Russia losing its influence? Nagorno-Karabakh fighting tests limits.
Scientists of the post-Soviet region often say that the collapse of the USSR is an ongoing process, and many surprises are still to come. The sudden outbreak of a large-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan almost two weeks ago is exactly what they are talking about.
For almost three decades, large parts of the once cross-continental Soviet colossus have drifted from its former center of power in Moscow into the orbits of more traditional regional powers. In the West, states like Ukraine and Belarus are drawn to more successful European neighbors. In the east, China has tacitly expanded its leverage over the former Soviet states of Central Asia.
Thanks to the assertive resurgence of another traditional regional power, Turkey, which is firmly linked to Azerbaijan, the South Caucasus region could be torn from Moscow's sphere of influence. This is an indication that the apparent collapse of the foreseeable world order is affecting not only the West, but also countries like Russia.
Russia on the verge
Since a Russia-brokered ceasefire in 1994 ended the first major Armenian-Azerbaijani war over the controversial Armenian-settled enclave Nagorno-Karabakh - which is legal Azerbaijani territory - Moscow has been monitoring a troubled status quo that kept Armenia and the country triumphant territorial gains largely intact in this war. Although Russia has a formal military alliance and other close ties with Armenia, in practice it has maintained good relations with both sides and has even been the main arms supplier for both countries. That gave a lot of influence. When the last major round of Nagorno-Karabakh fighting exploded in 2016, Moscow was able to force the two sides to withdraw within a week and accept a full ceasefire.
That won't happen this time. Thanks to Turkish armaments, advice, diplomatic assistance, and the widespread introduction of thousands of Turkish-allied Syrian fighters into the combat zone, Azerbaijan believes it can continue its war to regain what it sees as its lost territories without turning to Russian authority to bow.
This new reality has already led the Kremlin to step back and declare that the fighting is not its direct concern as long as it only takes place in Armenian-occupied areas that are internationally recognized as Azerbaijanis. Despite a strong, NATO-like military alliance with Russia and some 2,500 Russian troops stationed on its territory, it is impossible for Armenia to get Russia on its side unless Azerbaijan attacks Armenia. So far Russia has limited itself to calling for a ceasefire together with the USA and France. All three form the largely toothless Minsk Group, which has been tasked with regulating the conflict for almost 30 years.
Russian experts say Moscow faces a difficult dilemma. Trying to bring Azerbaijan to a ceasefire, which, as in the past, preserves the territorial advantages of the Armenians, risks losing Baku to Turkish influence forever. The Armenian side could increase the odds on the battlefield but lead to a disastrous regional war between Russia and Turkey. At the very least, it would destroy the complicated relationship that Vladimir Putin has built with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has brought Russia many geopolitical advantages and profitable economic deals.
"The damage to the old status quo is already irreparable," says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian Council for International Affairs, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “It has changed to the detriment of Russia and requires a rethink in how Russia interacts with these former Soviet countries. It may also be necessary to find a new understanding with Turkey. "
This is the third regional conflict after Syria and Libya in which Russia and Turkey support opposing sides. Somehow, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdoğan managed to overcome their contradictions while pursuing their own conflicting national interests.
"Since Russia and Turkey clashed in Syria five years ago, commentators have predicted it will be drastic," says Kortunov. “Now the equilibrium is more unstable than ever. But don't underestimate the things that drive them to collaborate. An open confrontation would be catastrophic for both of them. On the positive side, they share a similar view of the world, that their attitudes towards the West are consistent, that they have built significant economic ties and, at least so far, have found ways to manage their rivalry in Syria and to some extent in Libya. If Russia can accept Turkey as an actor in a region that it used to have to itself, the South Caucasus, there is every reason to hope that this complex mixture of cooperation and competition can work there too. "
A bitter conflict
There are no new polls to show the attitude of the Russian public towards the current struggles. The last time a near-war outbreak broke out in 2016, polls showed Russians were largely indifferent. A significant minority supported Armenia and a slightly smaller number sympathized with Azerbaijan. This reflects the large diaspora of both ethnic groups in Russia: around 3 million Armenians and 2 million Azeris.
The Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, now known as the Artsakh Republic, is a hotly contested area that is claimed by both Armenians and Azeris as the cradle of their national cultures. Armenians are an ancient Christian civilization that has left its mark on the entire region, despite the fact that the once huge Armenian population in what is now Turkey was largely exterminated by a brutal genocide by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. Azeris are an ethnically Turkish people whose language is close to Turkish, but mostly Shiite Muslims, reflecting their long historical immersion in the former Persian Empire. Armenia is a burgeoning democracy, while Azerbaijan is ruled by a post-Soviet dynastic autocracy.
For Azerbaijanis, who are 3-1 more Armenians, the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other regions to Armenia in the 1988-94 war was a national humiliation that also resulted in an influx of nearly one million refugees from Armenian-occupied zones. These refugees still live in abandoned camps, some within sight of their former villages, and remain a burning issue that keeps the government alive. Speaking to the Monitor and other journalists a few years ago, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev explained in detail how he would bide his time and use the country's oil wealth to build his armed forces until the time was ripe to regain the lost territories. "Azerbaijan's territorial integrity is not a matter of negotiation," he said at the time.
Ilgar Velizade, a Baku-based political expert, says the time has come.
"Our mobilization resources are far greater than those of Armenia," he says. "We are a rich country with gas and oil, and we can even produce our own weapons and buy them abroad. Armenia is completely dependent on Russia. Unfortunately, things are unlikely to change peacefully in the near future as the Armenians do." Resist and refuse to give up the land they have conquered. As long as there are Armenian forces on Azerbaijani soil, the war will continue. "
Mr. Velizade is satisfied with Russia's hands-off approach. "Russia is maintaining its position as an effective moderator by avoiding anti-Azerbaijani or anti-Armenian statements," he said. “If there is to be a diplomatic solution to this situation, it must be found according to principles long affirmed by the United Nations and the Minsk Group, which oblige Armenia to withdraw from the territories it occupies and then status from Nagorno. Karabakh should be decided by the common will of the Armenian and Azerbaijani people. "
"Russia must make a clear choice"
The mood in Armenia is very different. Although the armed forces are reportedly charging a heavy price to the advancing Azeris, they are suffering heavy losses from Turkish-Israeli-built drones and other sophisticated weapons that have been made available to Azerbaijan in recent years.
"Azerbaijan chose a moment when all the other countries were preoccupied with their own problems and nobody cares about the South Caucasus," says Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the Independent Caucasus Institute in Yerevan. “In Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the attitude of Russia is causing a negative emotional reaction. We can understand the Russians in the face of new realities. They need both Armenia and Azerbaijan for their own reasons. So Russia does not have a choice of making a choice. As a result, Russia's image suffers and it could lose one or both of its customers in the South Caucasus.
The time for Moscow's fence sitting could be running out, if only for practical reasons. After two weeks of intense fighting, both sides will need a supply of weapons, spare parts and ammunition for their Russian-made weapons. For Armenia, which is completely dependent on Russian weapons, it is likely to get critical soon.
“Russia has to make a clear decision. Who will it support? “Says Alexander Golts, an independent Russian security expert. "Whatever it decides, it is a potential catastrophe for Russia's role in the South Caucasus."
The explainer Turkey stirs the pot? Why Armenians, Azeris are fighting again.
First look Armenia and Azerbaijan meet the disputed region again
In Armenia a democratic revolution that nobody noticed
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