Armenia’s strategic ally is keeping quiet – but may be playing a longer game
Moscow’s relative silence over the growing Nagorny Karabakh crisis, which has seen the worst fighting since a ceasefire agreed in 1994, is worrying analysts in Yerevan.
While Azerbaijan’s staunch ally Turkey has stood by Baku and rejected the Minsk Group’s calls for a ceasefire and the restart of negotiations, Armenia’s strategic partner Russia has remained largely silent.
The day after the renewed fighting broke out on September 27, a Kremlin spokesman said that that Russia had always maintained a balanced position on the conflict and would use its cordial bilateral relations to help resolve it.
On October 5, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary reiterated that Russia had no plans to negotiate between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center think-tank, said that Russia had long attempted to balance its ties with both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“Moscow, largely considered as the most influential and concerned international actor in the Karabakh conflict, shies away from speeding up solutions on the one hand - and sells weapons to both sides on the other hand,” he said.
Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan, Giragosian continued, exacerbated many Armenians’ view that Moscow failed to value Yerevan as a true ally. The situation in Karabakh had now become part of Russia’s broader competition for influence with Turkey.
Laurence Broers, Caucasus director at the London-based NGO Conciliation Resources, noted that it was Russia’s discounted weapons sales to Armenia enabled Yerevan to maintain a rivalry with a larger, richer adversary with a bigger defence budget.
“Simultaneous weapons sales to Azerbaijan enable Russia to argue that it is ostensibly neutral, and that weapons sales are consistent with being a mediator - as well as making money,” Broers said.
Armenia is a member state of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) whose mandate states that “aggression against one signatory would be perceived as aggression against all”. Thus far, however, the CSTO has not signaled any readiness to get involved.
Arman Abovyan, a Prosperous Armenia lawmaker, told the Good Time Armenia website that the CSTO intervened only if asked to. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told reporters that turning to CSTO for help would be “a political decision”.
Political analyst Armen Chibukhchyan agreed that an Armenian request for the CSTO to intercede would carry a political price.
Rather than even issuing a warning statement to Azerbaijan when Armenia’s borders were violated, the organisation waited silently for Armenia to request its help, continued Chibukhchyan. This was, in effect, the Kremlin sending Armenia a message about the possibility of sending Russian peacekeepers to Karabakh or accepting massively increased Russian control “in exchange for saving us”.
“This is a precondition for support, a ransom they want,” he continued. “By not asking, Pashinyan is doing a favour to the CSTO as it will bring that entity into disrepute.”
Broers noted that the CSTO was a largely untested entity as far as active conflict prevention was concerned. This reflected the reality that, rather than constituting a conventional security alliance, the CSTO was essentially a forum for Russian power and the negotiation of bilateral relations between its members and Russia under the guise of multilateralism.
Giragosian told IWPR that the CSTO had now entered a pronounced “crisis of confidence,” with Armenian-Russian relations challenged over the asymmetry and lack of balance in the relationship.
“After years of mounting over-reliance on Russia, coupled with a steady mortgaging of Armenia’s sovereignty and independence, there is a new sense of deep frustration in Armenia with Russian arrogance,” Giragosian said.
Soon after the war broke out, allegations began to mount that Turkey had imported militants from Syria and Libya to fight in Karabakh.
Chibukchyan said that Azerbaijan and Turkey could not have arranged such a deployment without Russia’s knowledge, as it amounted to an incursion into Russia’s zone of influence.
“Russia would have made strong, even bellicose statements,” he said. “Instead Moscow followed the military developments for a few days and offered a means of salvation through its political elite and media puppets, a humiliating deal – salvation in exchange for statehood.”
These message were being made clear via avenues such as Russia’s English language state-run TV channel RT. On September 28, its editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan tweeted that “In the Moscow drawing rooms they are discussing that Armenia is either doomed to return to Russia or doomed."
Sos Avetisyan, a lawmaker with the ruling My Step faction, told IWPR that Russia’s position was “the same as in previous wars”. He said that Russia remained Armenia’s most important ally and “might not have known” about foreign fighters in the region.
Moscow blamed Ankara for “pouring oil on the fire” after the latter declared its intention of supporting Azerbaijan immediately after the war started. But by militarizing the region Russia directly or indirectly fuels the arms race itself and does little to defuse tensions that threaten to run beyond the conflict zone.
Giragosian argued that Russia’s position was one of weakness rather than strength.
“Clearly, the Karabakh conflict remains the simplest instrument for leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Armenia as a willing recipient of Russian security promises and discounted weapons and Moscow now as the number one arms provider to Azerbaijan,” he said.
Chibukhchyan said that Russia realized that if it did not intercede at some point, other players would enter the region and this would deal a serious blow to Russia’s reputation as well its influence.
“If Russia fails to stop the bloodshed, it cannot be ruled out that the conflict’s geography will expand and turn into a larger war,” he continued. “Now it’s time for Russia to prove to the world that it still has influence in this region and can manage it. Failing to do so will undermine its influence and may cause the conflict to spread.”