It very much seems that the countries of the Caucasus are beginning to publicly acknowledge Russia’s decline. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan the La Repubblica in an interview given to an Italian newspaper on September 4 he said that Russia could not ensure the security of its country against an increasingly aggressive Azerbaijan, which has gained dominance in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region since the end of 2020.
Responding to the allegations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that his country remains a “guarantee of security” in the region. Peskov also insisted that Moscow played a prominent role in stabilizing the region and will continue to do so in the future. Spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Separately, Maria Zaharova called Pashinyan’s comments “public rhetoric bordering on rudeness” and said that instead of blaming others, Armenians should take responsibility for their own actions. A day earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had replaced the head of the South Caucasus peacekeeping force, the second such decision in recent months.
The Armenian Prime Minister’s comments were noteworthy because JYerevan has long been a close ally of Moscowits security and economic well-being depend on the Kremlin.
Russia’s reaction was equally telling: they essentially admitted that the Armenians had to start “taking care of themselves.”
Pashinyan explained Moscow’s inaction by saying that the Kremlin is focusing all its resources on fighting in Ukraine, but at the same time it is a fact that the situation in the South Caucasus preceded the conflict in Ukraine:
When the fight broke out again in the summer of 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Karabakh enclave. Azerbaijan has retaken the territories controlled by Armenia since the end of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war that ended in 1994. The Azeris have so far gained a serious military and intelligence superiority, thanks to their most important ally: Turkey. Ankara took advantage of the conflict and began to deepen its relations with the states of the region.
For decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow was the region’s most important security guarantee, while Turkey and Azerbaijan saw an opportunity for Russia to focus on Ukraine after the overthrow of the pro-Russian government in Kiev in 2014. THEnkara and Baku perceived that Moscow’s resources were limited, so it was unlikely to intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh, despite the fact that his troops were and are currently stationed in the area. The gamble paid off: when the fighting resumed three years ago, Moscow was essentially powerlesshe didn’t run out of energy except for a “peace conference” and a number of declarations.
The Russian peacekeeping operation started in 2020 after the conflict was unsuccessful, presumably because Moscow was probably already preparing for the war in Ukraine at that time. Nineteen months after the outbreak of the war, the Russians are in a much weaker position than in February 2022, as the armed forces are not performing very well in combat, to put it mildly, the sanctions are slowly but surely eroding the Russian economy, and President Putin’s political stability, which was believed to be invincible, has also cracked. as a result of the Wagner Rebellion.
Although Pashinyan only recently went public with the Kremlin, his comments show that he recognizes that his country can no longer rely on Russia. What is clear is that despite the official recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire in April 2021, Washington has done very little to break up the Turkish-Azerbaijani coalition in the South Caucasus. therefore, the Armenian Prime Minister has to balance between Washington and Ankara, who are meeting each other again. The latter step is particularly dangerous, since Armenian-Turkish relations have never been cloudless, and although Turkey is open to opening up to Yerevan, Pasinján receives a lot of criticism in his own country because he is willing to do so.
This criticism basically comes from three directions:
- The historical memory of the Armenian Genocide is still alive today in the Armenian population, so the opposition can easily mobilize against Pasinján with anti-Turkish slogans.
- The Armenian diaspora is considered an extremely serious factor not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of its influence, and Armenians living abroad who are not threatened by armed conflicts are naturally less accepting of the approach of Ankara and Yerevan.
- And for the leadership of Nagorno-Karabakh, it essentially means survival if the Armenian-Azeri conflict continues, since in the event of a more lasting peace, the enclave would definitely come under Baku’s control.
By the way, Moscow lost its influence over Azerbaijan in practice a long time ago: by freezing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for a quarter of a century in favor of Yerevan.
It is worth repeating that, with the presence of Russian peacekeepers, Baku launched an attack on the enclave using the support, intelligence and weapons of Turkey, a rival of Moscow, and did not shy away from shooting at the Russian peacekeepers.
To add to the situation, it is worth highlighting that the Georgians are probably also watching the events with interest, since out of the three Caucasian countries, only their territories are occupied by Russian troops. A further weakening of Moscow could allow them to regain control over the two territories. Due to the signs of growing closeness between Ankara and Tbilisi, Georgia would certainly not refuse Turkey’s help if it were offered, but it is important to point out that this step would have to wait years even if both countries would really commit to it, especially considering that that the Georgian government is painfully careful not to rattle its northern neighbor too much.
For the time being, the Turks are focusing on exploiting the conflict in Ukraine, with which they will dramatically increase their influence in the northern part of the Black Sea, which the Russians took from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 18th century. Since 2014, the Turks have opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, whose Tatar population they consider relatives.
There are countless reasons why the Caucasus is so important to Ankara: Russia and Turkey (or Iran) are rivals in the region, thus, they are happy with any move that serves the disadvantage of the other. The situation is compounded by the fact that Georgia has a significant coastline on the Black Sea, And Azerbaijan still has significant reserves of fossil fuels, moreover, the road to the Caspian Sea leads through it and Armenia. It should not be forgotten from the formula that a serious military powers like to maintain buffer zones between themselves, to be able to settle a possible armed conflict by leaving their own territory intact.
Azerbaijan was wrested from the grasp of the Russians a long time ago, and now it looks very likely that Armenia will be next in cooperation with NATO.
Cover photo: Azeri soldiers next to a T-64 tank in Nagorno-Karabakh in the spring of 2020. Credit: Alex McBride/Getty Images