Russia appears willing to allow Azerbaijan to recapture some areas around Nagorno-Karabakh, betting on Armenian dependency and Azerbaijani gratitude.
The ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan around Nagorno-Karabakh is throwing a spotlight on a new paradox in Russian foreign policy: Russia seems to have been more outraged by the European Union signing a free trade deal with Ukraine in 2013 than by Azerbaijan and Turkey fighting Armenia, a Russian military ally and close partner.
Moscow has spent more than a decade carefully crafting the image of a great power that jealously polices its droit de regard in most of the post-Soviet space, and that of a power that sticks with its allies for better or worse – be it Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, or Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus. But Russia’s reaction to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seems a major reversal of both of these tenets of Russian geopolitics. Why has Russia refrained from being at least more diplomatically supportive of Armenia, a fellow member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation? And why do Russian foreign policy statements on the war sound meeker and less critical of Turkey and Azerbaijan, and less supportive of Armenia, than those of countries such as France?
There are several reasons for this apparent paradox. In recent years, Russia – like other international mediators in the Minsk groups – has been become increasingly frustrated with Armenian intransigence in talks over Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2011 the sides agreed on the so-called Madrid Principles, under which Armenia would cede control of seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and engage in talks about the status of the territory itself. The ball was in Armenia’s court when it came to making progress towards the implementation of those principles. Yet the country has maintained a status quo in the conflict that serves it well but looks untenable – continuing to control Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other Azerbaijani districts.
Russia’s rather neutral reaction to recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan reflects exasperation with its ally’s inflexibility in negotiations. There is a perception in Moscow that, in the last two decades, the balance of power has shifted in favour of Azerbaijan – and that, instead of adhering to a more or less acceptable deal, Armenia has been unreasonable and uncompromising. Russia does not want to pick up the geopolitical tab for that. When I asked a Russian interlocutor why Moscow isn’t more supportive of its ally, they responded in even starker terms: “NATO isn’t supposed to support Turkey’s military adventures in foreign lands, be it northern Syria or Libya, right? So, why should Russia support Armenian military adventures in foreign, Azeri, lands?”
The other issue affecting the Russian response seems to have been the current Armenian government – which came to power after large-scale street protests in 2018, much to Russia’s barely concealed displeasure. Russia’s irritation with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is probably not the main reason for its reluctance to support Armenia more assertively, but it is certainly an important factor.
So, will Russia just stand by and watch its ally be defeated? Yes and no. Moscow’s current calculation seems to be that it can have its geopolitical cake and eat it. By holding off, Russia seems to be offering Azerbaijan some time and space to regain territories that are legally part of Azerbaijan but that have been under Armenian control since 1994.
And what about Armenia? From a Russian standpoint, the country will have few options other than to stick with Russia. Even if other states might sound supportive of it now, Armenia knows that Russia remains the only country that would deploy troops to defend it. So, even if Russia lets Azerbaijan recapture some territories, Armenia will have to remain a loyal Russian ally.
It is also very likely that Russia signalled its red lines to Azerbaijan and Turkey, one of which is that Armenia’s internationally recognised border should not be touched. It is less clear if a potential Azeri attempt to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh would cross another of these red lines. It probably would – even though President Vladimir Putin has said that Russia’s security guarantees to Armenia do not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh. If the war escalates – leading to either a dire humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh or a major offensive on Armenia’s internationally recognised border – Russia will be forced to intervene. If the conflict becomes an existential threat to Armenia, Russia is certain to act. But none of these scenarios has come about – yet.
To be sure, Russia’s reluctance to come out more strongly in support of Armenia has gained international attention. And it has significantly damaged Russia’s image in Armenia. This image has been deteriorating for several years. But, of course, such factors matter much more in consolidated democracies in the EU than in parts of the world where public opinion is important but, ultimately, does not always shape foreign policy. In other words, for Moscow, it is good if the population has pro-Russian sentiments, but it is not an absolute goal. Russia can absorb a measure of unpopularity.
To a degree, Russia can hit two birds with one stone by accepting a limited war in which Azerbaijan recaptures some territory but does not existentially threaten Armenia. This does a major service to Azerbaijan without really losing Armenia, which has nowhere to go. Yet such positioning has its costs. Many in the South Caucasus and beyond will remember the spectacle of Russia declining to help an ally, a power such as Turkey allegedly engaging in direct military action against this ally, and Russian foreign policy statements resembling those of countries with limited interests in the region. And, even though Russia does not necessarily do so out of weakness or an inability to take a tougher line on Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh war shows the degree to which Russia’s short-term geopolitical calculations can make it ignore the interests of long-standing allies.
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