Russia blanks Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Russia blanks Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
Azerbaijan’s invasion of the ethnic Armenian breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has put Russia, Armenia’s long-time ally, on the spot. / bne IntelliNews
By Zack Weiss in Tbilisi September 23, 2023

Azerbaijan’s invasion of the ethnic Armenian breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has put Russia, Armenia’s long-time ally, on the spot. Yet, even if Azerbaijan has taken brutal advantage of Russia’s current weakness,  defending Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh are also no longer in line with Moscow’s evolving interests.

Russia’s role has historically been to defend and provide aid to Armenia. Russian forces helped Armenia establish Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto independence in the early 1990s and Russia’s huge influence in the South Caucasus subsequently helped freeze the dispute. When Azerbaijan invaded in 2020 Moscow intervened to end the war and then sent 2,000 peacekeepers to maintain the peace.

Yet now, distracted by the Ukraine quagmire, it has failed to prevent the invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, and its peacekeepers then stood by while Azerbaijan attacked. Kremlin and Russia’s state-dominated media now blame Armenia for the war and refuse to accept any responsibility.

But the two countries remain closely tied. Russia and Armenia are both members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led rival of Nato, though not nearly as powerful or cooperative.

Russia is also among Armenia’s most significant trade partners, and research has shown that Armenia has become increasingly reliant on Russia economically, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

Now a significant contingent of Russian expatriates live in Yerevan, having relocated after the war began and when Russia began conscription of Russian men for the war effort.

These factors may incentivise Russia to remain on good terms with, or even work to maintain an alliance with Armenia, but stronger incentives exist for Russia to look elsewhere.

Strained relations

Russia has limited reasons to come to Armenia’s defence, as Yerevan in recent years has strengthened its ties with the United States and other Nato allies, even training with Nato to strengthen its own military.

Since Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power in 2018, he has strained relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin. He criticised Armenia’s reliance on Russia for security, made moves to join the International Criminal Court (which issued an arrest warrant for Putin), and allowed Nato troops to conduct military exercises with Armenian troops.

As Pashinyan’s cooperation with the West has grown more evident, American interest in Armenia has grown, too. American Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Yerevan almost exactly a year before the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, choosing not to visit Baku, and condemning Azerbaijani attacks that had killed Armenians. A year prior, President Joe Biden became the first President of the United States to recognise the mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. 

On September 20, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Pashinyan about the conflict. According to an official statement, Blinken emphasised that “the United States is calling on Azerbaijan to immediately cease hostilities and return to dialogue immediately. He told Prime Minister Pashinyan the United States fully supports Armenia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.” 

The United States, though choosing not to involve itself much, is clearly taking a side. It would be a strategic blunder for Russia to ignore the growing partnership between Yerevan and Washington.

Moscow also has little to gain from peacemaking. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has dragged on for over a year and a half. Russia’s status as a promoter of peace anywhere, especially near its borders, holds no credibility. Even the nations that seem to support Russia now do so almost exclusively out of economic need and political pressure, not because they believe modern Nazis rule Ukraine and Russia needs to defend its own people, as Putin argued just before the invasion began.

For Russia, moderating conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan could in no way reset its image. Any humiliation Russia faces over this smaller conflict pales in comparison to the battering its image has taken over Ukraine.

Russia also has an interest in replacing Armenia’s leadership. Whether staying close with Russia or making a harder turn towards the United States would have prevented the Azerbaijani attack is unknowable. But Pashinyan and his government are being blamed domestically for the outcome of the conflict, and he may face impeachment and potential removal from office. Most of the blame is on Pashinyan, who was already unpopular, and whose chances of clinging to power are fading daily.

Pashinyan’s ejection from office could provide a reset for Russia that they are hoping for: a chance to course correct and provide new incentives to a leader to side with Russia and for Moscow to regain its leverage over the country.

As the United States’ role in Armenia shifts, and as the war in Ukraine will regain the spotlight soon, Russia’s incentives in Armenia are unlikely to change for the time being. For now, Russia lacks a strong reason to back Armenia or even damp down the latest Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.