Azerbaijan Coerces Nagorno-Karabakh While Armenia Plays Russian Roulette

If matters worsen for Armenia, Russia may offer the ultimate trade of sovereignty for security.

The Republic of Armenia has been under attack by Azerbaijan. Baku may not halt its aggression any time soon. If matters worsen for Armenia, Russia may offer the ultimate trade of sovereignty for security.

The West needs to understand that Armenia, a rising democratic state, strongly linked to Western businesses in IT and ranked 11 out of 165 in the world for economic freedom, is significantly vulnerable to larger powers of the region and dependent on authoritarian Russia and Iran for assistance. Each is facing its own domestic issues and cannot be depended on by Yerevan for certain defense assistance.

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Armenian suffered military and civilian casualties in the thousands since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War (“2nd N-K War”). Armenia is an allied treaty member with Russia under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). However, CSTO’s most powerful member is also allies with Azerbaijan.  Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Azerbaijan a “strategic ally” two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So, any media labeling that Russia and Armenia are exclusive allies in the South Caucasus misses the mark.

How did Armenia’s security situation become so dependent on Russia?

The relationship formed as an Armenian short-term solution during the turbulent post-Soviet 1990s, through today and exacerbated into long-term weakness. The year was 1993. Armenia was strongly positioned after winning the 1st N-K War following a Soviet referendum in the N-K Oblast to separate from Stalin’s incorporation into the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Post-Soviet Russia was the target of heavy discontent due to Azerbaijani nationalism.

According to the memoirs of former Greek Ambassador to Armenia, Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos, Armenia’s modern security dependence on Russia was conceived under the guise of thwarting a Turkish invasion in October 1993. The Ambassador writes:

[Armenian] President Levon Ter-Petrosyan was convinced, based on information that he had received from serval sources, that Turkey would try to take advantage of serious events within Russia in order to occupy Armenia, using as a pretext either the Kurdish question or the protection of the Nakhichevan enclave. He had intelligence reports that the Turkish National Security Council had recently examined the possibility of the Turkish army’s making incursions into Iraq and Armenia in order to eliminate PKK guerillas. That same evening, Turkish Armed Forces penetrated Iraq in hot pursuit of PKK fighters.

Levon Ter-Petrosyan, a historian, son to Armenian Genocide survivors and raised outside his homeland, probably was biased to think that Turkey (which at that time and today denies the Armenian Genocide’s existence) would use Kurdish insurgents as casus belli to attack Armenia. Boris Yeltsin, President of the new Russian Federation, was seeking political legitimacy from the broken former Soviet republics, so the two found common interest. Armenia garnered Russian troops on the Turkish-Armenian border while Yeltsin gained a political ally from one of the first post-Soviet republics. This short era likely marked the highest point in Armenian-Russian relations.

What Ter-Petrosyan did not conceive, probably, was a long-term trade of security for Armenia’s sovereignty and prosperity. Armenia throughout the 1990s and into the 2010s essentially became a de facto client state of Russia. To oversimplify many studies and books written on the “Age of the Oligarchs”, Russian-Armenian relations were very friendly, but at the cost of corruption and crime (including one Russian soldier’s murder of Armenian civilians).

Then in 2018 ascended the Moscow skeptic and reformer journalist Nikol Pashinyan in the “Velvet Revolution”. Once he was elected Prime Minister under a new constitutional system, Pashinyan focused attention on reforming systemic Russian corruption. Yet Moscow became less enthusiastic about their Armenian relationship as Pashinyan levied the power of the state to go after his former rivals. Some of Pashinyan’s critics today cite his focus on defeating rivals over strengthening the national security situation.

Azerbaijan’s 2020 Gambit

Armenia under the rule of Russian loyal leaders never solved its paramount security priority to protect ethnic brethren in the self-proclaimed “Republic of Artsakh” (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic). In spring 2020, when Azerbaijan and Armenia fought in the internationally recognized Republic of Armenia, Tavush province, Moscow was absent to support Yerevan. Could this have been due to Pashinyan’s anti-Russian reforms?

The answer is irrelevant. The most import takeaway is that Russian apathy towards its treaty-ally arguably led Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to rationally conclude: If Russia was absent to defend Armenian recognized territory, Russia would almost certainly not defend Armenian “self-proclaimed” territory of in the “Republic of Artsakh”. So brutal realpolitik enabled Azerbaijan’s attack on ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh in the fall of that same year, the 2nd N-K War.

However, Azerbaijan did not secure an outright strategic victory on the claimed territory. Today Russian “peacekeepers” permeate what remains of the “Republic of Artsakh”, but it is impossible for Armenian citizens to reach Armenian ethnic population in the Republic of Artsakh without crossing into Azerbaijani territory. The blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the region’s only Armenia to “Republic of Artsakh” route has almost daily been cutoff, as many inside the unrecognized country called for a Berlin Wall airlift of humanitarian aid.

In 2020, Baku had to decide if it was willing to risk attacking Russian military to secure a strategic victory. Yet, in early 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, morale turned in President Aliyev’s favor.

The already non-committal ally Russia arguably became distracted to either diplomatically or militarily thwart Azerbaijani aggression in Baku’s effort to take Nagorno-Karabakh. Then, this past September, Azerbaijan launched successful attacks on Armenian civilian locations, occupied more land, and according to human rights groups, committed war crimes such as desecration of a female soldier and execution of a prisoner of war.

The Price of Force for Perceived Gain

Could the matter become worse for Yerevan if Baku concludes that the cost of attacking Armenia and seizing Nagorno-Karabakh is less than the perceived gain?

The answer is grim when analyzing the situation from a Westphalian point of view. Ethnic cleansing of Armenians just over a century after the Genocide is dependent on authoritarian Russia. Moscow is allied with Azerbaijan and Armenia and calls itself a “peacekeeper”, yet the term “piece keeper” may be more appropriate (See work by Thomas De Waalon how Moscow prefers frozen conflicts in its near abroad to exert maximum influence).

If for the sake of argument, Russia is presently “neutral” in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the following are 4 notional scenarios wherein Russia moderately or highly supports Armenia or Azerbaijan (note: these scenarios are not necessarily mutually exclusive).

Scenario A: Russia Strongly Supports Armenia to Save CSTO Prestige

Assessed to be the least likely scenario.

Russia’s war in Ukraine may not only cost their sphere of influence in the South Caucasus, but also in Central Asia. The unequivocal CSTO leader President Putin and the Kremlin may decide that an Armenian defeat would destroy CSTO’s legitimacy to Russia’s other security dependents like Kazakhstan to flee to alternatives such as Turkey or China.

In 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered security support to Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s riots. Turkey would have deployed troops through the “Organization of Turkic States”, a rising fraternal coalition of Turkic nations which may play spoiler to Russia and China in Central Asia for decades to come. This year, China backed Kazakhstan for its refusal to support Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. Finally, Kazakhstani President Tokayev changed his country’s alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin which may indicate a desire to break from the Russian socio-political sphere.

Russia in this scenario would deploy all available integrated air-defense systems (IADS) including MiGs to shoot down any Azerbaijani drones in the N-K area of responsibility.  Russia would declare itself the guarantor power of what remains of Armenian held N-K territory, including the Lachin corridor, while threating Azerbaijan with force or trade standstill for any further encroachment. Moscow would not seek concessions from Yerevan because it would view saving CSTO’s other members from fleeing its sphere of influence as a higher priority than re-claiming dominance in Armenian politics.

Scenario B: Russia Moderately Supports Armenia to Reclaim Influence over Yerevan

A plausible scenario.

In a notional grand bargain, Armenian Prime Minister and Moscow skeptic Nikol Pashinyan would resign to acquire Russian permanent guarantor power status of remaining “Republic of Artsakh” territory. Russian President Putin would threaten Baku of retaliation should Azerbaijan take another meter of territory. Moscow would also permanently control the Lachin Corridor.

Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan would use the power of the state to drop all investigations of Armenian-Russian corruption past and present and curtail any sentences against the convicted. Finally, Pashinyan could unilaterally proclaim that the Armenian Government would not recognize the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which recently warranted Russian President Vladimir Putin for arrest.

However, the major problem for Pashinyan’s trade of justice for security cuts through his very own life experience, where he was jailed as a political prisoner during a very Moscow loyal era of Armenian politics. To drop his legacy for the sake of Armenian territorial integrity in Nagorno-Karabakh, the region of his political persecutors and rivals, would highly contrast the former journalist’s revolutionary identity. But even a forgiving Pashinyan himself probably could not rebuild the damage done to Russian-Armenian relations, which have never been more distrustful. These could resume once again, but it would be highly suspect by the Kremlin and the disapproving domestic Armenian population. Western-Armenian economic relations could also destabilize.

Scenario C: Russia Moderately Supports Azerbaijan to Retain Regional Power Broker Status

Assessed to be the most likely scenario.

Moscow would negotiate directly with Baku to tacitly support Azerbaijani military advance into the Armenian population centers of Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia may also use negotiations as an opportunity for Azerbaijan to tamper harsh rhetoric or action against Iran.

Most importantly, the deal would be caveated for Russia to retain a permanent Russian military base in N-K. Russia would establish a humanitarian corridor through Lachin to evacuate +100,000 Armenians to the Republic of Armenia. Moscow would claim to the international community that it prevented ethnic cleansing through guaranteed safe passage and now is a major broker of tranquility in the South Caucasus, using the “resolved” Nagorno-Karabakh question as the final lynchpin for a lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Armenian PM Nikol Pahinyan’s government would be overthrown and replaced by a new one. Yerevan would probably be run by a very fragile caretaker government in combination of Moscow friendly political parties and Western friendly parties supported by the influential tech sector. Humanitarian calamities would be unaccounted for and rampant if the West allowed this scenario to play out.

Scenario D: Russia Strongly Supports Azerbaijan to Conspire and Annex Armenia

 A plausible scenario.

Russia would support Baku to use military force to seize the remaining Armenian population centers of Nagorno-Karabakh and would order peacekeepers to stand down. Moscow would only demonstrate mercy to Armenia through the coercion to join the Union State of Russia and Belarusan outright annexation.

This nightmare ultimatum for Armenian sovereignty could unfold if (1) Azerbaijani operational success severely cripples the moral of the Armenian Armed Forces, (2) Baku made rapid gains in Nagorno-Karabakh, (3) Armenian civilian casualties are high, and (4) Azerbaijan connects its exclaves in northwestern Republic of Armenia territory. Baku’s success would set the stage for an all-out assault from both Azerbaijani sides of the “Zanzigur” Corridor in southern Republic of Armenia.

The logic to trade sovereignty for security would follow if Moscow suddenly gained the leverage to offer Yerevan an off-ramp: join the Union State of Russia and Belarus or suffer another genocide and territorial forfeiture.

Russia would recoup its 60,000 ethnic citizens who reside in Armenia since the start of the 2022 Ukraine-Russia War (about 780,000 have passed through the country), including many who restarted tech businesses which now cooperate with the West. Moreover, Moscow would reclaim strategically important territory it once controlled during the Soviet Era which borders Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan and Georgia, another nation whose land is under partial control by Russian proxy.

Although Iran has made many rhetorical guarantees to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border demarcation as permanent, Moscow could save Tehran a hot war with Baku as the status quo of the new Iranian-Russian border would operate the same as the Iranian-Armenian border.

Russia could also garner a tariff through a newly constructed road between Azerbaijan’s west exclave and eastern mainland. The United States and Europe would also lose a deeply embed and vital Armenian partner in the tech sector including software, artificial intelligence research, semiconductor design and data science. Russia would annex former Soviet Union territory without firing a shot and President Putin could bolster his legacy as a revanchist hero.

Wildcards and Gaps

Many unknowns surround how Turkey, the European Union writ large and the United States each individually play into these scenarios.

We have seen reports of Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, but it seems that drivers point to anything except full normalization. The question on Turkey’s support to Azerbaijan in the region should not be phrased as “if” but “how much”. Turkish election season is ramping up for incumbent and Neo-Ottoman ideologue President Erdogan. His previous unconcealed rhetoric towards assisting Azerbaijan has been well received domestically and throughout the Turkic world.  The Turkish-Armenian land border partially opened when Armenia sent humanitarian aid to Turkey. Yet, Turkey and Azerbaijan are close in military and ideology.

It should not be hard for a Westerner to conclude that Turkey prioritizes relations, trade, weapons sales, and influence with Azerbaijan over normalization with Armenia – especially if it came to a zero-sum issue such as another Azerbaijan-Armenia war. For those that disagree, they should research the nations who do and do not recognize the Armenian Genocide as a historical fact.

The European Union faces hurdles in securing peace because of its economic dependence on Azerbaijan as a non-Russian gas supplier. Any attempts by the EU or individual member states to economically sanction Baku would net increased gas prices. It is also highly unlikely that any member state would challenge the status quo to replace Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh with EU member states, given EU members’ overlapping commitments to Ukraine via NATO.

This leaves the US with a once-in-a-century opportunity to secure peace and balance of power in the South Caucasus.  Armenia’s strategic desire to incorporate with the Western world has not been seen since the Armenian Genocide survivors and France in the aftermath of WWI. Failure to garner peace would probably cost the West a rising Armenian democracy to Russian oligarchy and furthermore, a vital partner to the tech sector including software, artificial intelligence research, semiconductor design, and data science.

Peace in Caucasus as Beginning to the End of the Russia-Ukraine War?

Current US Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy, previously the US Ambassador to Armenia, once stated the US is ready to work with Russia bilaterally on an Armenia-Azerbaijan peace deal. Though the comment did not make headlines in major Western news outlets, Ambassador Tracy’s long-shot idea may be the best confidence-building measure between the West and Russia as everyone benefits from peace and stability.

If the West remains idle on this issue, Russia may emerge the victor of the 2022-2023 Ukraine-Russia War with new territory in not only one but two former Soviet republics.

Jack Dulgarian

Jack Dulgarian is an independent analyst focusing on security, cultural, political, and economic issues in Eastern Europe and the Near East. He has worked in the defense industry, Capitol Hill, and a refugee humanitarian foundation based out of Athens, Greece.

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