groups in Georgia and turn a blind eye to Azerbaijani incursions in Armenia, jeopardizing stability in the region.

Although the South Caucasus rarely makes international headlines, it sits at critical geopolitical crossroads. Enveloped by Russia to the North, Iran to the South and Turkey to the West, the mountainous region’s importance makes for a breeding ground of clashing global interests.

International players have long selected their playing chips. The United States and the European Union maintain close ties with Georgia, a democratic state whose diplomatic tensions with Russia remain high after a full-blown war in 2008. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s relationship with brother country Turkey is stronger than ever, amounting to direct military support in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh War and continued cooperation on rather ambitious agendas. 

That leaves Armenia, the smallest of the fifteen former Soviet republics. A historical ally and long-time partner, Armenia remains Russia’s closest connection to the Caucasus. Yerevan has maintained strong cultural, economic and political ties with Moscow since the collapse of the USSR — ties which, to the dismay of the West, remained intact after a democratic revolution in 2018 — and even hosts a Russian military base in its second city of Gyumri. 

Puzzlingly, it seems Putin is opting to ditch the only friendly country in a region where the Russian sphere of influence is increasingly shrinking, leaving Armenia to fend for itself during a period of crisis. A closer look at the complicated nature of Russian involvement in the South Caucasus, however, reveals a deliberate strategy on Putin’s part. 

But has Russia miscalculated? 

Recent developments suggest that Moscow’s strategy is on trajectory to backfire. In Putin’s case, this may not be a risk worth taking. 

In November last year, intense fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving 15 Armenian soldiers dead and 12 taken prisoner in the worst escalation since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Unlike the violence in 2020, the events of Nov. 16 unfolded within Armenia’s sovereign territory, near Syunik’s Lake Sev — the area where over 1,000 Azerbaijani troops encroached in May and have reportedly remained since then. A Russian-brokered ceasefire was enacted following the bout of fighting, and the situation has remained in a tense stalemate since. 

The recent Azeri incursion into undisputed Armenian territory has changed the dynamics of engagement in the region. On one side is an oil-rich, corrupt dictatorship which has now openly invaded another sovereign country in the 21st century, and on the other, a fragile democracy that Russia has formal obligations to defend.

In 1997, Yerevan and Moscow signed a binding mutual defense treaty under which Russia is obliged to militarily defend Armenia in the case of attack by a foreign country. Moreover, both Armenia and Russia are party to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which entails defense obligations for member states in the case of attack. 

Following Azerbaijan’s attack on Nov. 16, Armenia invoked the 1997 defense pact. In a verbal statement, Armen Grigoryan, chair of Armenia’s National Security Council, appealed to Russia for diplomatic — and if necessary, military — assistance as warranted under the 1997 treaty. Notably, Armenia did not formally appeal to the CSTO, having been rejected earlier in the year when Azerbaijani troops initially encroached its territory. 

Despite Grigoryan’s verbal invocation, no appeal was submitted in writing. According to Armenian sources, informants have confirmed that “Putin had dissuaded Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan from formally appealing for assistance from Moscow” during their phone conversation. In conjunction with the CSTO’s continued denial of Armenian appeals for aid, Putin’s request made it clear to Armenia that Russia’s credibility as an ally is waning.

Rich Èlmoyan, a geopolitical analyst and expert on geospatial matters in the Caucasus and Far East Mediterranean, confirms these speculations in an interview with the Global Policy Institute. 

“Russia wants to play as a neutral third party here,” Èlmoyan said. “It wants to stabilize the situation without losing sides.” 

Azerbaijan seems to be testing Armenia to gauge just how much it can get away with before Russia’s obligations to intervene are triggered — and Russia is humoring this dangerous game in pursuit of its own interests. With a lack of meaningful retaliation, Armenia’s current administration only facilitates further abuses against its sovereignty, leaving the province of Syunik a sitting duck. 

The roots of Azerbaijan’s Nov. 16 offensive can be traced back to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While Armenia makes a strong case for self-determination, Azerbaijan’s most potent claim has always been that of territorial integrity. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy with the encroachment in Syunik turns the tables against Armenia, with conversations of territorial integrity — the point Azerbaijan stresses above all others in negotiations — now dominating the dialogue on the Armenian side. As Èlmoyan corroborates, adopting the same language in response to the attack on Syunik that Azerbaijan has been using for decades on Karabakh gives Baku the diplomatic satisfaction of forcing the conversation of territorial integrity, further consolidating Aliyev’s dictatorial power through brute force in foreign policy. 

Furthermore, following the fallout of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Turkish-Azeri side has been adamant that the Nov. 11 ceasefire agreement encompassed the building of a Zangezur corridor, a route connecting the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhijevan to mainland Azerbaijan along the Armenia-Iran border. Azerbaijan clings onto hopes that by forcing border demarcation with Armenia, Yerevan will be forced to recognize the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan — and by default, Nagorno-Karabakh and the former Armenian buffer zone surrounding the autonomous oblast. 

According to Èlmoyan, Azerbaijan’s recent incursions into Armenian territory, in addition to being politically strategic, serve a practical purpose, as well. 

“The area that they are trying to push through is an open-road communication, and it’s not [the city of] Meghri, specifically,” he said. “Their goal is to get to Nakhijevan, and they want it under their own terms.” 

Adding fuel to fire is Turkish pressure to see the corridor built, as it would provide a direct route between mainland Turkey, which borders Nakhijevan, and Azerbaijan. 

Moreover, Èlmoyan argues, Iran is a big factor to consider. Largely driven by economic motives to maintain trade roads, Iran has made it abundantly clear that it will not tolerate any changes to its northern borders with the Caucasus. Tensions between Baku and Tehran have remained high since 2020, culminating in large-scale military exercises conducted by Iran along its border with Azerbaijan. 

Unofficial reports of Azerbaijani troop build-up at the border, both within Armenia’s infiltrated sovereignty and outside of it, are leading experts to speculate Russian complicity in the recent transgressions. Èlmoyan explains the source of these concerns.

“You’re seeing military build-up on Armenia’s border, even inside of Armenia, on Azerbaijan’s end. How are those weapons coming through? They’re not coming through the north,” he said. “The path that Azerbaijan has access to is inaccessible in the winter. If [the military equipment] is being passed through the Lachin corridor, through the eyes of the Russian peacekeepers, it’s a big problem that Russia’s letting that happen.” 

It would mean that Russian intelligence was aware of Azerbaijani intentions to launch an attack against its ally Armenia, because weapons were being transferred through territories under Russian supervision. 

This is not the first time that speculation has emerged that Russia is actively working against Armenia’s security interests. During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Russia’s inaction raised serious questions about the nature of Moscow’s involvement in the war, and whether or not it was premeditated. Dumutru Minzarari of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs explores whether Russia merely acted opportunistically in the recent flare-up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, or contributed actively to its emergence. 

“Russia has extensive intelligence-gathering capacities in the South Caucasus,” he writes. “It is highly unlikely that Baku failed to consult Moscow beforehand, given the scale, intensity and far-reaching objectives of its military operation.” 

Furthermore, in attempts to increase Armenian dependence on Russia for security, “Moscow’s current calculation seems to be that it can have its geopolitical cake and eat it,” analyzes Nicu Popescu of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Russia remains the only ally of Armenia that would deploy troops to defend it. As such, Putin has taken Yerevan’s dependence on Moscow for granted, allowing Azerbaijan and Turkey to make territorial gains in the region as a strategic ploy to force Russian peacekeepers into Nagorno-Karabakh and increase Armenia’s political dependence on the Kremlin. 

Putin’s strategy in the South Caucasus seems cold, precise and perfectly calculated. It appears Russia has successfully secured the partnership of oil-rich Azerbaijan and NATO-ally Turkey in a critical region, while ensuring continued Armenian dependence on Moscow for security. In Putin’s mind, Russian interests are secure. 

But the problem with this manipulative diplomacy and shirking of security obligations is the potential it holds to backfire. One miscalculated step on Moscow’s behalf, and Armenia could be permanently pushed out of the Russian sphere of influence. 

No matter how dependent Armenia remains on Russia, this dependence means nothing when the factors that fuel it cease to be relevant. The more Putin rejects Armenian appeals for aid and makes allowances for Azerbaijan, the more he runs the risk of pushing Armenia towards self-sufficiency, isolation or seeking other partners — even if its options are scarce. Because to a genocide-survivor state like Armenia, what the OSCE deems “minor incursions” are an existential threat posed by the original perpetrators. As Armenians witness Turkish-backed Azerbaijan infiltrate their sovereign borders, forcefully take away their lands and continue to hold hundreds of prisoners of war captive, sentiment towards their devious ally to the North is changing. 

What Putin sees as a strategic foreign policy will soon become a new norm for Armenia. After the initial rejection of Armenia’s appeal to the CSTO in 2021, the country did not submit another request in response to November’s attack. Already, Armenia has demonstrated a degree of independence from Russia, not by positive circumstance but due to lack of expectation. After Putin’s request to Pashinyan to refrain from formally invoking the 1997 treaty, Armenia may give up on this avenue of partnership, too. 

Russia’s leverage over Armenia lies in its security obligations, which are seen by many in Armenia as the last-ditch, most extreme diplomatic measure Yerevan can resort to. What happens when these obligations are no longer a factor for Armenia? What happens when the last shred of hope is finally cut off?

Armen Grigoryan’s statement seems to hold a warning. While Armenia is relying on Russia to help defend its territorial integrity, “if a resolution isn’t found, then [Armenia] will have to look at other possibilities.” 

Some argue that Armenia will always be dependent on Russia. It has no other viable options, and Russia can absorb unpopularity from Armenia’s masses without losing its leverage over Yerevan. But only time will tell. 

Sentiment in Armenia is changing, among the average citizen and political elite alike. The Armenian people are tired of Russian inaction, and soon enough, the government will be, too. Yerevan will give up, eventually, and won’t stick around for continued denial of support. 

For now, Russia may be Armenia’s last hope, but as soon as it shirks one too many obligations, it won’t be Armenia’s anything anymore. 

Putin’s strategy is not sustainable, and in the long run, Russia is working against its own interests in the South Caucasus. Once Russia loses Armenia, it cedes its role as primary regional power in the critical region to Turkey and the West. It loses the entire region. 

The ball is in Putin’s court. It’s up to him how he chooses to play it. 

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