"Despite a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement to exchange prisoners and to recover bodies from the battlefield, there is no end in sight to the hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia."
Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey, which provides Syrian fighters, equipment and other personnel. Armenia is allegedly supported by Russia, however, the latter has refrained from providing more than diplomatic back-up to Armenia, a fellow member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. During a meeting in Moscow to broker a peace deal between the factions, a ceasefire was agreed upon on October 10, but allegedly was violated a few hours later.
Turkey’s president Erdogan made his love for Neo-Ottomanism and his aspirations clear. Mirroring the actions of Selim I, a 16th century Ottoman Sultan, to make Turkey a global empire again. Paired with the troubled history between Turkey and Armenia, Turkish support for Azerbaijan appears logical. The muted reaction from the Kremlin regarding the events in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh however seems rather curious. For more than decade, Russia has been cultivating its image of a still powerful force that jealously guards the post-Soviet space – which remains loyal to its allies no matter the circumstances – whether it be Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus, or Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine.
What are the possible reasons for Russia’s current course of action?
- Turkey is a NATO country, an incident Russian troops firing at Turkish personnel, could trigger a NATO response in defense of Turkey, pitting Russia against a force it does not want to deal with, for military and economic reasons.
- The area does not hold a strategic advantage or appeal for Russia. Previous involvement of Russian private military contractors (PMCs), or government troops elsewhere was connected to concessions for minerals, oil reserves, or other resources the country could benefit from, as outlined in a previous Fortress International article
- Russia’s resources are spread thin, with large numbers of personnel committed in Ukraine, Syria and Libya, making it more challenging to be involved in another large scale conflict.
- The area of Nagorno-Karabakh is on Russia’s southern periphery, and other issues are more pressing that require attention. Namely, a NATO build up in the Baltics, as well as the ongoing protests in Belarus.
- Logistics of material and personnel would prove challenging. Armenia is landlocked, surrounded by Azerbaijan to the East, Republic of Georgia to the North, Iran in the South, as well as Turkey in the South and West. Russia and Georgia are not on the best terms; Russia and Turkey are on opposing sides in Syria and Libya; Russia enjoys good relationships with Iran. However, Iran could solicit greater support on the world stage in concession for utilizing Iranian soil to support operations in Armenia. Given Iran’s troubled position with the West, it is unlikely Putin would want to get drawn into a long term commitment like that.
- Russia has become frustrated with Armenian non-action in talks over Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2011, the so-called Madrid Principles were agreed upon, under which Armenia would cede control of seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, and participate in talks about the future status of the territory itself. However, Armenian leadership decided on taking no action whatsoever, in turn continuing to control Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven other Azerbaijani districts Armenia was supposed to cede control over. Russia’s rather neutral reaction to recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan reflects testiness with its ally’s inflexibility in adhering to agreements and further negotiations. When asked why Moscow isn’t more supportive of its ally, one of the Russian negotiators put it in more direct terms: “NATO isn’t supposed to support Turkey’s military adventures in foreign lands, be it northern Syria or Libya, right? So, why should Russia support Armenian military adventures in foreign, Azeri, lands?”
As with most events, the reasoning for the Kremlin’s course of action is most likely a combination of the ones mentioned and possibly several others. A change of that course does not appear likely, leaving the situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the current state of hostilities for the foreseeable future.