By Murad Muradov
To assess the role of Russia in the current hot phase of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict objectively and comprehensively, it is necessary to go into the recent past and understand how this role had been perceived before the escalation. It must be admitted that for a long time, stereotypical and simplified views of what Moscow wants and what it can do in this most complex knot of contradictions in the whole post-Soviet space had been dominating both in Azerbaijan and Armenia. Thus, in Baku they would love to repeat a laconic thesis: “Keys from Karabakh are kept in Moscow”, implying to Russia’s command of unsurmountable leverage in the region and her unlimited opportunities for manipulating Armenia, which used to be perceived merely as a Russian stronghold. This conviction entailed two tacitly shared points of view: first, that Azerbaijan would hardly be able to resume fighting as long as Russia retains the status of a global power, and secondly, that Moscow may, if it wants so, force Yerevan to accept compromises that would suit Baku. In this framework, Baku’s primary goal was to conduct such a foreign policy that could instill willingness to do so in Kremlin. The short but spectacular counteroffensive in the 4-day war of 2016 must have most probably been contemplated as an instrument of forcing the rival to realize the instability of the status quo and trigger Moscow to actively push Armenia to compromises. However, these expectations, despite of a certain rhetoric change in Yerevan in 2016-17, proved futile.
The road to war in Nagorno-Karabakh
On the other side of the conflict, the prolonged existence of the status quo obtained by force (or, as Vladimir Kazimirov, the Russian diplomat mediating in the 1994 negotiations, put it, “voting with bullets”) which more than suited the Armenian side, did a poor service. Yerevan felt completely confident that its tight relationship with Russia, sealed by the membership in the CSTO military union and the 102nd Russian military base located in the city of Gyumri in Armenia, offered a solid guarantee against Baku’s willingness to conduct a large-scale military operation. Gradual waning of the Western attention to the South Caucasus only confirmed Armenia’s unwillingness to discuss the consensual conflict resolution in earnest.
On the other hand, the international situation has undergone a number of dramatic shifts since 2016. Russia and Turkey, which stood one step from a full-scale conflict with each other back then, started a quick rapprochement and turned into so-called “bitter friends,” who retain a number of contradictions on various issues but prefer to find mutual compromises. The gradual deepening of Russia’s conflict with the West, along with numerous frictions President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had with his Western allies, have strongly contributed to this process. At the same time, the Russians’ growing weariness from the great-power adventurism, which still enjoyed certain popularity in 2015-2016, pushed Kremlin to pursue a more reserved foreign policy and restrict its geopolitical ambitions. However, it was the policy of the young democrat Nikol Pashinyan who came to power on the wave of the “velvet revolution” of 2018 which became the major trigger of change for Azerbaijan.
First of all, Pashinyan took a pro-Western foreign policy course, having brought into power a number of anti-Russian cadres and, to Moscow’s particular discontent, persecuted some of Moscow’s prominent friends in Armenia, including the former President, an informal leader of the “Karabakh clan” Robert Kocharyan and the former Secretary General of the CSTO, Yuri Khachaturov. Secondly, he started to pursue a very imprudent policy on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, at first gaining Baku’s favor with his promises of a new politics, substantial negotiations and agreement on a number of symbolically important measures, and then making a spectacular U-turn, taking openly provocative steps which even the winners of the First Karabakh war wouldn’t dare to do while in power. Pashinyan’s categorical statement made in 2019- “Karabakh is Armenia, period,” the announcement by Defense Minister Tonoyan of a new military doctrine called “New war-new territories,” which left no space for concessions, and the military escalation in July 2020 along the uncontested swath of the border, when Yerevan did not hide its intention to capture some new positions from Azerbaijan, have shown: a fragile balance of power in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict no longer holds, and the peace process in its old format has been rendered meaningless. All these circumstances have made the new phase of a full-scale war almost inevitable.
So, which position has Moscow taken in the current conflict? Since the early days, Russia made clear its unwillingness to interfere and get involved into the conflict on the side of its CSTO ally Armenia, stating that the fighting takes place in the recognized territory of Azerbaijan. Instead, Russia has accelerated its diplomatic activities and demonstrated its strong intention not to let the negotiation process be conducted by other powers. The first round of negotiations between the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia was mediated by Russian MFA Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on 9-10 October and was concluded with a preliminary agreement on humanitarian ceasefire. However, this agreement, along with two later ceasefires, proved to be absolutely inefficient and was violated just an hour after its entry into force. Most probably, Russia perceives its current diplomatic efforts rather as a declaration of its key role in the region than real work on peace enforcement and, contrary to a popular opinion, understands that the situation must be first of all made clear on the battlefield before diplomacy can be efficient.
On the other hand, since the first days of the conflict Moscow has demonstrated certain concern about the de-facto formed military union of Azerbaijan and Turkey and the latter’s increasing role. Since the beginning of the war, the Russian leadership has been maintaining coordination with their Turkish counterparts hardly less tight than with the direct parties, thus emphasizing that Ankara must count with Moscow while actively supporting of Azerbaijan. Concerns raised in the expert and establishment circles, and once by Head of Foreign Intelligence Service S. Naryshkin, about the participation of Turkish-hired “jihadis” or other mercenaries from Syria are primarily aimed at warning Ankara against assuming a too active role in South Caucasus. At the same time, some pro-Armenian politicians’ statements about a possibility of an “anti-terrorist operation” by Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh look like baseless wishful thinking. President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Valdai Forum, and the latest response by the Russian MFA to the Armenian Prime Minister’s letter of request suggest that Moscow does not want to interfere into the conflict unless it spreads into the territory of Armenia or there is a threat of a full-fledged humanitarian catastrophe for the Karabakh Armenians.
Moscow’s view of Nagorno-Karabakh
So how should we understand the dynamics of Russia’s position on this conflict, unprecedented in terms of intensity of fighting, and what shall we expect from it in the nearest future? Moscow’s approach to the problem and her current behavior depend on several factors we are going to analyze here.
Firstly- however surprising should it be for many in Yerevan- current relationships with Azerbaijan are important for Russia in their own right and do not constitute a continuation of the Soviet “elder brother” syndrome (though it sometimes expresses itself, too). Moscow finds it very important that Azerbaijan, while being a GUAM member state and enjoying a close partnership with Turkey and a number of Western countries, did not follow in the footsteps of Georgia, choosing an unambiguously Western path. The famous “multivector policy” reflects, in the first place, Baku’s unwillingness to become a satellite for any of its partners, including even brotherly Turkey, and readiness to fight for its vital interests often demonstrated by President Ilham Aliyev. Along with the diplomatic and willfully respecting tone Azerbaijan has always preserved towards Russia, these realities instilled in the Kremlin a certain trust towards the Azerbaijani government. Of course, one should not underestimate the fact that Aliyev is a Moscow-educated man capable of speaking with Russian elites in the language they understand, which plays a significant role in the Russian policy in her “near abroad.”
On the other hand, one of the most salient and often underestimated factors for Moscow in her current attitude towards Azerbaijan is the treaty on the status of the Caspian Sea, signed in 2018. This treaty, which excluded the possibility of the military presence of third states in the Caspian, guaranteed Russia’s “backyard” from potentially hostile forces wielding threats to destabilize the most fragile Russian region- Northern Caucasus. Azerbaijan is similarly important for the opportunities it provides for exerting political and economic influence on Iran- it is enough to remember the “North-South” transport corridor project which is supposed to improve Russian connections with Iran and the whole Middle Eastern region, where Moscow desperately tries to remain an influential actor.
Taking all these factors into account, Russia understands very well that the strategic and economic harm from spoiling relations with Azerbaijan, unavoidable in case of her direct support to Armenia, could not be compensated by the closest possible union with Yerevan.
Another key factor which determines Russian approach is Moscow’s complex and controversial ties with Turkey. Most importantly, despite lasting contradictions and the activity of a big anti-Turkish lobby in Russia, the Kremlin values partnership with Erdoğan for his conduct of foreign policy, ostentatiously independent from the West, and willingness to discuss many issues of regional importance directly with Russia, without involving Western interests. Putin’s statement made at the Valdai forum that he feels much at ease working with Erdoğan, matters a lot as such considerations are often decisive in personalist regimes of the Russian kind.
However, along with them there are a number of strategic interests pushing Moscow towards Ankara and discouraging from spoiling ties with her over Karabakh. As the last years’ events have shown, Erdoğan’s ostensibly independent and unpredictable foreign policy has not made the NATO leadership alienate it, despite many expectations and efforts of some member states, such as France. During his recent visit to Ankara, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg confirmed that Turkey remains an important ally and the key member of the Organization. Russia knows that any quarrel with Ankara would only push it closer to the West within the NATO framework, and hardly would like such as scenario to occur. US presidential elections matter as well: Moscow expects that in case of Biden’s probable win the White House will take a harder stance on Turkey, which could inspire Erdoğan for a closer rapprochement with Moscow: the latter would not like to deprive herself of such a historic chance.
Nevertheless, some statements and actions of Russia (primarily its strike on the Syrian fighters’ camp in Turkish-controlled Idlib) delineated her red lines regarding Turkish policy in the post-Soviet countries. In Nagorno-Karabakh these are mostly any territorial threats directed at Armenia, as well as attempts to shift the regional balance of power too radically. But it may well be that the real irritating factor for Russia has not been Karabakh but rather the deepening of Turkey’s military and strategic partnership with Ukraine, including the purchases of Turkish drones which have gained an excellent reputation in Karabakh, and some of its statements on Crimea. Moscow should be concerned that the Ukrainian leadership may take inspiration from the Azerbaijani experience and dare to conduct a similar operation on its own occupied territories. Hence, it is not quite clear that Russian dissatisfaction is caused by Turkey’s role in Karabakh- it had been well known in advance anyway, while rebukes against Ankara could well be mirrored by legitimate comparisons of her help to Baku with support Russia has been lending to the Assad government since 2015.
Apart from these factors, many analysts since the beginning of the fighting have claimed that the major reasons for Russia’s neutrality was her discontent about the Pashinyan government’s policies, its allegedly anti-Russian course and defiant neglect of Moscow’s interests. That’s why President Aliyev in his interviews to Russian information agencies emphasized Pashinyan’s links with the Soros Fund, which in Russia has a status of a symbol of hostile Western encroachment. However, though Pashinyan indeed took a number of bold steps regarding Russia, compared to his predecessors, on the whole he has remained, particularly since last Autumn, within the framework of strategic partnership with Russia and has recently made a number of public statements about the priority attached to this partnership for securing Armenia’s vital interests. Without doubt, Putin has certain distrust towards Pashinyan and must have been irritated by some of his decisions, but hardly has the motivation of “punishing” the untoward leader played a decisive role for Kremlin.
It is worth mentioning that several days ago, the planned trip of Armenia’s former president Kocharyan, considered Putin’s personal friend, to Moscow was cancelled at the last moment officially due to his positive coronavirus test. Many experts suggested that the cancellation actually had to do with Moscow’s unwillingness to promise Armenia tangible support over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the subsequent statement of the first president Ter-Petrossyan hinted at this reality. Armenia’s problem is that it had likely overestimated its weight in Russian politics and thus refused to genuine engage in resolution plans, including the so-called “Lavrov plan” actively promoted in the aftermath of the April 2016 events, in the belief that these offers were made just to create an illusion of negotiations and that in case of a real war Moscow would support her anyway.
Together with these individual considerations, Russia’s current attitude to Nagorno-Karabakh must be also understood within the general logic of contemporary Russian foreign policy. This logic primarily consists of a deliberate refusal from pursuing a long-term strategy in favor of constant tactical shifts which mix aggressive steps with retaliatory ones in order to achieve frequent short-term successes. This unusual foreign policy is deeply connected with the essence of the Russian regime, which, particularly after 2014, links the preservation of a tolerably high level of domestic support with cherishing the image of a great power and successfully defending its interests around the world. Famous political scientist Gleb Pavlovskiy has called the Russian governing elite “survival experts,” in whose list of priorities sustaining reputation comes before genuine pursuit of global ambitions. Growing global volatility, when situational alliances frequently change one another, must have only reassured Kremlin in this vision of the world. Moreover, after a relative failure in Donbass and turning of the “Novorossiya” project into Moscow’s geopolitical burden, unwillingness to get too deeply engaged into hot conflicts became a distinct feature of Russian foreign policy which now in a way parallels U.S. approach of the Obama administration- “not to get into stupid shit.”
The example of French President Macron, who after a couple of ambitious statements over Karabakh had to back down due to his obvious inability to exert influence over the conflict on the ground, thus only harming his reputation, must have served as another warning for Moscow that it is better not to assume responsibilities which are hard to fulfill. So, in the recent years Kremlin quite often takes a “wait-and-see” approach to global affairs and prefers bandwagoning, which in the current situation means strengthening partnership with Baku. Russian foreign policy also prioritizes pragmatic partners who speak the language of power and bilateral agreements, to the vague statements of common values and multilateral responsibilities. That’s why current rhetoric of Armenia, based on “duties of an ally” and civilizational affinity could have hardly evoked much sympathy in Moscow. Many outside observers get misled by a certain predominance of pro-Armenian figures among Russian politicians and experts over pro-Azerbaijani ones and draw conclusions about a respective foreign policy orientation. These conclusions do not take into account the fact that in terms of its impact on foreign policy decisions, lobbyism in Russia cannot be compared to the West, particularly the United States. They are rather determined by quite a narrow circle of people in the Kremlin who act upon their own considerations rather than the influence of outside powers.
Finally, the issue of Russian arms export to Armenia, continuing throughout the whole period of fighting, must be thrown light on. Speaking about it in some of his interviews, President Aliyev hinted that only this arms flow can explain the fact that the supplies of the Armenian side have not completely dried despite its gigantic losses. The maps show the rapidly increased frequency of flights from some Russian cities, primarily Rostov-on-Don, to Yerevan. This issue probably the most delicate one between the two countries right now and has provoked certain fears in Baku of a direct military intervention. But here, some things must be noted.
First of all, Armenia remains Russia’s military ally under the CSTO umbrella, so Moscow will hardly want Yerevan to suffer a too bad defeat- it could both deprive Russia of leverage in Armenia after the conflict is over and harm her reputation in the other partners’ eyes. Russia would like to show to the both parties that it still plays the key role in the region and Baku cannot rely exclusively on itself and Turkey for the final solution of the conflict. Secondly, there is no detailed public information about the models and quality of weapons currently exported to Armenia. Yerevan’s gap from Baku in terms of technical and strategic preparedness in the current war is so huge that relentless supplies of small arms and artillery shells may only delay the inevitable, but not reverse the course of the fighting in the situation when the skies are almost fully controlled by the Azerbaijani army whose precise strikes destroy the rival’s air defense systems, heavy weaponry and mass of fighters. And thirdly, there is such an issue as allied inertia which is typical for long-term partner relations. Its most illustrative example can be found in the US-Israeli relations during the Obama presidency when, in spite of a profound political cooling and the White House’s discontent with Netanyahu’s “hawkish” policies, military support provided by U.S. reached its highest level in history. Such modes of cooperation react very slowly to changing political environment and depends on the extant procedures and executive interests. Hence, arms supplies must not be interpreted as a signal of Moscow’s military intentions.