Caucasus, another disaster 2022 for Russia
As it stands, the picture is dire for Russia in the South Caucasus, especially since nothing related to this situation is likely to improve any time soon.
What a disastrous year for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. When I wrote my article analyzing Russia’s position in the South Caucasus in late 2021 for Riddle Russia, it seemed things were going well for Moscow. They have established a military presence on the territory of the three South Caucasian republics (as well as three unrecognized states in the region) for the first time in more than ten years. The Kremlin has recovered from Turkey’s decision to shut the door on the Karabakh conflict in 2020 and has strangled the region. It is hard to imagine that many decisions about the Caucasus in the near future will be made without strong input, or at least tacit acceptance, from Moscow.
Fast forward only twelve months. After ten months of military disaster in Ukraine, Russia appears to be no longer dominant in the Caucasus. In fact, Russia is currently perhaps at its weakest in the region since Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan won their brief independence after World War I a century ago.
The most instructive example of this is provided by the most active crisis in the region, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The first two months of 2022 have passed fairly quietly, with only minor cease-fire violations ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. But in March, Baku upped the ante, with its troops taking control of the Karabashi-controlled village of Parukh directly under the supervision of Russian peacekeepers in the area. This is Azerbaijan’s first test of Russia’s ability to control the situation in Karabakh and the wider region. Moscow troops did not come out unscathed: they failed to convince Azerbaijani forces to return to their previous positions and relinquish control of the village, despite a clear violation of the November 2020 trilateral agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War.
The worse is yet to come. In August 2022, Azerbaijan again used force to achieve its goal of controlling all of Nagorno-Karabakh, attacking Karabakh Armenian positions in the Lachin Corridor, the only lifeline connecting Karabakh to Armenia and the outside world. In doing so, Baku was able to force the return of the towns of Lachin (Berdzor in Armenian) and Zabukh (Aghanvo) a year and a half before the deadline set in the 2020 ceasefire. Almost a month later, Azerbaijan has launched a full ceasefire. the scale of the offensive, this time targeting not Karabakh, but Armenia. In two days of fighting, nearly 300 deaths have been confirmed, as Azerbaijani forces have occupied new swathes of Armenian territory. Russian border guards active on the Armenian side of the border do nothing; a video appeared to show Russian troops abandoning their positions at the border post ahead of the Azeri advance. In the end, it wasn’t Russian mediation that ended the battle, as in previous years, but diplomacy and intense pressure from the United States – a first in this conflict.
This situation is part of a wider crisis of confidence in Russia’s capabilities and its value as a partner in Armenia generally. Russia and Armenia share strong formal military ties: the two countries have had a mutual defense treaty since 1997 and both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which also includes a mutual defense clause that, when implemented, obliges all other members. the state to provide military means to defend the member concerned. During Azerbaijan’s attack in September, Armenia enforced this article appropriately, but it ran counter to the immobility of the Russian-dominated bloc, which decided to deploy a simple fact-finding mission. The move sparked unprecedented protests against the CSTO in Yerevan, with members of the Armenian public calling on Armenia to withdraw from the bloc, while senior Armenian officials publicly expressed their lack of trust in the organisation.
Finally, the incident that most damaged Russia’s credibility in the Armenian and Karabakh conflicts occurred at the end of the year. On December 12, a group of Azerbaijani “environmental activists” set up camp in the Lachin Corridor, blocking the only road linking Karabakh to Armenia and the outside world. The protesters, deployed in a transparent manner by the Aliyev regime – Azerbaijan is a country where real protests were broken up violently by the police within minutes – started a blockade that has lasted for over a month now and shows no signs of abating. Russian peacekeepers, who were supposed to guarantee the free movement of goods and vehicles along the roads, instead ensured the safety of the “demonstrators”. Armenian officials reacted forcefully: Mr Pashinyan said in a meeting with Mr Putin himself that “it turns out that the Lachin Corridor is not [en fait] not under the control of Russian peacekeepers”, while the head of the Armenian Security Council, Armen Grigoryan, claimed that Armenia was under “intense pressure” to join the Russian Union State. Belarus and the blockade of the corridor were one of them. Russia’s inability or unwillingness to open the Lachin route has been the most serious stumbling block in Russian-Armenian relations to date, and although it reopens tomorrow, the damage has already been done.
In the face of all this, two other foreign actors have become far more directly involved in Armenia: the United States and France. Washington underwent intense diplomatic activity after the September fighting, with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calling Pashinyan and Aliyev almost daily for weeks to maintain a fragile truce. Senior Armenian officials, meanwhile, have spent a long time in the United States this year, with Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan and Defense Minister Suren Papikyan traveling for weeks there, not to mention numerous visits, also in France. The culmination of these efforts was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Yerevan on Sept. 18, where she spoke out strongly against Azerbaijan’s aggression, citing Armenia alongside Taiwan and Ukraine to argue that the world “must choose democracy. [plutôt que] autocracy”. This burgeoning relationship has not resulted in a firm commitment in the form of additional military assistance or cooperation (although this is being discussed), but Armenia made its first purchase of military equipment from India this year, purchasing $250 million worth of military equipment. Rocket Artillery Systems Taken together, this all amounts to a decline in Russia’s relative strength in Armenia to levels that would have seemed unthinkable a year ago.
Things have not improved much for Moscow across the region, including with the other main party to the Karabakh conflict: Azerbaijan. While Baku formally courted Russia this year, signing an alliance agreement with Moscow literally two days before the invasion of Ukraine, the reality is more nuanced. Ilham Aliyev has been trying to make Russia one of the main scourges of Azerbaijan, a hidden hand trying to embolden the Karabakh separatists and destabilize the ‘peace process’, as it stands, with Armenia. The targeting of Ruben Vardanyan, the Armenian-born oligarch who renounced Russian citizenship and moved to Karabakh to serve as minister of state in Stepanakert’s government, as a Kremlin agent sent to derail peace talks with Yerevan, is a prime example. Moscow appears, and somewhat embarrassingly, to abandon its traditional position as regional power broker and lose much of its influence over Baku, now in many ways needing Azerbaijan more than Azerbaijan does not need Russia. Not having many friends in the world, Russia does not want to take any action that could upset its small neighbor to the south, but it faces many challenges to its peacekeepers in Karabakh, leaving them looking powerless. While Russia is counting on a new gas deal with Azerbaijan to help it effectively wash some of its gas for sale to Europe, it is now Aliyev who holds many cards in his relationship with Putin. .
The evolution of Russian influence in the last states of the South Caucasus is less spectacular, but no more convincing for Moscow. In Georgia, the ruling Georgian Dream party has done everything possible to avoid antagonism with the Kremlin, so much so that it has become outrageous among the Georgian population (perhaps the most anti-Russian outside of Ukraine). While Georgian leaders, including Cardinal Gray and de facto ruler Bidzina Ivanishvili, have now avoided providing near-total support to Ukraine, they have remained at least openly committed to Georgia’s membership in the European Union. Russia’s military presence in the Russian-controlled states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a more tangible way to act in the region. In Abkhazia, more than three-quarters of Russian military equipment stationed in the region was delivered to Ukraine in May, while another knowledgeable analyst told the author that “everything” had been moved from Abkhazia, sparking fear among the people. local population for all Georgian efforts to take advantage of it. Russia also recruited large portions of South Ossetia’s population (which may total as high as 30,000) for its operations in Ukraine, which caused unrest when defected fighters questioned South Ossetia’s president at the time. Confidence in Russia’s ability to provide security has been shaken in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali for the first time since Russia’s de facto occupation of the two regions in 2008.
As it stands, the picture is dire for Russia in the South Caucasus, especially since nothing related to this situation is likely to improve any time soon. As the invasion of Ukraine continues to falter, demanding more and more resources and attention from the Kremlin, Moscow will have a hard time maintaining its currently weakened level of influence in the region and will not slip any further. On the other hand, as the flames of insurrection begin to simmer again among the reformed Chechen separatist formations now active and thriving in Ukraine, Putin’s grip on both sides of the Caucasus Mountains may begin to unravel in 2023.
Translated and published with permission from Riddle Russia. The original article can be found HERE