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Why Russia Is Biding Its Time on Nagorno-Karabakh

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Many observers have expressed surprise that in the new war that has broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia is not in a hurry to help its official Collective Security Treaty Organization ally, Armenia. The issue clearly isn’t just that the fighting is not taking place inside Armenia itself but on land that is controlled by it, while not officially recognized as belonging to it. Russia is not charging in to help its ally because it doesn’t just matter who is under attack, but who they are under attack from.

Unlike other former Soviet republics with frozen conflicts (Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova), Azerbaijan has not been an enemy state for Russia. It has never had a government that turned anti-Russian rhetoric into a key foreign policy commodity, or proclaimed emancipation from Russia its main aim.

Azerbaijan got rid of its Lenin statues and street names honoring Soviet leaders long ago, but it didn’t turn that process into a spectacle aimed at offending Moscow. Ever since the Soviet collapse, Azerbaijan has developed a multidirectional foreign policy built around the principle that its ties with Moscow won’t disappear, but will become weaker, and that it should move closer to the West, especially since Baku always suspected the Yeltsin government of harboring pro-Armenian sympathies. A common local interpretation of the first war in Karabakh is that Azerbaijan lost not to the Armenians but to Russia.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is highly focused on Russia’s role in World War II, it’s important that Azerbaijan’s official view of the war mostly coincides with Russia’s, and that war heroes are praised, and Victory Day celebrated on May 9. In the modern Azerbaijani national narrative, Russia is not blamed for all the problems of the past and present, and 200 years of coexistence with Russia in one state is described as having its positive aspects too.

Azerbaijan has cooperated with NATO and provided symbolic contingents of its troops to NATO operations, but it has never voiced any official ambition to join the alliance. Among the former Soviet states, Azerbaijan has always been an example of how to follow a foreign policy that is entirely independent from Russia, while maintaining a good relationship with Moscow and Putin. This example is also important for Russia itself, as it shows that good relations with Moscow don’t have to come at the cost of submission or signing up for Russia-led integration projects, and independence from Moscow doesn’t necessarily entail falling out with Russia or a demonstrative rapprochement with its enemies.

So Russia may have reasons to help Armenia, but it has no reason at all to punish Azerbaijan. Neither the Russian government nor the public have cause to blithely deploy the country’s military force against Azerbaijan.

It also matters who was attacked, of course. Armenia is an important Russian ally. But the Kremlin has been apprehensive of the current Armenian government ever since it came to power, as it is the result of regime change brought about by street protests: a color revolution, which the Kremlin views as a deadly sin.

Since it positions itself as democratic, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government does not impose any limitations on media freedom, which has led to a lot of critical publications about Russia, as well as many praising the West. These are reported to the Russian leadership, which, in keeping with the traditions of Russian diplomacy, is used to searching the media for signs of change in the official position.

Worse still, Pashinyan welcomes the activity of Western NGOs, including those funded by the U.S. philanthropist George Soros, who has been accused by ultraconservatives of financing color revolutions. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, allowing these NGOs to operate freely is nothing short of a security breach. The current Armenian government’s second deadly sin in the eyes of the Kremlin is the prosecution of former president Robert Kocharyan.

Russia’s reticence where Armenia is concerned is also linked to the fact that, regardless of Putin’s role, Russian diplomats—both in the 1990s and now—feel that Yerevan wasted time when it could have resolved its territorial disputepeacefully. Moscow understands that the military victory of Armenia, a small and poor country, over richer and more populous Azerbaijan was down to chance as much as anything else.

Russia discussed a possible solution with Armenia that would entail Armenia gaining legal recognition of most of Karabakh in exchange for giving up some of the territories that it won during the war. But the democratic nature of the Armenian government prevented it from making the compromise. Any concession on the issue of Karabakh threatens to bring down the Armenian leadership.

So Armenia may be Russia’s ally, but Azerbaijan is not its enemy, and nor is Turkey, which is backing Azerbaijan. If the attacker were Georgia, for example, which is backed by the United States, things would be a lot more simple. It would also be simpler if it were Ukraine or Moldova trying to restore its territorial integrity in such a manner.

Russia’s partnership with Turkey, despite its tensions and periodic clashes, allows Russia to remain in Syria and go about its business in Libya without sustaining major losses. But most importantly, it helps to create a situation in which regional conflicts can be solved without U.S. involvement—something Russia values highly. Squeezing the United States out of regional conflicts is more important for Russia than stopping other regional powers from gaining a bigger role in them.

Being free to act without Western interference is also important for Turkey, and for this reason, it is reconciled to Russia’s presence in conflicts that Ankara considers important. Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan are united by their joint resistance to the West and their shared ambition of a greater role in global affairs. This anti-Western platform is more important than the shared Christian platform on which Armenia is pinning its hopes.

Armenia finds itself in a triangle of alliances. For Russia, Armenia is an official ally; Turkey is a partner, albeit a difficult one; and Azerbaijan was until war broke out an example of model behavior in the post-Soviet space, not to mention having a similar regime: a personalized dictatorship.

Many within the Russian government suspect that Armenia’s alliance with it stems from the need to defend Karabakh. Yet for this reason, as well as to save face, Russia will not allow Armenia to lose Karabakh entirely.

A harbinger of possible Russian military intervention are the reports that Syrian rebels are fighting for Azerbaijan in Karabakh, having been sent there by Turkey. Russia has no reason to punish Azerbaijan’s army, but sees Islamist fighters from the Middle East as a legitimate target. After all, it waged war on them in Syria, so why not do the same now that they are in the Caucasus, much closer to home?

Depending on the positions of the armies in the field and on the tractability of both Putin and Erdogan, the war could end in something close to the status quo, with symbolic losses and acquisitions, or in a new power balance resembling that toward which Russia previously urged Armenia. Only it will be agreed on the battlefield rather than at the negotiating table.

In that case, some uncontested and currently deserted parcels of Azerbaijani land will be returned to Azerbaijan, while others, populated by Armenians, will be kept by Armenia, and their status will once again be the subject of negotiations. In this respect, Russia has an advantage over Turkey, since it has access to both Yerevan and Baku. A new power balance won’t relieve Armenia entirely of the need for an alliance with Russia, but it could make it somewhat more free.