With the intensification of the confrontations between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in late September 2020, Russia initially refrained from making quick statements or moves with regard to this development. However, the intensification and expansion of the battles prompted Moscow to move and make active contacts with both the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides of the conflict, in addition to Turkey, and also with international actors, such as France, which co-chairs the Minsk Group.
This paper sheds light on the development of the Russian position regarding the bloody round of conflict that broke out on 27 September 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and analyses the most important Russian concerns related to this dispute, and the most prominent determinants of Moscow's position on the crisis and its repercussions.
From conservatism to engagement
Despite Moscow’s haste to activate military and diplomatic channels of communication with the two parties to the conflict, the official response of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was to “call on all sides to show maximum restraint, achieve a cease fire and return to the negotiating table”, appeared conservative and traditional in circumstances that seemed unusual. The confrontations that took place were not confined to limited border clashes, as was the case several times during the past years. The current scene appears closer to a "real war that is widening" according to the description of Russian commentators who drew attention to the fact that this war is taking place with all that accompanies it in terms of imposing martial law and mobilisation (in Azerbaijan), and declaring a state of maximum alert and calling the reserves (in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabahk).
On 29 September 2020, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Moscow has been monitoring the preludes of the escalation well during the past weeks, through the numerous reports that spoke of Turkey's reinforcements in Azerbaijan. Nevertheless, it seemed that Moscow did not want to rush to announce a position. The reason is clearly related to Russia's current declining capability to intervene in a stronger fashion for legal and political reasons.
From a legal point of view, there is no basis for effective and direct Russian intervention in the conflict, considering that Armenia has announced that it would not seek the assistance of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). While Armenia is a member of the organization, the separatist Nagorno-Karabakh region is not a member thereof. This means that at the formal level, Armenia itself has not been subjected to external aggression that obliges the treaty countries to intervene.
However, the political reasons are more important than the formal legal dimension. First, there are reasons related to Armenia's internal situation and the political dispute therein. A few days before the outbreak of the war, the leader of the largest opposition party, namely Prosperous Armenia, Gagik Tsarukyan was arrested on charges of vote buying. While he is officially accused of corrupt transactions, many in Moscow saw that the real basis behind his targeting is that he is described as a "Kremlin agent". While the current Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has maintained lines of communication with the Kremlin since he came to power two years ago through a popular revolution, he did not hide his openness to establishing balanced relations between Russia on the one hand and the West on the other hand. This means that Russian fears have increased that Armenia is gradually departing from its basic alliance with Russia. Here, some saw the ignition of the Nagorno-Karabakh front by Turkey was beneficial to the Russians in part because it brings Yerevan back into the arms of the Kremlin.
Secondly, Russia is now fighting a large-scale cold war with Europe against the backdrop of the crisis in Belarus and the issue of poisoning the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. It awaits the results of the US elections in November 2020 to determine the ability to open a dialogue with Washington on the issues of armaments, strategic security and other controversial files. Therefore, its capabilities seem limited to become actively involved in another conflict that is not beneficial to it. Moscow has found the appropriate mechanism to move through the reactivation of the Minsk Group (which, pursuant to the mandate of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), has been sponsoring a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1994), and has worked on issuing a tripartite presidential statement (Russian-US-French) on behalf of the Group. The statement called on the conflicting parties to declare a ceasefire and return to the dialogue table.
The mercenaries factor
Another factor has emerged in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict that heightened Moscow's anxiety. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides exchanged accusations of bringing over mercenaries from Syria and other countries to the battlefield. Several Russian reports have recently talked about the arrival of groups of Turkmen Syrians supported by Ankara to Azerbaijan within the framework of strengthening the Turkish military presence there. On the other hand, Vagiv Darjahli, an official in the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry, said that "according to the received intelligence information, among the enemy's losses are many mercenaries of Armenian origin from Syria and various countries of the Middle East".
This issue has turned into an essential driving factor for Russia to reactivate its steps, highlighting the Armenian President Armen Sarkissian's warning of the dangers of the emergence of a "new Syria" in the southern Caucasus. Therefore, on 29 September 2020, the Russian National Security Council held a meeting headed by Vladimir Putin, which focused on the issue of dispatch by Turkey of mercenaries to the region, and the risks of the conflict turning into a long-term open confrontation front, with the introduction of the factor of foreign interventions in a way that exacerbates the situation. Immediately after the meeting, Russian contacts with France, Turkey and the US, as well as the two direct parties to the conflict, began to take on more active dimensions.
Russian concern over the Turkish military presence
Meanwhile, Moscow followed up reports on Turkey's strengthening of its direct military presence in Azerbaijan. Russian media reports stated that after the Azerbaijani-Turkish manoeuvres that took place in July and early August 2020, Ankara kept part of its army in Azerbaijan, including F-16 fighter jets, with part of the military personnel, as well as a group of Turkish drones. These conclusions were indirectly confirmed by the Turkish political scientist and the prominent expert of the Ankara-Moscow expert-analytical network Engin Özer, who was quoted by the media as saying that "the Turkish army is already in the Nakhchivan region of Azerbaijan, so why not give it an official status? There are no legal obstacles to this". Russian media reported that the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev discussed with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the establishment of a Turkish military base in Nakhchivan and the establishment of another military base in the Absheron Peninsula.
For its part, Moscow has sought to contain such aspirations. After the Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called Russian President Vladimir Putin, expressing his dissatisfaction over the supply of Yerevan with Russian military technologies, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu went to Baku and announced that the planes delivered to Armenia "construction materials for the Russian military base", and that the Russian Federation does not carry out hostile actions against Azerbaijan. However, it is not known whether the minister succeeded in convincing Baku.
The prominent element remains that Moscow was anticipating the current developments in Nagorno-Karabakh. It monitored their preludes during the past weeks. On the eve of the escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, it conducted a surprise examination of the combat readiness of the southern military region, where the Russian Gyumri military base is located in Armenia. Several reports were issued in Moscow in the last period, referring to Turkey's reinforcements in Azerbaijan, which coincided with the Armenian side’s delay in implementing the agreements previously reached, namely the return of five regions (out of seven occupied) around Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku’s control, which should have been the starting point for further steps towards a final settlement.
The community of Russian military experts indicated their country's interest in the fact that Turkey, the NATO member state with the largest army in the alliance after the US, is strengthening its military presence in the South Caucasus. Those experts believe that the possibility of the emergence of an enhanced Turkish military presence in Azerbaijan, in addition to the issue of the Syrian militants loyal to Turkey, increase the escalation and exacerbate the situation dangerously for Russia.
Subsequently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that his country is participating in international efforts to create conditions for resolving various crises and conflicts, including the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. "We are not creating scenarios for resolving the problem,” he added, “but we create conditions that will allow them to come to terms themselves. The two sides have been drafting the first documents over the past 18 years. Much has been done. They create a foundation that reflects the principles of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and also the specific parameters that must be agreed upon for the settlement to take place”.
Prospects for Russian actions with regard to the conflict
The intensification of the military situation and the widening of the confrontations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, together with the escalation of the targeting of cities in the depths of the territories of the two conflicting sides, have led to the intensification of calls for calm and a ceasefire. It seems that the options before Russia were concentrated, so far, in accepting the results that the confrontations led to over a week, in a possible confirmation of Baku's ability to regain control of the seven villages bordering the disputed region, in exchange for a cessation of fighting.
Russia's proposal to introduce Russian separation forces between the belligerents, with the support of the Minsk Group, reflected Russia's conviction that this solution, which Yerevan hastened to announce its agreement to, could constitute a factor for ensuring a ceasefire and the renewed launch of the negotiations process. If Baku and Ankara agree to this proposal, the two sides will have achieved a partial "victory" that is strongly needed at home by President Ilham Aliyev. At the same time, Moscow will have ensured that the situation does not slide into a broader confrontation that provides additional justifications for expanding the introduction of foreign fighters into the region. It would also exempt it from direct intervention in military actions, especially if Armenia requests direct protection from Moscow in the event that the front of confrontations widens, reaching areas in the Armenian depth. This temporary solution depends on Ankara's approval in the first place. Moscow may be forced to get involved in difficult negotiations with the Turkish side in this respect.
The change in the political situation inside Armenia during the past year and Russia's current multiple foreign problems have contributed to reducing Moscow's capability to move urgently to stop the Azerbaijani-Armenian escalation. At the same time, the presence of "mercenaries" brought over from Syria and the Middle East to the two parties to the conflict emerged as a new factor that exacerbated the seriousness of the issue, especially since it reveals the possibility of the current confrontations turning into a hotbed of war for a long time.
Nevertheless, Moscow's proposal to introduce separation forces between the belligerents, with the support of the Minsk Group, showed that Russia gives priority to the path of separating the belligerent forces and the launch of the negotiation path between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the event that Baku and Ankara agreed to this proposal, which Yerevan had previously accepted, then the two sides will have achieved a partial "victory", and Moscow will have ensured that the situation would not slide into an open confrontation, thus expanding the process of bringing over foreign mercenaries to the region. It would also save Moscow direct military intervention in the raging conflict.
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