Today
Fri 4 December 2020

Kseniya Kirillova reports on how the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan reveals Putin’s weaknesses in the ‘Post Soviet’ space

Since the declaration of a humanitarian ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh on 10 October, the warring parties have repeatedly declared their opponents have violated it. In the first days after the ceasefire, the intensity of the fighting in the region has significantly decreased, but on 19 October Azerbaijan again announced the continuation of military operations against Armenia, which fired at defensive positions. Yerevan, in turn, accuses Baku of violating the ceasefire and reports that “Azerbaijan’s offensive was thwarted.”

Moscow, which became a forum for the parties to conclude a ceasefire agreement, assures that work will continue to resolve the conflict in Karabakh, according to Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov. Meanwhile, the American Congresswoman Grace Napolitano submitted a draft resolution on the recognition of the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh to the House of Representatives. 


A Face-Saving Truce

The agreement reached during the Moscow meeting boosted the image of Kremlin as a peacemaker in the region, although a final resolution of the conflict is still distant. The President of Azerbaijan, Ilkham Aliyev, has often uncompromisingly declared that he will give Armenia “its last chance to retire troops from Karabakh” and “return to their lands by any means.”

Taking into consideration the high combat capability of the Azerbaijani army and the unquestioning support of the Erdogan government in Ankara, his words should be taken seriously.  In the opinion of military expert Pavel Felgengauer, Armenia is militarily inferior to Azerbaijan. Independent Russian analysts also indicate that on the diplomatic front, Armenia has few allies. The UN unequivocally considers Karabakh to be part of Azerbaijan, the potential ally of Armenia, Iran, has taken the side of Baku, and friendly Georgia has adopted strict neutrality.

Russia, for its part, must understand that open support for Armenia is would mean direct military confrontation with Turkey, something Moscow fervently hopes to avoid. On the other hand, a refusal of such support, as already noted, raises doubts about the practicability of the existence of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Armenia is a member.

A misunderstanding of the nature of public sentiment and the perception of people as weak-willed objects to be manipulated led to the Kremlin’s inability to predict the most serious political processes in neighbouring countries

Apart from this, for propaganda reasons, Russia has unequivocally supported Armenia as a “victim of aggression from Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Syrian fighters.” This positions Russia as the only power capable of defending the Armenian people from the predations of “international terrorists.” As a result, the inability of Russia to save Nagorno-Karabakh within Armenia’s borders will signify the defeat of Vladimir Putin in the eyes of his own citizens.

Another reason why Putin cannot completely back away from support for Yerevan, as pointed out by political commentator Aleksandr Zhelenin, is the external similarity of the Karabakh conflict with the Russian occupation of Crimea. It follows that the possible victory for Azerbaijan in the forceful recuperation of territory would mean the establishment of a precedent dangerous for Moscow.

Thus, the truce for the Kremlin represents a long-awaited deferral of a difficult decision and a chance to avoid taking unpopular steps and prolongs the ability to manoeuvre between the two states.  It is unknown how long the ceasefire will last, but there is a growing opinion that Russia has much less control over post-Soviet space that it wishes to show and must act reflexively as she searches for a way out of difficult situations.


The Cost of ‘Special Operations Tactics

Russian foreign policy in the post-Soviet space has undergone some evolution in the last ten years. Until 2013, Moscow relied on the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union as an independent centre of gravity for neighbouring states. But when the economic insolvency of this project became obvious, the Kremlin switched to its usual tactics of “special operations.” 

As noted in a study by the British Dossier Center, this boiled down to searching for sources, collecting and analyzing information, covert “active measures,” and working with agents of influence and propaganda.

Moscow developed a certain flexibility in its operational games.  In Kyrgyzstan, for example, the Kremlin supported the revolution of 2010 which brought Roza Otunbayeva to power. Russian special services flirted with various political groupings in many countries and tried to establish contacts with those in power, as well as the opposition.  For example, the Armenian revolution of 2018 did not elicit such a negative reaction in official Russian discourse as did the Ukrainian Maidan. That time, the Kremlin didn’t clumsily interfere in events in a neighbouring country but rather tried to “reach an accommodation” with the new leadership.

But a misunderstanding of the nature of public sentiment and the perception of people as weak-willed objects to be manipulated led to the Kremlin’s inability to predict the most serious political processes in neighbouring countries, namely, the protests in Belarus, the war in Karabakh and the attempted revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

Reacting to these events reflexively and ex-post-facto led Russian authorities to see the most important criterion to be the absolute controllability of their partner. As a result, the Kremlin (as in the case of Ukraine in 2014) chose to rely on unpopular, ‘toxic’ or weakened leaders, taking advantage of the fact that weakness makes them more dependent on Russia.

This does not mean that Russia has completely abandoned the use of other players or attempts to negotiate with other figures, but it will unequivocally support those who, in its opinion, will be forced to follow Moscow’s wishes. More than once, the Kremlin has let it be known that it expects greater integration with Russia from Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, and from the Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikola Pashinyan – a more “pro-Russian” policy and the introduction of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Some experts suggest that should Moscow get its wishes, it will try to replace both leaders with more controllable and predictable figures. But the Kremlin does not take into account that support for unpopular leaders such as Lukashenko will lead to a growth of anti-Russian attitude in neighbouring states, and reliance on pressure and blackmail makes Russia an unattractive partner in the eyes of the post-Soviet elite.  Furthermore, as the example of Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrates, Russia has little to offer even to its closest neighbours. All of these factors could lead to new failures for Kremlin policies in the post-Soviet space.


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