The South Caucasus region has been a stage for strife and perpetual warfare since the early 1990s. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in a seemingly everlasting conflict over the disputed Karabakh-Nagorno region, with Russia always keeping a close eye.
Over the past three years, tensions have risen significantly. The two sides fought a conventional war in 2020, with drones that changed the face of warfare. Continuous ceasefire violations and an ongoing blockade have put the two nations closer than ever to all-out war.
The perpetual conflict is a global problem, but a gift for one man — Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has quietly played a game of hybrid warfare in the region to further his own interests. At the same time, the West continues to look the other way.
Tensions in the South Caucasus
After winning the first war over the disputed region, Armenia grew complacent. It did not thoroughly prepare for a new conflict. Armenia’s complacency was due to its sole reliance on Russia for protection. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan built up relations with Turkey, Israel, and the European Union.
Moscow certainly didn’t mind having a trusting pro-Russian vassal holding power in Yerevan. But after Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, the Kremlin took a slight look at the geopolitical change in Yerevan and decided it would pay no heed to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Moscow only intervened to force Armenia to sign a peace deal. By doing this, Putin forced the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to believe they would only be safe under Russia’s aegis.
Russia benefited from the second war almost as much as Azerbaijan did. It left Moscow with the kind of robust military presence in this strategic region they had not enjoyed since the fall of the USSR. Putin has continuously overseen the Trilateral Agreement that ended the war. Despite Armenia being a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization that binds six states in the region, including Russia, Moscow has turned away from calls to end ceasefire violations, including the significant September 2022 clashes that nearly led to another war.
Turkey and Azerbaijan Further Russia’s Interests
Turkey, considered Russia’s top geopolitical rival in the Caucasus, has nevertheless become Moscow’s failsafe against the West.
Turkey has become a valuable partner in Russia’s attempts to circumvent sanctions. It is a haven for Moscow’s elite, who have moved there in droves. Russian-Turkish cooperation has also included the transfer of S400 air defense systems, as well as a joint military cooperation center in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijan has likewise become a valuable country for Putin’s global outreach to bypass sanctions. Baku’s rich energy fields are intertwined with Russia’s interests. The Kremlin helped set the terms that favor Azerbaijan’s hold over Nagorno-Karabakh, and the proposed Zangezur Corridor will become economically valuable to Moscow, Baku, and Ankara.
While Russia supplies weapons to Armenia, Azerbaijan is also a significant client of the Russian arms industry. The Kremlin looks to maintain a smoke-and-mirrors policy with both nations. Putin has not been shy in his admiration of autocrats and his disdain for democracy, which aligns him with hardliners accused of numerous human rights abuses — leaders such as Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Russia’s Dissipating Relations with Armenia
Despite a slow economic recovery after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia saw value in Armenia, giving it military support in the First Nagorno-Karabakh War. When Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president, he established close friendships with pro-Russian Armenian prime ministers such as Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan.
Those prime ministers helped further Putin’s interests, and they were controversial among Armenians as allegations of corruption, embezzlement, and degradation of the armed forces marked their rule.
Akin to Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and Georgia’s EU ambitions, the Velvet Revolution that ended Sargsyan and Kocharyan’s influence was a blow to the Kremlin that Putin would not forgive.
Armenia and Russia have gone through a slow geopolitical split since Moscow’s indecision in the 2020 war. Beyond the ceasefire violations occurring in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian peacekeepers are accused of helping Azerbaijani authorities in some cases, and exacerbating tensions due to their lack of cooperation.
Azerbaijan’s 2022 aggression started another downward spiral in relations between the two countries. The Azerbaijani army took several points in mainland Armenia in actions that caused several hundred casualties on both sides. Despite calling for CSTO assistance, Yerevan was left alone, and Pashinyan would later thank the U.S. for mending the ceasefire.
Pashinyan openly refused to sign a CSTO memorandum before Putin during the alliance’s conference in Yerevan last year. The Armenian PM recently recalled his CSTO envoy, sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and plainly stated that relying on Russia for security was a strategic mistake. Russian media have meanwhile heightened their rhetoric against Armenia, unleashing the same slander they directed at Georgia and Ukraine before military aggression targeted those countries.
The West Fails to Act
At a time when Russian influence and popularity are at an all-time low in the region, the Western world, whether it’s the European Union or the United States, has not taken concrete steps to deter aggression. Armenia is now more threatened than ever, and this leads into Putin’s playbook. The Kremlin can force Armenians to accept vassalage because no one else has willingly come to their aid.
Akin to the Berlin Airlift, the United States could drop supplies into the Nagorno-Karabakh region and threaten to withhold aid to Azerbaijan if a famine ensues. Instead, lukewarm messages have only exacerbated the blockade.
The European Union wanted to avoid Russian gas with values away from “blood money from tyrants.” Instead, they buy gas from Azerbaijan, a country ruled by a one-family dynasty and carrying one of world’s worst freedom rankings.
Meanwhile, after months of starvation, Russia has sent humanitarian aid to the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, mostly using the Azerbaijani army-controlled Aghdam road. This is a hint that they could end the crisis at any point, but refuse to. This was further reinforced as the breakaway Republic of Artsakh held unrecognized elections the same day, in which a pro-Russian leader was elected — another gift for Putin.
Indecisiveness at a time when Armenia has given the most significant sign that it is ready to change the course of its international relations would leave another black mark in Western history. Leaving Armenia to handle its crisis alone would play into Putin’s hybrid warfare strategy. It would leave precisely the kind of blemish that the West has tried to avoid after indecision in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
About the Author
Julian McBride, a former U.S. Marine, is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”