Armenia and Azerbaijan are Stuck with Russia and the U.S.
Over the years, Russia has served as the main arbitrator for the territorial dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The most vivid explanation lies in the past relationship of Russia with these two countries both of which have been former members of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet regime unleashed an economic, social, and political chaos across the regions of former member states. The end of the Soviet era granted independence to every single member state of the Union. The absence of Soviet supervision prompted the revitalization of old disputes between countries that had centuries long territorial, religious, and cultural conflicts.
The encounter between Armenia and Azerbaijan turned into an active military warfare in 1988 when the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh region – that historically has been populated by Armenians of Artsakh – declared its willingness to join with the neighboring Republic of Armenia. Azerbaijani government opposed to this scenario and the war became inevitable. The conflict started in 1988 and rapidly escalated to a full-scale war. In 1993, the newly independent Armenians deployed military forces composed of local Armenians as well as Armenians from diaspora that captured geographically significant corridor of Lachin that provided a passage from Karabakh to Armenia. Other successful military operations included the recapturing of Shusha, Kalbajar, Qubadil, Jabrayil, Zangilan, Agdam, and Fuzuli.
Russia played a critical role in prevention of more violence in this war that lasted nearly six years within the Nagorono-Karabakh region. In May of 1994, the Russian government extenuated the ceasefire between Armenian and Azerbaijani governments. The decree nurtured by Russia became provisioned as satisfactory by both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces that reached an armistice. The problem that Russia left unsolved was that there was no definite and internationally agreed resolution on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The territories captured by Armenian fighters were proclaimed as Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which is a de facto state but is recognized as de jure by majority of international community as still part of the Azerbaijan.
Despite of Russia’s significant role in keeping balance of security and its status as a big brother to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, the efforts that Moscow puts in direct conflict resolution in the Caucasus region are far from impartiality. The reason is that instead of advancing the peace negotiation Russia continues to sells firearms and ammunition to both sides. After visiting Yerevan and Baku in 2016, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev proclaimed that if Armenians and Azerbaijanis do not acquire firearms from Russia, then they (Armenias and Azerbaijanis) would look for other vendors.” This type of a statement, regardless of how close to reality, is a representation of an extremely irresponsible conflict resolution policy and careless intentions with loyal partners, Armenia and Azerbaijan, both of which as Russia argues are crucial territorial allies.
Given Russia’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute, and Moscow’s continuous efforts to sell weaponry to strengthen the military capacities of both conflicting parties, it is somewhere reasonable to assume that Armenia could try to seek new sources for mitigation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This scenario would mean that Armenia would have to permanently infringe its alliance and any type of relations with Russia. The reason is that seeking other sources of support in the conflict with Azerbaijan would mean that Armenia would need to develop closer bonds with the democratic West. The problem is that the relations between the West and any former member of the Soviet Union have long struggled to get warmer from the brisk of the Cold War against the authoritarian post-Soviet Russia and its member states, one of which was Armenia.
All three countries of the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, have been molded by the Soviet Union ideals for over 70 years. The intellectual transformation towards more liberal or democratic norms would also take a long time for the societies of any of these countries. More so than the intellectual transformation, the shadow of Russia still continues to hover over the Caucasus as in many respects the region is heavily dependent on economic growth, military stability and socio-political infrastructure that has been in decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The countries in Caucasus have low but similar GDP rates, and the year-to-year economic development also does not staggeringly differ between Yerevan, Baku and Tbilisi. The most significant advantage that Azerbaijan has over Georgia and Armenia is the oil resources that it can extract and export to Europe and Asia.
Armenia could follow the footsteps of Georgia that showed no reluctance of taking the helping hand of the European Union that reached out when Georgia-Russia relations went downhill. In 2008, the affairs between Georgia and Russia grew apprehensive when the latter supported a separatist movement in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Similar to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the territorial dispute in Abkhazia and Ossetia developed into a fully-fledged war. Russia conducted massive land, air and sea attacks against Georgians to protect the local population in Abkhazia and Ossetia. In the aftermath of the conflict Russia recognized the independence of self-proclaimed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A similar approach was demonstrated by Russia in another civil war that occurred in Ukraine and is still ongoing. In the Ukrainian civil war Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine by claiming that it only intended to protect Russian citizens residing in Crimean Peninsula.
The European Union refused to leave the victims of both Russo-Georgian war and Crimean crisis without any consolation and support; therefore, the EU offered visa-free travel to those countries that are also official members of the Union. This move alarmed Russia as Putin viewed the visa-free travel regulations as Western tactics to draw Georgia and Ukraine closer to Europe. Putin believes that this type of a development will pave a way for a greater European presence and integration into those countries in question. The greatest fear of Russia is the cultural transformation of former Soviet countries that firmly adapted to the “Russian way” of governing, i.e. ignorance towards corruption in the legal system, acquisition of goods and services by the oligarchy and upper hierarchy of the society, and prevention of foreign intervention into domestic affairs.
The circumstances are not favorable for any of the former Soviet Union member states to make a swift transition from Russia’s patronage into the Western democracy. Even though the strings are invisible, however, Russia’s steeled hand still manipulates the strings that move the internal and external activities of its post-Soviet proxy states.
As it stands, the government of Armenia has formed an illusory acquaintance in Russia and they believed that Moscow represents the best interests of Armenian people. However, on numerous occasions, the Russian government representatives and deputies such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky (who many consider to be a controversial figure) have been outspoken about Russia’s true image of Armenia as a country and an ally. More specifically, when asked about the situation with Nagorno-Karabakh conflict Zhirinovsky announced – “I could spit on Armenia and never look back. If Armenians try to find another ally (other than Russia) we will cut ties with them. If Armenians get on the way, Russia will let Turkey and Azerbaijan run over Armenians. Armenia has no prospects of economic growth.” Zhirinovsky is one of the many politicians who have undermined the importance of Republic of Armenia as Russia’s ally.
Within this political context, Armenia does not have the flexibility to walk away from the protection of Russia. Regardless of how harsh the words of Zhirinovsky sound, however, it can be interpreted in two ways. The first interpretation is that Zhirinovsky expressed an opinion that was popularly agreed upon by the majority of Russian government personnel. When analyzing Russia’s ongoing support of Armenia (even though that same support has been provided to Azerbaijan as well) this interpretation seems further away from the reality as President Vladimir Putin has stressed on the importance of Armenia as a vital ally. On numerous occasions Putin also mentioned that Russia will continue its involvement in issues related to Armenia’s territorial security. The second interpretation is that Zhirinovsky was trying to “open the eyes” of the Armenian government representatives to the truth that has been surrounding them for a long time. Whether or not Zhirinovsky’s statements have any weight, the Russo-Armenian cooperation in areas of policy, trade, natural resources, and military developments highlights that Putin is not willing to sacrifice his bonds with Armenia.
The political atmosphere engineered between the mountainous Caucasus and Russia will make it difficult for any of the countries in the region to strengthen relations with the West. The supervision that Russia has established over the former Soviet Union member states imposes a great pressure. The reason being that strategically all three countries of Caucasus; Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, are very valuable for Russia to allow Western countries to dominate in the region. Since the relations between Russia and Georgia have deteriorated in the past decade the latter can be excluded from this list. However, Russia has made another tactical move in the saga with Georgia. By realizing that the political elite in the country is leaned towards Western dogmas Russia ensured that its forces are at least present in South Ossetia that borders the Black Sea, and Abkhazia in Northeast of the country, both of which declared independence from Georgia.
Russo-Georgian war served as a catalyst for Georgia to escape Russia’s supervision and open the entrance for the West and Europe to the Caucasus Mountains. However, Armenia is not anywhere near that position to extract itself from the Russian regime that still imposes a considerable influence. There are four main explanations that can help to elucidate more details on the lack of opportunities for Armenia to work with the Western democratic countries.
Russia Dominates Armenia Both Diplomatically and Militarily
The alliance between the Russia and Armenia is currently very stable and traces its roots back to the 18th and 19th centuries when Armenians received the sponsorship of Russian Empire for achieving independence from the Ottoman Empire and establishing Armenian Kingdom. The relations regained momentum as the Russian Empire collapsed and Armenia, after briefly enjoying independence between 1918-1922, became part of the Soviet Union.
On the diplomatic level, Russia serves an advisor, mitigator, and an paradigm for the Armenia government. In 2013, Armenia faced a dilemma in terms of the future course of its security and prospects for maintaining stability with neighbors Iran, Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The contemplation was to choose between 1) European Union Association Agreement, that would offer Armenia opportunities to engage in developmental projects within political, security, cultural and economic spheres with a large set of Western countries, and 2) Eurasian Customs Union that was composed of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the dominant force in the treaty, Russia. Joining the Customs Union that was administered by Moscow would denote that Armenia has to comply with the taxation and tariff standards established by the Union when dealing with international partners.
In order to enhance the already existing economic cooperation with Russia and its allies, and provide new avenues of military empowerment, Armenia welcomed the invitation to join the Customs Union and became a complete member in 2015. This step took the Russo-Armenian relations to a higher degree and instilled more trust and sense of loyalty in the eyes of Moscow administration.
In the area of military cooperation Russia has also enlarged its contribution to Armenian Armed Forces. Armenia, along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikstan, Afghanistan, and Serbia, is a member of Collective Security Treaty Organization with full privileges and participatory rights. The members of this treaty must be obligated not to use dangerous acts or any type of force against other signatories of the treaty, or make alliances with other aggressors that pose a threat to any of the signatories. Azerbaijan was also a member of the treaty until 1999 when it resigned.
Russia has settled a military base in an Armenian city of Gyumri. The Russian 102nd Military Base was established on a Soviet Union Red Army’s base formerly known as 261st Rifle Division. The presence of the 102nd Base in Armenia with its personnel and army of about 5000 ensures territorial protection of Armenia’s borders with Turkey and Iran. Additionally, Armenian and Russian militaries have joined forces in developing a combined air defense system. President Putin viewed the proposal of the air defense system as a favorable next step in the Ruso-Armenian military cooperation. Building military ties with former Soviet Union member states as well as Eastern European countries is one of Russia’s primary security objectives as Putin realized the ongoing apprehensions with Europe and the United States have augmented in recent years.
Russia is an “Old Foe” of The West
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet regime in most communist countries of Asia and Europe did not necessarily represent an end of the rivalry between Russia and the democratic West. The Western countries never hesitated to take a backlash on Putin’s foreign policies and his decisions during recent international crises such as, 1) the Syrian Civil War that led to a chaotic situation in Northern Middle-East, 2) the Ukraine-Crimea territorial dispute where Russia intervened by claiming to resolve the issue but ended up annexing Crimea, and finally, 3) the Nagorno-Karabakh land dispute, where Russia protected the interests of the Armenians occupying those lands and meanwhile sold firearms to both parties in war.
Consequently, Russia does not miss on an opportunity to backfire at the Western countries by supporting the opposition side within every proxy war or proxy conflict where the United States or the EU member states are involved. The ideological gap between the West and Russia is substantial. A post-communist global superpower like Russia cannot make an ideological evolution overnight. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has formed and imposed several treaties that, although unofficially, were intended to re-group and re-organize the former Soviet Union member states. Armenia also belonged to the category of the countries that have been closely monitored by Russia.
The current tumultuous socio-political atmosphere created by the Brexit, refugee crisis, coupled with the fight against terrorism in Middle East; slowly destabilized the order and security in Western Europe. There is also a great deal of distrust among the Western countries such as Germany and France towards Putin and his politics. In addition to these complications, the newly elected U.S. President, Donald Trump completely revitalized many of the United States foreign policy orientations. Most notably, Trump attempted to revive and deepen the partnership with Moscow, a move that viewed by the Europe as a betrayal.
The Marginal Role of the West in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
In this increasingly hostile geopolitical scene where global superpowers are involved, Armenia and its territorial conflicts with neighbors Azerbaijan are the least of the worries for the European countries. Even when the conflict was at its climax in early 1990s, the international community’s involvement in arbitration process was not very fruitful. Aside from official statements during EU and UN committee meetings and public announcements on media, the West had very low effect on bringing Armenia and Azerbaijan into peaceful resolution of the conflict.
One of the reasons is that the Western countries believed that the Caucasus region is a Russia’s jurisdiction; therefore, it is Russia’s responsibility to restore order and peace in that area. Another explanation is that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict along with the dissolution of the Soviet Union presented an opportunity for the West to weaken Russia when it got involved in peacekeeping operations in Karabakh. International observers provided humanitarian support to both Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers and civilians who suffered from the conflict. However, those limited attempts by the EU or the Western powers to negotiate a ceasefire in this war have been effortless.
Azerbaijan’s Stable Ties with Turkey and its Western Allies
The final, yet nonetheless significant explanation of lack of pro-Western diplomatic ties for Armenia is rooted in the reality of Azerbaijan’s positive relations with the United States, European Union member states and to a considerable degree also with Russia. Azerbaijan was able to promote its pro-Western tendencies by re-shuffling the deck of its cards that it used in global arena. It realized that since Turkey, its big brother and guardian is one of the vital NATO members, a crucial ally for the United States, and a possessor of an incredible military and economic power in the region, then it should also begin building similar connections with all of Turkey’s allies that can potentially become Azerbaijan’s new sponsors for regaining the Nagorno-Karabakh area.
Given this narrative, Azerbaijan was able to attract the attention of then Senator Barack Obama, who visited the country in 2005. By that time, the Section 907 implemented by the U.S. Congress in 1992 has been waived by President Bush, and further prolonged by Barack Obama during his presidency. The Section 907 prohibited any form of direct aid to or assistance to the Azerbaijani government. The relations further strengthened during U.S war against the terror in Afghanistan and Iraq when Azerbaijan provided intelligence information, airspace access, and refueling of U.S. aircrafts. Azerbaijan also active participated in the NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.
In the economic sphere, Azerbaijan primarily currently cooperates with the US in the exportation of its energy resources to global markets, and particularly in Western Europe. The United States realizes the potential economic gain from the natural resources such as oil and gas available in Azerbaijan, as well as the geographical location of Azerbaijan and the access to Caspian Sea. The United States will continue to create stable ties with Azerbaijan in order not to lose a potential important ally to Russia. Also, the United States does not rest on the matters pertaining to the security of the Azerbaijani people.
Within the context of Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute, it can reasonably be argued that Russia pulls the strings on Armenia as a “marionette,” whereas, the United States implements the same tactic with Azerbaijan. Ultimately, both superpowers defend their own security interests by offering partnership to the disputing states in the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It becomes paradoxical when one realizes that in this situation these two conflicting states do not have any alternative options that can bring the resolution of the conflict in their favor, with Azerbaijan desiring to regain Karabakh enclave, and Armenia dearly holding on to every inch of the soil with the last drop of the blood. Alas, serving for the advancement of the global superpowers and their regional interests is the only way of survival for Armenia and Azerbaijan.