Will Russia's Next Battlefield Be In The Caucasus?
The End Of Nagorno-Karabakh Is Not The End Between Azerbaijan And Armenia
There is one piece of positive news to report out of the “ceasefire” (actually a surrender by Armenian separatists) putatively brokered by Russia between Armenia and Azerbaijan: aid and vital supplies are finally flowing again into the Nagorno-Karabakh region along the Lachin Corridor.
With Armenians suffering serious shortages of food and fuel after a months-long de facto Azerbaijani blockade, an aid convoy of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headed into Karabakh on Saturday, the first since Azerbaijan’s military operation.
The ICRC said in a later statement that the convoy had transported nearly 70 tonnes of humanitarian supplies, including wheat flour, salt and sunflower oil, along the Lachin corridor, the only highway connecting Armenia and the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region.
An ICRC team also carried out the medical evacuation of 17 people wounded during the fighting, it said.
Separately, Russia said it had delivered more than 50 tonnes of food and other aid to Karabakh.
Alas, the supply convoys are about the only good news involving the Nagorno-Karabakh region: the separatist government has surrendered, the Karabakh militants are being disarmed, and Azerbaijan’s government in Baku is already planning the integration of Karabakh into Azerbaijan proper.
Azerbaijan’s lighting conquest of the region is also extremely bad news for the Armenian government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whom many Armenians blame for the Azerbaijani takeover of the Karabakh region.
Yet by far the worst news is reserved for Russia, who has seen its influence in the Caucasus completely evaporate in the space of the 24 hours it took Azerbaijan to occupy Nagorno-Karabakh. While Azerbaijan has arguably resolved its primary concern—control of the Karabakh region—a fuller panoply of fractious issues between Armenia and Azerbaijan remain, and Russia now has little influence or ability to shape how those issues will play out.
The failure of Russia’s peacekeeping efforts in the Karabakh could even leave Russia with a future war in the Caucasus.
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To appreciate just how fully Russian influence has collapsed in the Caucasus, it is useful to understand just how substantial the ties between Russia and Armenia have been over the years. In many ways, Russia has been Armenia’s primary security guarantor.
Russia was the mediating signatory for the cease-fires that ended both Nagorno-Karabakh wars. Per the 2020 agreement, Russian peacekeepers will guard the Lachin corridor—a road that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh—through most of 2025. It is unsurprising that Russia—the most powerful country in the region, with linkages to both Armenia and Azerbaijan that stretch back to tsarist days—has played the role of broker between the two countries. But Armenia has allied closely with Russia during the post-Soviet era, balancing out Azerbaijan’s ties with Turkey. Armenia is a member of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led security alliance, as well as the Eurasian Economic Union, a single market of five post-Soviet states, while Azerbaijan is a member of neither. Russia also has a large military base in Armenia.
On paper, the CSTO is a Central Asian counterpart to Europe’s NATO1. Whereas the US is the primary military force within NATO, Russia is the primary military force within the CSTO.
Also on paper, the CSTO also provided smaller Central Asian countries such as Armenia with a measure of mutual defense. At one time, this may have been more than just conceptual, as Russia has in the past spoken openly of coming to Armenia’s aid should the much larger Azerbaijan attack its southern Caucasus neighbor.
In January 2006 the Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Nikolay Bordyuzha, did not rule out the possibility that the CSTO will use its military potential in the event that Azerbaijan attacked Armenia. The CSTO Secretary General said this in the interview published in the Moscow 'Nezavisimaya Gazeta' on 14 January 2006. "Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty Organization says that the aggression against CSTO member states is considered by other participants as aggression against everyone. No comments are needed in this case. The key task of the CSTO, despite its military potential, is to create such a system which will allow not to enable the armed forces. The Treaty aims to prevent bloodshed and application of force for solving problems both inside the country and on the borders with other states."
Armenia’s own security infrastructure largely relied on membership in the CSTO—an arrangement that led Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan assessing Armenia’s security infrastructure as “99.999%” tied to Russia. Additionally, in 2010 Armenia and Russia signed an extended defense pact that included security guarantees for Armenia.
The defense pact is actually an upgrading of a 1995 treaty allowing Russian ground and air forces access to a base in the west of the country. It expands the Russian mission from protecting only the interests of the Russian Federation, to also ensuring the security of the Republic of Armenia.
Under the pact, Moscow will also supply Yerevan with modern weapons and "special" military hardware. The existing base houses MiG-29 fighter jets and S-300 missile-defense systems, as well as troops.
In an interview broadcast on Russian television before the signing, Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, praised the new agreement. "We are supporting the initiative to sign this agreement which has very good elements such as equal and indivisible security for all states on the Euro-Atlantic territory and in Eurasia," he said.
A spokesman for Sarkisian's ruling Republican Party, Eduard Sharmazanov, said the new pact would not only protect Armenia's borders, but would exclude the possibility that neighboring Azerbaijan will try to settle the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by force.
Again on paper, Russia presumably had Armenia’s back, militarily. Certainly successive Armenian regimes have believed this to be the case.
However, even in the 2010 treaty, as well as the 1995 pact upon which it was based, there was language which gave Russia a bit of wiggle room on how it would support Armenia in case of a military incursion by Azerbaijan or an attack on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Analysts note the extended treaty only refers to defending Armenia, while Nagorno-Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan, and is therefore not covered by the treaty. Any fresh fighting involving Armenian troops would likely primarily be on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, not of Armenia.
Russian analyst Pavel Felgengauer says the treaty is not about Russia defending Armenia from Azerbaijan, but about warding off interference by Turkey.
Former Armenian national security adviser Gerard Libaridian, meanwhile, says the document does not even bind Russia to help Armenia, but leaves intervention to Russia's discretion.
“The 1995 treaty has a provision, which I’m sure will remain in the new one, that if there are military hostilities within Armenia’s borders Russian won’t automatically come to [Armenia's] aid," Libaridian says.
"That is, if one party [to the treaty] is subjected to attack, there will be consultations with the other. It's the other side that will decide whether or not to participate [in the war.] And I don't think that provision will be changed.”
Certainly in 2020, when Azerbaijan last attacked the Karabakh in force, Russia decided not to participate by joining the fray alongside Armenia. Instead, Russia gathered diplomats from both Armenia and Azeribaijan together in Moscow and brokered a ceasefire.
Arguably, the ceasefire was a geopolitical success for Russia, as Turkish support for Azerbaijan was seen by many as carrying the potential for the conflict to spread into a wider regional war.
Both sides appear to be digging in for a longer conflict. Azerbaijan has rejected renewed negotiations with Armenia, and unlike in previous escalations it has a greater degree of Turkish support to count on. The danger is that a longer, protracted conflict will see increased involvement by outside powers, risking a wider regional war.
Bringing Azerbaijan to the negotiating table, preventing or at least delaying a wider conflict, and deploying peace-keeping forces are the power projection acts of a regional hegemon and power broker. Being able to do that was an undeniable geopolitical win for Russia.
All of that power and influence evaporated when Azerbaijan seized Nagorno-Karabakh last week.
Yet Russia has done little to attempt to retain or regain either the power or the influence. If anything, Russia has conceded the point and surrendered any position of influence over the Caucasus. Not only has Russia more or less abandoned its erstwhile ally Armenia, Moscow has even gone so far as to blame Armenia for the conflict
Almost immediately after the Azerbaijan attacks began, various Russian media outlets began reporting the situation from a very biased anti-Armenian position, including blaming Pashinyan’s government for the situation.
The fact that the Azerbaijani army is superior to the armed forces of Armenia in military power was obvious even after the 2020 war, however, in modern realities, force alone was not enough to implement the tasks facing Baku; it was necessary to wait for the right geopolitical moment. Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly shown that he knows how to wait for such moments and use them correctly. The international situation is now favorable for Baku.
Yerevan’s diplomatic mistakes have left Armenia virtually without allies: old alliances have already been destroyed, and new ones have not yet been built. In recent months, Yerevan has noticeably deteriorated its relations with its main ally, Moscow. In particular, Nikol Pashinyan’s plans to conduct joint exercises with the United States caused a very sharp reaction from the Russian side.
Even TASS adopted Azerbaijan’s language about the attack being an “anti-terrorist operation”.
Speaking about Baku's operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Peskov emphasized that de jure Azerbaijan operates on its territory, since Armenia recognized Karabakh as an integral part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin called what was happening in Baku an “internal matter . ” At the same time, the importance of respecting the rights of civilians is noted.
Russian political leaders also went to some lengths to pin blame for this latest clash on Armenia, effectively absolving Azerbaijan.
The tragic and unexpected escalation of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is a consequence of the irresponsible interference of Western countries in the internal affairs of other countries and peoples. This opinion was expressed by Vice Speaker of the Federation Council Konstantin Kosachev.
“Yesterday’s tragic and rather unexpected escalation of the situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, on the one hand, and the completely predictable costumed antics of [Ukrainian President Vladimir] Zelensky at the UN, on the other, are ultimately a consequence of the same phenomena, namely the clumsy and irresponsible intervention of Western states in "led by the United States in the internal affairs of other countries and peoples. The principle of "divide and conquer" was not invented yesterday and continues to dominate the foreign policy of the West," the senator wrote in his Telegram channel .
According to Latvian-based Russia-centric media outlet Meduza, Russian media outlets were instructed by the Kremlin to throw Armenia under the metaphorical bus.
Meduza has obtained a copy of guidelines distributed by the Kremlin late September 19 to Russia’s state-controlled news media. The memo contains instructions on how to cover Azerbaijan’s military strike on Nagorno-Karabakh, in which 32 people have been killed and more than 200 injured.
Russia’s propagandist news media are advised to stress that the assault was precipitated by Armenia and its Western “partners,” and that “the Armenian leadership has recognized the sovereignty of Azerbaijan over Karabakh.”
While it is plausible to blame Russia’s inability to prevent Azerbaijan’s aggression in the Karabakh on its war with Ukraine, its apparent media strategy over that aggression amounts to nothing less than the complete abandonment of Armenia as an ally. Whether this is due to Russia no longer having the resources to support Armenia militarily or Russia having growing discomfort with the Pashinyan government in Yerevan is not entirely certain.
What is certain is that Prime Minister Pashinyan has stated multiple times that Ukraine has made Russia an even more problematic ally than before. In a June CNN interview, Pashinyan stated bluntly that Armenia was not an ally of Russia’s with regards to Ukraine.
"We are not Russia's ally in the war with Ukraine. And our feeling from that war, from that conflict, is anxiety because it directly affects all our relationships," Pashinyan told CNN Prima News in an interview, adding that Armenia felt caught between the two sides.
"In the West they notice that we are Russia's ally ... in Russia they see that we are not their ally in the Ukraine war, and it turns out that we are not anyone's ally in this situation, which means that we are vulnerable," he said.
Russian commentators took this as yet another sign that Pashinyan was moving Armenia away from Russia and towards the west.
Asked about Pashinyan's remarks on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded with caution, saying Moscow had taken note of what he called "an important statement".
"We know that there are certain nuances in Armenia's approach to the conflict over Ukraine. We take them into account, we know them, but at the same time we continue to develop our allied relations with Armenia," Peskov said.
Former Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov, commenting on Peskov's statement, said on his Telegram channel that Moscow was "hinting that it sees that Pashinyan is leading Armenia away from friendship with Russia into the arms of Russia's enemies".
If Russia wanted relations to move back towards Moscow, it was unsuccessful at doing so. By mid-September Pashinyan was openly critical of Russia and Armenia’s alliance with Russia, expressing skepticism that Russia could or would support Armenia in the face of mounting tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Ties have warmed and cooled over the years, but in recent weeks, Armenia has in effect declared it has no confidence in Russia's ability to protect it under a defence pact and sought other partners as strains escalate with neighbouring Azerbaijan, against which it lost a short war in 2020.
Russia's perceived absence could open the door for other players - be it Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, China or the West - to try to take its place in the South Caucasus or other ex-Soviet territories it openly considers its sphere of influence.
However, even as Russia is walking away from Armenia diplomatically, it may find walking away from the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan rather more difficult.
As Armenia and Azerbaijan negotiate the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, there are at least three issues that reach beyond the Karabakh region.
The first and perhaps the most contentious is, of course, what is to become of the roughly 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in the Karabakh.
The governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan have made repeated statements in recent months saying that they recognize each other’s territorial integrity, including with respect to Nagorno Karabakh and adjacent districts, which are part of Azerbaijan under international law.
At the same time, Armenia wants detailed guarantees to protect the rights of the ethnic Armenians, and says that the wording that Azerbaijan has proposed during talks on the issue is unacceptable.
However, there are already indications that most if not all Armenians are preparing to flee Nagorno-Karabakh.
The 120,000 ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will leave for Armenia as they do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan and fear ethnic cleansing, the leadership of the breakaway region told Reuters on Sunday.
Armenia's Prime Minister also said the Karabakh Armenians were likely to leave the region, and that Armenia was ready to take them in, following a defeat last week at the hands of Azerbaijan in a conflict dating to the fall of the Soviet Union.
While this likely mass exodus is outwardly one of choice rather than a forced deportation, the fear of future oppression under Azerbaijani rule is producing the same ethnic impact as a forced deportation—the removal of an ethnic community from its historic home.
"Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. Ninety-nine point nine percent prefer to leave our historic lands," David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, the president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, told Reuters.
It is difficult to ignore a certain parallel to the deportations and genocide of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 19152. Whether this coming mass migration will lead to a similar humanitarian tragedy is as yet unknown, but the potential for major abuses when that many people are displaced all at once cannot be dismissed.
Beyond the future of the Armenians in the Karabakh, there are lingering questions regarding the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, questions which themselves have the potential to escalate into future conflicts.
The border between the two countries, which runs for at least 600 miles, is not demarcated, and at points, troops are stationed within easy striking distance of each other. Azerbaijan wants the demarcation on its terms. The government of Armenia wants security assurances that could pave the way for Azerbaijan to withdraw troops it has stationed inside Armenia and to reduce border incidents.
The challenge is that even when the two republics broke away from the dissolving Soviet Union, the border between them was not clearly demarcated and uncontested3.
But how do we know where the “real” border is? To simply revert to the borders of the Soviet-era republics might seem straightforward, but in reality the process is mired in difficult technical issues.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, for their entire history as independent states, have never had a fully agreed upon boundary between them. And the November  ceasefire statement gave no indication as to how the border should be drawn or to what standard.
With Azerbaijani troops currently within notional Armenian territory, this is not an issue that can be ignored, and it is an issue with the potential for renewed war all on its own.
Lastly, there is the question of the Azerbaijani territory of Nakhchivan.
Like Nagorno-Karabakh, where the Armenian population felt cut off from the country of Armenia, Nakhchivan is territorially separated from the rest of Azerbaijan.
It accounts for about 6% of Azerbaijan’s territory, with a swath of Armenia about 40 kilometers (25 miles) wide between the exclave and Azerbaijan. It also borders Azerbaijan’s close ally Turkey and Iran. It’s population is about 460,000 people, overwhelmingly Azeris but also some ethnic Russians.
In the 2020 ceasefire agreement over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia was technically supposed to restore road and rail links between Nakhchivan and Azerbaijan proper. Unsurprisingly, this has not been done. Given the obvious residual level of tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the wake of Azerbaijan’s final occupation of the Karabakh, it is difficult to see what incentive Armenia has to restore such links. If it does not restore such links, it is difficult to see how lasting peace between the two ex-Soviet republics is possible.
Any or all of these issues could blossom into a larger conflict practically on Russia’s own border. Any instability in the Caucasus region does not advance Russia’s security interests—hence its reasoning for playing regional hegemon up until now.
Armenia, for its part, is showing no confidence that Russia is capable of playing a meaningful role in keeping the peace in the Caucasus or imposing its will on all nations as a regional hegemon. Moscow may have helped “negotiate” the current ceasefire essentially by making sure Armenia gave Azerbaijan nearly everything for which it asked, but Armenia would much prefer the UN monitor the ceasefire and police the situation going forward.
“The international community should undertake all the efforts for an immediate deployment of an interagency mission by the U.N. to Nagorno-Karabakh with the aim to monitor and assess the human rights, humanitarian and security situation on the ground,” Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan said in a speech to the United Nations, according to a transcript.
If the UN responds with the requested mission effort, and in particular if a UN mission should grow into a UN peacekeeping force—which would elbow the Russian “peacekeepers” out of the region—there is no way that cannot mark the end of Russian influence in the region. That Armenia, with a bilateral security pact as well as CSTO membership technically still in effect, should want the UN rather than its nominal security guarantor to be its effective security guarantor is fairly strong evidence that both the security pact and the CSTO membership are greatly diminished if not completely dead. At a minimum, the other nations in the region will take note of these events and they will impact how they treat with Russia going forward—and not in a way that is likely to be helpful to Russia.
Yet simple geography means that the future problems and conflicts in the Caucasus region will inevitably be in some form or fashion Russian problems and Russian conflicts. If it ignores them it risks having at a minimum UN peacekeeping forces near its border. If it ignores them it risks various conflicts and tensions in the region escalating into additional regional small wars literally on its border—not something that promotes one’s own security.
Russia may have washed its hands of Armenia as a way towards bringing finality to the Karabakh conflict. Russia will not find it quite so easy to wash its hands of the future conflicts which will arise in the region in part because Russia washed its hands of Armenia.
Russia may very well find it has chosen for its next battlefield to be in the Caucasus. That will be a problem—for Russia.
All Facts Matter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Alternatively, please consider making a donation via Ko-Fi. Thank you always for your support!
Pike, J. GlobalSecurity.Org: Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). 1 May 2022, https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/int/csto.htm.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Armenian Genocide: Genocide.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015, https://www.britannica.com/event/Armenian-Genocide/Genocide.
McGlynn, E. Perspectives | On the Armenia-Azerbaijan Border, the Map Is Not the Territory. 15 Mar. 2021, https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-on-the-armenia-azerbaijan-border-the-map-is-not-the-territory.