Can and Should Russia Stop the War in the Caucasus?
This war is officially a war between Azerbaijan and the (unrecognized) Republic of Nagorno Karabakh (RNK) aka “Republic of Artsakh” (ROA) which I shall refer to simply as Nagorno Karabakh or “NK”. As is often the case, the reality is much more complicated. For one thing, Erdogan’s Turkey has been deeply involved since Day 1 (and, really, even much before that) while Armenia has been backing NK to the hilt since the breakup of the Soviet Union. It is even worse: Turkey is a member of NATO while Armenia is a member of the CSTO. Thus a war started over a relatively small and remote area could, in theory, trigger an international nuclear war. The good news here is that nobody in NATO or the CSTO wants such a war, especially since technically speaking the NK is not part of Armenia (Armenia has not even recognized this republic so far!) and, therefore, not under the protection of the CSTO. And since there have been no attacks on Turkey proper, at least so far, NATO also has no reason to get involved.
I should mention here that in terms of international law, NK is an integral part of Azerbaijan. Still, almost everybody agrees that there is a difference between NK proper and the kind of security zone the army of NK created around NK (see map)
(note: the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic is part of Azerbaijan)
The reality on the ground, however, is very different, so let’s look at the position of each actor in turn, beginning with the party which started the war: Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has been reforming and rearming its military since the Azeri forces got comprehensively defeated in the 1988-1994 war. Furthermore, for President Aliev this war represents what might well be the best and last chance to defeat the NK and Armenian forces. Most observers agree that should Aliev fail to achieve at least an appearance of victory he will lose power.
Armenia would have been quite happy to keep the status quo and continue to form one country with the NK de facto while remaining two countries de jure. Still, living in the tough and even dangerous “neighborhood” of the Caucasus, the Armenians never forgot that they are surrounded by more or less hostile countries just like they also remained acutely aware of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ideology which, sooner or later, would make war inevitable.
Iran, which is often forgotten, is not directly involved in the conflict, at least so far, but has been generally sympathetic to Armenia, primarily because Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ideology represents a danger for the entire region, including Iran.
Turkey has played a crucial behind the scenes role in the rearmament and reorganization of Azeri forces. Just as was the case in Libya, Turkish attack drones have been used with formidable effectiveness against NK forces, in spite of the fact that the Armenians have some very decent air defenses. As for Erdogan himself, this war is his latest attempt to paint himself as some kind of neo-Ottoman sultan which will reunite all the Turkic people under his rule.
One of the major misconceptions about this conflict is the assumption that Russia has always been, and will always be, on the side of Armenia and the NK, but while this was definitely true for pre-1917 Russia, this is not the case today at all. Why?
Let’s examine the Russian position in this conflict.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Armenia (proper, as opposed to NK) is a member of the CSTO and should anybody (including Azerbaijan and/or Turkey) attack Armenia, Russia would most definitely intervene and stop the attack, either by political or even by military means. Considering what Turkey has done to the Armenian people during the infamous Armenian Genocide of 1914-1923 this makes perfectly good sense: at least now the Armenian people know that Russia will never allow another genocide to take place. And the Turks know that too.
And yet, things are not quite that simple either.
For example, Russia did sell a lot of advanced weapon systems to Azerbaijan (see here for one good example). In fact, relations between Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev are famously very warm. And while it is true that Azerbaijan left the CSTO in 1999, Russia and Azerbaijan have retained a very good relationship which some even characterize as a partnership or even an alliance.
Furthermore, Azerbaijan has been a much better partner to Russia than Armenia, especially since the Soros-financed “color revolution” of 2018 which put Nikol Pashinian in power. Ever since Pashinian got to power, Armenia has been following the same kind of “multi-vector” policy which saw Belarus’ Lukashenko try to ditch Russia and integrate into the EU/NATO/US area of dominance. The two biggest differences between Belarus and Armenia are a) Belarusians and Russians are the same people and b) Russia cannot afford to lose Belarus whereas Russia has really zero need for Armenia.
On the negative side, not only has Azerbaijan left the CSTO in 1999, but Azerbaijan has also joined the openly anti-Russian GUAM Organization (which is headquartered in Kiev).
Next, there is the Turkey-Erdogan factor as seen from Russia. Simply put, the Russians will never trust any Turk who shares Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman worldview and ideology. Russia has already fought twelve full-scale wars against the Ottomans and she has no desire to let the Turks trigger another one (which they almost did when they shot down a Russian Su-24M over northern Syria). Of course, Russia is much more powerful than Turkey, at least in military terms, but in political terms an open war against Turkey could be disastrous for Russian foreign and internal policy objectives. And, of course, the best way for Russia to avoid such a war in the future is to make absolutely sure that the Turks realize that should they attack they will be suffering a crushing defeat in a very short time. So far, this has worked pretty well, especially after Russia saved Erdogan from the US-backed coup against him.
Some observers have suggested that Russia and Armenia being Christian, the former has some kind of moral obligation towards the latter. I categorically disagree. My main reason to disagree here is that Russians now are acutely aware of the disgusting lack of gratitude of our (supposed) “brothers” and (supposed) “fellow Christians” have shown as soon as Russia was in need.
[Sidebar: most Armenians are not Orthodox Christians, but members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which are miaphysites/monophysites. They are also not Slavs]
The ONLY slavic or Orthodox people who did show real gratitude for Russia have been the Serbs. All the rest of them have immediately rushed to prostitute themselves before Uncle Shmuel and have competed with each other for the “honor” of deploying US weapons systems targeted at Russia. The truth is that like every superpower, Russia is too big and too powerful to have real “friends” (Serbia being a quite beautiful exception to this rule). The Russian Czar Alexander III famously said that “Russia only has two true allies: her army and her navy”. Well, today the list is longer (now we could add the Aerospace forces, the FSB, etc.), but in terms of external allies or friends, the Serbian people (as opposed to some of the Serbian leaders) are the only ones out there which are true friends of Russia (and that, in spite of the fact that under Elstin and his “democratic oligarchs” Russia shamefully betrayed a long list of countries and political leaders, including Serbia).
Then there is the religious factor which, while crucial in the past, really plays no role whatsoever in this conflict. Oh sure, political leaders on both sides like to portray themselves as religious, but this is just PR. The reality is that both the Azeris and the Armenians place ethnic considerations far above any religious ones, if only because, courtesy of the militant atheism of the former USSR, many, if not most, people in Armenia, Azerbaijan and even Russia nowadays are agnostic secularists with no more than a passing interest for the “spiritual values which shaped their national identity” (or something along these lines).
One major concern for Russia is the movement of Turkish-run Takfiris from Syria to Azerbaijan. The Russians have already confirmed that this has taken place (the French also reported this) and, if true, that would give Russia the right to strike these Takfiris on Azeri soil. So far, this threat is minor, but if it becomes real, we can expect Russian cruise missiles to enter the scene.
Finally, there are major Azeri and Armenian communities in Russia, which means two things: first, Russia cannot allow this conflict to sneak across the borders and infect Russia and, second, there are millions of Russians who will have ties, often strong ones, to both of these countries.
Though they are not currently officially involved, we still need to look, at least superficially, at the Empire’s view of this conflict. To summarize it I would say that the Empire is absolutely delighted with this crisis which is the third one blowing up on Russia’s doorstep (the other two being the Ukraine and Belarus). There is really very little the Empire can do against Russia: the economic blockade and sanctions totally failed, and in purely military terms Russia is far more powerful than the Empire. Simply put: the Empire simply does not have what it takes to take on Russia directly, but setting off conflicts around the Russia periphery is really easy.
For one thing, the internal administrative borders of the USSR bear absolutely no resemblance to the places of residence of the various ethnicities of the former Soviet Union. Looking at them one would be excused for thinking that they were drawn precisely to generate the maximal amount of tension between the many ethnic groups that were cut into separate pieces. There is also no logic in accepting the right of the former Soviet Republics to secede from the Soviet Union, but then denying the same right to those local administrative entities which now would want to separate from a newly created republic which they don’t want to be part of.
Second, many, if not most, of the so-called “countries” and “nations” which suddenly appeared following the collapse of the Soviet Union have no historical reality whatsoever. As a direct result, these newborn “nations” had no historical basis to root themselves in, and no idea what independence really means. Some nations, like the Armenians, have deep roots as far back as antiquity, but their current borders are truly based on nothing at all. Whatever may be the case, it has been extremely easy for Uncle Shmuel to move into these newly independent states, especially since many (or even most) of these states saw Russia as the enemy (courtesy of the predominant ideology of the Empire which was imposed upon the mostly clueless people of the ex-Soviet periphery). The result? Violence, or even war, all around that periphery (which the Russians think of as their “near abroad”).
I think that most Russian people are aware that while there has been a major price to pay for this, the cutting away of the ex-Soviet periphery from Russia has been a blessing in disguise. This is confirmed by innumerable polls which show that the Russian people are generally very suspicious of any plans involving the use of the Russian Armed Forces outside Russia (for example, it took all of Putin’s “street cred” to convince the Russian people that the Russian military intervention in Syria was a good idea).
There is also one more thing which we must always remember: for all the stupid US and western propaganda about Russia and, later, the USSR being the “prison of the people” (small nations survived way better in this “prison” than they did under the “democratic” rule of European colonists worldwide!), the truth is that because of the rabidly russophobic views of Soviet Communists (at least until Stalin – he reversed this trend) the Soviet “peripheral” Republics all lived much better than the “leftover Russia” which the Soviets called the RSFSR. In fact, the Soviet period was a blessing in many ways for all the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union and only now, under Putin, has this trend finally been reversed. Today Russia is much richer than the countries around her periphery and she has no desire to squander that wealth on a hostile and always ungrateful periphery. The bottom line is this: Russia owes countries such as Armenia or Azerbaijan absolutely nothing and they have no right whatsoever to expect Russia to come to their aid: this won’t happen, at least not unless Russia achieves a measurable positive result from this intervention.
Still, let’s now look at the reasons why Russia might want to intervene.
First, this is, yet again, a case of Erdogan’s megalomania and malevolence resulting in a very dangerous situation for Russia. After all, all the Azeris need to do to secure an overt Turkish intervention is to either attack Armenia proper, which might force a Russian intervention or, alternatively, be so severely beaten by the Armenians that Turkey might have to intervene to avoid a historical loss of face for both Aliev and Erdogan.
Second, it is crucial for Russia to prove that the CSTO matters and is effective in protecting CSTO member states. In other words, if Russia let’s Turkey attack Armenia directly the CSTO would lose all credibility, something which Russia cannot allow.
Third, it is crucial for Russia to prove to both Azerbaijan and Armenia that the USA is long on hot air and empty promises, but can’t get anything done in the Caucasus. In other words, the solution to this war has to be a Russian one, not a US/NATO/EU one. Once it becomes clear in the Caucasus that, like in the Middle-East, Russia has now become the next “kingmaker” then the entire region will finally return to peace and a slow return to prosperity.
So far the Russians have been extremely careful in their statements. They mostly said that Russian peacekeepers could only be deployed after all the parties to this conflict agree to their deployment. Right now, we are still very far away from this.
Here is what happened so far: the Azeris clearly hoped for a short and triumphant war, but in spite of very real advances in training, equipment, etc the Azeri Blitzkrieg has clearly failed in spite of the fact that the Azeri military is more powerful than the NK+Armenian one. True, the Azeris did have some initial successes, but they all happened in small towns mostly located in the plain. But take a look at this topographic map of the area of operations and see for yourself what the biggest problem for the Azeris is:
Almost all of NK is located in the mountains (hence the prefix “nagorno” which means “mountainous”) and offensive military operations in the mountains are truly a nightmare, even for very well prepared and equipped forces (especially in the winter season, which is fast approaching). There are very few countries out there who could successfully conduct offensive operations in mountains, Russia is one of them, and Azerbaijan clearly is not.
Right now both sides agree on one thing only: only total victory can stop this war. While politically that kind of language makes sense, everybody knows that this war will not end up in some kind of total victory for one side and total defeat of the other side. The simple fact is that the Azeris can’t overrun all of NK while the Armenians (in Armenia proper and in the NK) cannot counter-attack and defeat the Azeri military in the plains.
Right now, and for as long as the Azeris and the Armenians agree that they won’t stop at anything short of a total victory, Russia simply cannot intervene. While she has the military power to force both sides to a total standstill, she has no legal right to do so and please remember that, unlike the USA, Russia does respect international law (if only because she has no plans to become the “next USA” or some kind of world hegemon in charge of maintaining the peace worldwide). So there are only two possible options for a Russian military intervention:
- A direct (and confirmed by hard evidence) attack on the territory of Armenia
- Both the Azeris and the Armenians agree that Russia ought to intervene.
I strongly believe that Erdogan and Aliev will do whatever it takes to prevent option one from happening (while they will do everything in their power short of an overt attack on Armenia to prevail). Accidents, however, do happen, so the risk of a quick and dramatic escalation of the conflict will remain until both sides agree to stop.
Right now, neither side has a clear victory and, as sad as I am to write these words, both sides have enough reserves (not only military, but also political and economic) to keep at it for a while longer. However, neither side has what it would take to wage a long and bloody positional war of attrition, especially in the mountain ranges. Thus both sides probably already realize that this one will have to stop, sooner rather than later (according to some Russian experts, we are only talking weeks here).
Furthermore, there are a lot of very dangerous escalations taking place, including artillery and missile strikes on cities and infrastructure objects. If the Armenians are really pushed against a wall, they could both recognize NK and hit the Azeri energy and oil/gas infrastructure with their formidable Iskander tactical ballistic missiles. Should that happen, then we can be almost certain that both the Azeris and the Turks will try to attack Armenia, with dramatic and most dangerous consequences.
This conflict can get much, much more bloody and much more dangerous. It is thus in the interests of the entire region (but not the USA) to stop it. Will the Armenian lobby be powerful enough to pressure the USA into a more helpful stance? So far, the US is, at least officially, calling all sides for a ceasefire (along with France and Russia), but we all know how much Uncle Shmuel’s word can be trusted. At least there is no public evidence that the USA is pushing for war behind the scenes (the absence of such evidence does, of course, not imply the evidence of the absence of such actions!).
At the time of writing this (Oct. 9th) Russia has to wait for the parties to come back to reality and accept a negotiated solution. If and when that happens, there are options out there, including making NK a special region of Azerbaijan which would be placed under the direct protection of Russia and/or the CSTO with Russian forces deployed inside the NK region. It would even be possible to have a Turkish military presence all around the NK (and even some monitors inside!) to reassure the Azeris that Armenian forces have left the region and are staying out. The Azeris already know that they cannot defeat Armenia proper without risking a Russian response and they are probably going to realize that they cannot overrun NK. As for the Armenians, it is all
nice and fun to play the “multi-vector” card, but Russia won’t play by these rules anymore. Her message here is simple: if you are Uncle Shmuels’s bitch, then letUncle Shmuel save you; if you want us to help, then give us a really good reason why: we are listening”.
This seems to me an eminently reasonable position to take and I hope and believe that Russia will stick to it.
PS: the latest news is that Putin invited the Foreign Ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia to Moscow for “consultations” (not “negotiations”, at least not yet) with Sergei Lavrov as a mediator. Good. Maybe this can save lives since a bad peace will always be better than a good war.
PPS: the latest news (Oct 9th 0110 UTC) is that the Russians have forced Armenia and Azerbaijan to negotiate for over thirteen hours, but at the end of the day, both sides agreed to an immediate ceasefire and for substantive negotiations to begin. Frankly, considering the extreme hostility of the parties towards each other, I consider this outcome almost miraculous. Lavrov truly earned his keep today! Still, we now have to see if Russia can convince both sides to actually abide by this agreement. Here is a machine translation of the first Russian report about this outcome:
Statement by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia
In response to the appeal of the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin and in accordance with the agreements of the President of the Russian Federation V.V. Putin, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan I.G. Aliyev and Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia N.V. Pashinyan, the parties agreed on the following steps :
1. A ceasefire is declared from 12:00 pm on October 10, 2020 for humanitarian purposes for the exchange of prisoners of war and other detained persons and bodies of the dead, mediated and in accordance with the criteria of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
2. The specific parameters of the ceasefire regime will be agreed upon additionally.
3. The Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia, with the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, on the basis of the basic principles of the settlement, begin substantive negotiations with the aim of reaching a peaceful settlement as soon as possible.
4. The parties confirm the invariability of the format of the negotiation process.