Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis and Russia’s Strategy in the Region

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Russia, Turkey and the Caucasus Map
The map shows the significant role that Turkey and the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan, plays in Russia’s foreign policy (Credits: United States. Central Intelligence Agency, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Kavkaz Files ISSN 2975-0474 Volume Issue 18 Issue 8
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

The recent capitulation of Nagorno-Karabakh in the face of Azerbaijan’s military offensive has brought to light Russia’s recalibrated strategic approach in the region.

This shift focuses on forging a robust alliance with both Baku and Ankara, a move designed to bolster the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Additionally, Moscow aims to leverage Turkish land as a potential hub for its new energy approach, especially in the domain of distributing natural gas.

Baku’s recent military offensive underscores a prevailing inclination towards the use of force, rather than a reliance on diplomatic and political channels. This strategic choice highlights a significant departure from traditional conflict resolution methods. The prolonged blockade of the Lachin Corridor by Azerbaijan has given rise to a humanitarian crisis, a matter that the global community has yet to adequately address.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s capitulation carries profound implications for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s standing among his electorate. The visible discontent manifested in yesterday’s protest in front of the government building indicated the erosion of confidence in his leadership.

Since ascending to power in 2018, Pashinyan’s tenure has been marked by significant setbacks, notably the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, followed by the recent comprehensive victory by Azerbaijan. These consecutive defeats have undoubtedly diminished his political power.

Considering these developments, it is crucial for regional stakeholders and the international community to reassess their strategies and engagement in the South Caucasus. A deeper understanding of the evolving dynamics, coupled with a nuanced approach that considers the shifting power dynamics, will be essential in charting a constructive path forward.

Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis: Background Information

The Azerbaijani military operation launched on September 19th, 2023, within the confines of Nagorno-Karabakh, was officially framed as an endeavour to neutralise Yerevan’s military presence and restore stability to the region. This campaign, which Baku called a ‘counter-terrorism operation,’ led to the capitulation of Stepanakert, culminating in a ceasefire agreement on September 20th, 2023.

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, in a televised address, lauded the offensive as a restoration of sovereignty and commended his armed forces for securing the complete surrender of local Armenian combatants.

Among the casualties reported by the Artsakh / Nagorno-Karabakh Human Rights Ombudsman, according to the information collected by the Office of the Human Rights Defender, there are at least 200 deaths and over 400 wounded persons. The number of injured people among the civilian population exceeds 40 persons, among whom 13 are children. There are 10 confirmed civilian deaths at the moment, among whom 5 are children.

In the wake of these developments, Yerevan witnessed a surge of public discontent. Demonstrators numbering in the hundreds vented their frustration on the night, hurling projectiles at police, guarding government facilities and shattering windows in Republic Square.

The demonstrators focused their anger on the government’s handling of the crisis, which finally resulted in a ceasefire deal requiring the local Armenian military to disband. There were pronounced criticisms levelled against both Russia and Western nations for what many perceive as a failure to safeguard the lives of ethnic Armenians in the region.

Russia, having brokered the ceasefire and maintained a peacekeeping presence in the area since 2020, reported that its peacekeepers had successfully evacuated 5,000 individuals from hazardous zones since the initiation of the offensive.

Amid the ceasefire announcement, officials in Nagorno-Karabakh implored residents to remain in shelters and advised against attempting to reach the local airport, which is proximate to a Russian peacekeeping base. However, despite these recommendations, a crowd of civilians soon amassed near the airport, and as nightfall descended, uncertainties loomed regarding the support they might receive.

Given the pervasive Armenophobia propagated by Baku officials in recent years, coupled with the authoritarian regime that prevails in Azerbaijan, as noted by various international organisations including Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, it is increasingly challenging to envision a scenario wherein the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh can lead lives free from violence, attacks, and the spectre of ethnic cleansing.

Geopolitical Scenario of Russia’s Regional Strategy

The recent military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh have brought to light a significant diplomatic manoeuvre by Azerbaijan. Prior to the commencement of the operations, Azerbaijani authorities informed both Moscow and Ankara. This calculated move revealed Russia’s strategic decision to refrain from direct intervention, opting instead to accept the capitulation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The rationale behind this approach rested on the assertion that Baku was conducting military operations strictly within its internationally recognised national boundaries. Regrettably, the offensive resulted in the tragic loss of Russian peacekeepers, who were fulfilling their duty by escorting civilians to safety. Moscow, however, chose not to engage directly, neither in safeguarding local civilians nor in retaliating for the fallen soldiers.

Maria Zakharova, the Director of the Information and Press Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, vocalised the Kremlin’s position, pointing an accusatory finger at Yerevan for its perceived pivot towards the West in attempting to address the Nagorno-Karabakh situation.

The shifting of blame is an integral part of Moscow’s overall strategy to create a distance between itself and Nikol Pashinyan, who has been viewed with suspicion since his ascent to power in 2018 via a so-called ‘colour revolution’ and especially after the Armenian Prime Minister’s complain about Moscow’s inactivity in the region..

While Pashinyan’s handling of the situation and his oscillation between Russian and Western affiliations have given rise to questions, it remains evident that Russia strategically sacrificed Nagorno-Karabakh in pursuing broader objectives in the Caucasus.

Scrutinising the geopolitical dynamics and regional maps and delving into official statements from Russian authorities, a discernible pattern emerges: Russia is resolutely committed to fortifying its ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey. This attempt aligns seamlessly with Russia’s overarching strategy in energy and transportation.

The signing of a declaration of allied interaction between Russia and Azerbaijan in February 2022, coupled with discussions on the ‘Green Corridor’ project, serves as tangible evidence of the depth of this burgeoning partnership. This joint effort seeks to establish an alternative trade route, thereby countering Western sanctions and solidifying Russo-Azerbaijani relations in the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region.

Azerbaijan occupies a pivotal position in the framework of the INSTC and broader initiatives in the Caspian Sea region. The cooperative efforts between the Astrakhan region and Baku underscore the mutually advantageous nature of their relationship, while Azerbaijan and Dagestan’s partnership in logistics and transportation further emphasises their collaboration.

In the face of continued sanctions from Europe and the United States, Russia has actively sought to diversify its economic partnerships and explore alternative markets. In October 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Turkey to become a natural gas hub, confirming Moscow’s strategic reorientation. Ankara’s substantial reliance on Russian gas further underscores its pivotal role in Moscow’s efforts to navigate Western sanctions and broaden its natural gas exports.

While recent disagreements between Russia and Turkey over control of the proposed gas hub have come to light, and in consideration of the fragile state of Turkish infrastructure, Moscow finds itself reliant on Ankara to mitigate the impacts of Western sanctions.

The ongoing collaboration between these two nations holds the promise of unlocking new trade routes and opportunities for Russian natural gas exports, bolstering the national economy in these challenging times.

Conclusion

Nagorno-Karabakh’s capitulation has not only brought about a humanitarian crisis but also raised the spectre of potential ethnic cleansing for the Armenian population in the region. This underscores the broader implications of recent events in the Caucasus.

It has shed light on Baku’s strategy, which leans heavily on military power to advance its objectives, both in domestic politics and on the international stage. Simultaneously, it has unveiled Moscow’s recalibrated regional policy, aimed at forging robust ties with Baku and Ankara. This strategic alignment serves a dual purpose: to bolster the Russian economy, which has been affected by Western sanctions, and to pursue long-term geopolitical goals.

A notable degree of impotence has marked the Western response. The European Union considers Azerbaijan a vital strategic partner, specifically in its energy security strategy and the requirement to diversify natural gas imports. Additionally, Turkey’s NATO membership adds another layer of complexity to the situation.

As a result, both Western powers and Russia have, in essence, made a strategic calculation that places the interests of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh secondary to their broader geopolitical objectives.

The potential realisation of the Kremlin’s objectives, including the establishment of the INSTC and the development of a natural gas hub in Turkey, could have far-reaching implications. Moscow stands to substantially increase its exports, fortifying its national economy.

Concurrently, thanks to a stronger cooperation in the energy field with Baku and Ankara, the Kremlin could wield considerable influence in shaping EU foreign policy, potentially pressuring Brussels to agree to its demands on various geopolitical fronts, including the matter of Ukraine and other pertinent issues.

Brussels must exercise vigilance in monitoring the developing situation in the region. The European Union should consider the prospect of Armenian disillusionment with Russia, as it could provide an opening to bring Yerevan into closer proximity to the Western spheres of influence.

This could prompt the Armenian government to contemplate exiting from the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia, therefore, must navigate this delicate balance in order to promote its regional strategy without risking a significant fracture within its own organisation.

In conclusion, the unfolding events in the Caucasus represent a critical juncture for both the regional and global geopolitical landscape. The decisions and actions taken by key actors, including Russia and the West, will have far-reaching consequences not only for the immediate region but also for the broader dynamics of international relations.


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