Two roles, One Play: Russia’s Dilemma in Nagorno-Karabakh

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

Two weeks ago, the echoes of war once again resounded in the South Caucasus Mountains and a new page in the twenty-plus-years history of the Nagorno-Karabakh deadlock was turned.

Between April 2nd and 5th, the region witnessed an unprecedented violation of the ceasefire that had been in place since May 1994, when it was established in an agreement signed between all parties involved in the conflict. This dramatic escalation in violence on both sides, without exaggeration, can be characterized as warfare.

For the first time since the end of the Karabakh War, the frontline has been moved. According to government officials, as well as media reports from both sides, the Azerbaijani forces using heavy artillery, tanks, and air power, managed to take over and hold areas in the north and south of the territory controlled by Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh forces.

In a counterattack that followed shortly after, Armenian troops with no less lethal weapons reclaimed their previous positions, though reports from Baku indicate that the Azerbaijani forces maintained their control of at least one strategic height in southern Karabakh which was captured during the ‘4-days war’.

Armenian military authorities, in their turn, deny that the Azerbaijanis gained control any new “strategically important” positions. Whatever the actual case, this few-hundred-meter change of the frontline resulted in more than one hundred lost lives, with some unofficial reports suggesting that the actual number may include more than two hundred people, including military servicemen and civilians from both sides.

On April 5, after a top-level diplomatic intervention, Moscow succeeded in persuading both sides to agree to a temporary ceasefire. However, the constant reoccurrence of violence and rising casualty numbers testify to the fact that maintaining stability has become an exceedingly difficult task.

The main factor that has thus far provided for the maintenance of the status quo is the mechanism of mutual deterrence, which is based on the balance of the military capacity of the Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. This balance has been achieved and sustained by Russia’s intensive military and technical cooperation with both Baku and Yerevan. The growing number of military arms, including modern offensive weapons, has worked to gradually transform the conflict potential in the region in an unpredictable manner as thousands of loaded guns are now pointing at each other, and may go off at any time.

In this scenario, the war will be far more destructive than it was in the beginning of the 1990s, when the two sides fought with whatever arms were available — often obsolete weapons pulled from forgotten Soviet arsenals or purchased on the “black market”.

Even, if Russia decides to terminate its role as the main supplier of arms, there is no guarantee that the conflicting sides will not find a new patron to fill their orders. In such a scenario Moscow would then be deprived of the information necessary to accurately assess the military potential of the two powers, which would undermine the mechanism of mutual deterrence and ultimately the cease-fire as a whole.

The situation is even more complicated, given the fact that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are vital strategic partners for Russia, with Moscow bounded in alliance with Armenia under the commitments of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In case of the resumption of war in Nagorno-Karabakh, hostilities could hardly be kept within Karabakh itself and would quickly spread into the territory of Armenia. In such a case, Article 4 of the CSTO on mutual defence would enter into effect. In this situation, Russia would face the dilemma of deciding whether to send troops into a war between two of its most important strategic partners in one of its most important geopolitical regions.

For this reason, Russian officials do not openly express support for either of the conflicting sides when an escalation takes place. On the contrary, their statements merely express concern and call on all parties “to show restraint”. Russian officials, as well as other international mediators and state representatives, use a typical diplomatic phrase for such escalations “there is no alternative to a peaceful settlement of conflicts and there are no military solutions”. However, in this most recent conflict there is a world leader who explicitly allied with one side – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who signalled his staunch support for Azerbaijan, statements which were harshly criticised in Moscow.

Unlike Turkey, who steadfastly supports Azerbaijan and plays a conditioning role in the process –  already holding the subject of re-opening the Turkish border with Armenia as a negotiating chip against Yerevan – Russia cannot allow itself to support only one side in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Still, there is strong pressure from the Armenian political opposition, experts and the media for Russia to demonstrate its sincerity in the political and military alliance with Yerevan. Due to geostrategic considerations, Moscow cannot ignore these demands, and therefore, Russian-Armenian cooperation within the CSTO has recently intensified.

On April 2nd, immediately following the resumption of hostilities, the CSTO speaker Vladimir Zainetdinov blamed Azerbaijan for its actions that “lead to an escalation of the situation and the conflict”. Later however, the position of the CSTO secretariat was pulled into accordance with the general line of Russian diplomatic rhetoric, no public one-sided evaluations were given to the incident, though it was noted that if Armenia were to appeal for help, the CSTO would take that into consideration.

During the ‘4-days war’, the CSTO secretariat repeated that they were monitoring the situation in close contact with Yerevan. Russian politician and General Secretary of the organisation, Nikolay Bordyuzha, accused the Turkish government of “statements in support of military solution in Karabakh”.

On April 14th to 15th, Armenia, as the country chairing CSTO this year, hosted a meeting of the Military Committee of the Council of CSTO Defence Ministers. The event was scheduled in 2015, long before the latest escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, and was attended by Bordyuzha, which was a remarkable occurrence amidst the continuing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Bordyuzha also held separate meetings with Armenian Defence Minister, Seyran Ohanyan, and Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan.

There is not much information available regarding the concrete outcomes of these meetings. The Chief of the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces, Yuri Khachaturov, after meeting of the CSTO Military Committee, ambiguously stated, “In view of the military-political situation, including the recent developments in the Caucasus region of collective security, we outlined the direction of our future work on the development of the military component of the CSTO”.

Thus, trying to deal with the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh and at the same time preserving the balance between Armenian and Azerbaijani interests, Russian officials have not expressed direct support for Yerevan but rather use the framework of CSTO to meet Armenian demands for Moscow’s backing. Since the severe firefight in Nagorno-Karabakh continues despite the Russia-brokered agreement to respect the ceasefire regime starting April 5, Moscow has to continue playing two roles simultaneously­ – first as an impartial mediator in the conflict settlement and second, as a reliable ally of Yerevan.

Armenia’s geographic location between Azerbaijan and Turkey, allied by pan-Turkic sentiments, becomes an increasingly unstable against the backdrop of the continuing tensions between Russia and Turkey over the conflict in Syria. Russian military base in Gyumri, the second largest Armenian city close to the Turkish border, is growing into an important outpost against what is perceived in Moscow as Ankara’s “aggressive and unpredictable” actions.

In this state of affairs, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone could quickly escalate into another ‘battlefield’ of Russian-Turkish confrontation, hopefully only in a form of the ‘war of words’ however. The recent ex-change of accusations between Moscow and Ankara and mutual bias over Armenian-Azerbaijani enmity attests to this concerning possibility.

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