Photo Credit: Embassy of Azerbaijan Belgium
By W. Hayden Taillon
Late last month, in a sign of just how far Armenia’s previously strong relationship with Russia has fallen in the past year, MP Gagik Melkonyan of Armenia’s governing Civil Contract party warned that if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to visit Armenia in the near future, “he should be arrested,” adding that Putin should “stay in his country.”
This noteworthy statement came in the wake of the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s release of a warrant for Putin’s arrest on charges of war crimes in Ukraine, specifically regarding the forced deportation of Ukrainian children into Russia. Armenia has been in the process of finalizing ongoing plans to accede to the Court’s jurisdiction, which would (at least theoretically) obligate it to enforce the Court’s decision and extradite Putin to an ICC tribunal were he to enter the country.
Following the issuance of the arrest warrant, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned Armenia that its plan for accession was “absolutely unacceptable” and threatened “extremely negative consequences” if it were to come to fruition. On March 31, Russia announced that it was banning the importation of Armenian dairy products: ostensibly for health reasons, yet the move was received as a warning of potential further economic sanction, a significant threat for a country whose economy depends heavily on exports to Russia. Deputy President of the Armenian parliament Hakob Arshakyan later apologized in an interview for the statement made by Melkonyan, expressing that the government has no “intention or desire” to arrest the Russian president and ambiguously promising confidence that accession to the ICC will “not harm the strategic relations between Armenia and Russia.”
This tense exchange is only the latest example of how Armenia’s relationship with Russia has begun to sour in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, a very significant turning point for a country that has historically been a major Russian ally and remains a member of the CSTO, the Russian-led military alliance of former-Soviet states which acts as a semi-equivalent of the Western NATO alliance. That it is now even a question whether the Russian president could potentially face arrest and extradition to the West were he to set foot on Armenian soil is an astonishing development.
Armenia’s Conflict with Azerbaijan
All of this is taking place over the backdrop of recent escalations in Armenia’s ongoing conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan, largely over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is majority ethnic-Armenian but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. The century-old conflict is closely intertwined with the region’s history of Russian imperialism. Both nations were part of the Russian Empire for most of the 19th century and the Soviet Union for most of the 20th, during which time Russian control over their affairs prevented dialogue or progress toward a resolution of the mutual ethnic claims on Nagorno-Karabakh. A war broke out between the two countries as they gained independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, which ended in a ceasefire in 1994 with Armenians holding control of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as some additional Azerbaijani territory.
The conflict simmered for decades, with occasional outbreaks of violence, until 2020, when Azerbaijan invaded the Armenian-held territory with a newfound military advantage and seized back the land that had been occupied by Armenia in the previous war, except for most of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The 2020 war, this time an Azerbaijani victory, ended with a new Russian-negotiated ceasefire and, crucially, the introduction of Russian peacekeeping forces to patrol the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh still held by ethnic-Armenians.
This was the state of play in the region during the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To Armenia, Russia remained a political and cultural ally as well as its security guarantor. To Azerbaijan, Russia was a close partner and a growing ally. In the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion, however, these dynamics have shifted remarkably.
Developments Since the Invasion of Ukraine
With Russia distracted with the war in Ukraine, while also consistently proving an unwillingness to have its peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh interfere, last year Azerbaijan quickly seized its opportunity. It began engaging in increasingly flagrant ceasefire violations, shut off gas to population centers, and forced entire villages to flee their homes. Last September, Azerbaijani forces crossed the internationally-recognized border into Armenia itself and hundreds of people were killed in several days of fighting.
In December, Azerbaijanis dubiously identifying as environmental protesters began, with the tacit support of the Azerbaijani government, a blockade of the Lachin corridor connecting ethnic-Armenian-held Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper. This induced a dire shortage of food and resources within Nagorno-Karabakh and has drawn widespread international condemnation.
In the face of these threats, Armenia has found little support, let alone defense, from Russia. Following the September incursions, which Armenia viewed as assaults on their territorial sovereignty and blatant violations of the ceasefire agreement, the Russia-led CSTO alliance not only refused to intervene but refused to even condemn Azerbaijan’s actions. Secretary of the Security Council of Armenia Armen Grigoryan argued last month that the CSTO was simply parroting Azerbaijan’s talking points and refusing to acknowledge even the internationally-recognized borders of Armenia.
Russia has been similarly inactive in response to the blockade of the Lachin corridor, which via the 2020 ceasefire agreement was to be patrolled by Russian peacekeepers with the stated responsibility of ensuring that it remained open. Since the blockade began, Russian peacekeepers have refused to intervene to clear it and appear to have made little to no other meaningful efforts to resolve the situation.
Russian Influence Wanes
The Armenian government and people have grown increasingly exasperated with the dismissive indifference of their long-time ally Russia towards their national security and the inaction of the military alliance which is supposed to defend them. Experts argue that Azerbaijan’s actions in September were largely a test of Russia’s willingness to intervene to defend Armenia even as it struggles to upkeep its war in Ukraine. With Russia’s response tepid at best, many fear an emboldened Azerbaijan and the potential for another outbreak of war in the near future. Russia’s military struggles throughout its campaign in Ukraine have also raised questions in Armenia as to whether Russia has the military capability to defend them in the first place.
Thus, Armenia has begun to drift away from Russia and the CSTO and look elsewhere for security guarantees and partnership. In January, Armenia refused to host scheduled CSTO joint military exercises in its territory, and last month it declined to take part in the alliance’s leadership rotation. Earlier this month, the Armenian defense ministry announced that the country’s military will participate in two U.S.-led joint military exercises this year instead.
These moves have led some to speculate that the country may be preparing to exit the alliance as it begins orienting more toward the West. Indeed, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has long been highly and publicly critical of the CSTO and its efficacy for Armenia and has refused to state explicitly that he is not planning a withdrawal from the bloc. At one point when asked if that option was being considered, he responded, “Can we say that Armenia will leave the CSTO? Maybe the CSTO will leave Armenia?”
The West has been eager to fill the void. When the September fighting broke out, it was U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, not the Russians, who negotiated on call with the leaders of both sides to reach a peaceful settlement. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi traveled in-person to the Armenian capital of Yerevan to support the diplomatic effort. In late 2022, the E.U. replaced Russia’s traditional role as regional mediator and sponsored talks between the two sides, moderated by European Council President Charles Michel, aimed at negotiating a more long-term peace. And, much to Russia’s chagrin, the E.U. in February launched a civilian monitoring mission to the Armenian border, on a two-year mandate, with the invitation of the Armenian government.
In Azerbaijan as well, the Ukraine war has similarly had an alienating effect on relations with Russia. Azerbaijan had signed a wide-reaching alliance agreement with Russia just two days before the invasion, after which it quickly reversed course and distanced itself from the partnerships, pushing for closer relations with the West instead. To Azerbaijan, the conflict with Armenia is about preserving its territorial sovereignty despite the independence ambitions of an ethnic-minority breakaway region backed by an occupying foreign power, a dynamic with strong parallels in Ukraine which leave it sympathetic to that country’s current plight.
Significance for Russia and the World
For Russia’s President Putin, these rapid and dramatic developments in the dynamics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict represent a major setback. Putin has long been driven by a Russian nationalist ideological identity rooted in imperialism and nostalgic for the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. During his time in power, Putin has manifested this age-old ideology in defense of what he calls the “Russian world,” an interpretation of post-Soviet regions as integral parts of a greater Russian community, with the Russian nation (and Putin himself, as its leader) responsible for its preservation.
Putin has taken this goal of retaining neo-imperial Russian political, cultural, and economic hegemony over post-Soviet states seriously. He has propped up pro-Russia regimes in Belarus and Kazakhstan, seized and held territory for the purpose of destabilization in Moldova and Georgia, menaced and threatened the NATO-aligned post-Soviet Baltic nations, and, in Ukraine, ultimately resorted to full-scale invasion: all for the purpose of preventing Western reorientation and preserving the vestiges of the Russian Empire.
In Armenia and Azerbaijan, Putin had long fulfilled this objective by playing the role of regional power-broker amidst a smoldering conflict while maintaining close relations with both sides. No longer. By disengaging from its alliance with Armenia and alienating its partner Azerbaijan, all while demonstrating unrelenting cruelty towards another post-Soviet successor state, Russia is losing its foothold in the region.
To a great extent, the shifting dynamics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict instantiate a broader post-Ukraine invasion trend of Western consolidation and Russian fragmentation. In his desperation to hold onto Ukraine, Putin overplayed his hand, and now his fragile empire is crumbling. As Eastern Europe and the Caucasus turn to the West, Central Asia turns to China. Russia, meanwhile, is fading into the background and watching its status as a world superpower slip into history.
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