Russian Options in the Karabakh Conflict
With the eyes of most people locked on the debate between Trump and Biden, the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) has received relatively little attention in the West. Yet, this is a potentially very dangerous situation. Just think about this: the Armenians are accusing the Turks of shooting down an Armenian Su-25 over Armenia (not NK!). If that is true, then some would say that this is huge news because this would mean that a NATO member state has committed an act of aggression against the member of the CSTO.
Does that mean that war between two biggest military alliances on the planet is inevitable?
In fact, it seems to me that neither the CSTO nor NATO have much enthusiasm for getting involved.
Let’s take a step back and mention a few basic things.
- Armenia has followed an anti-Russian course ever since the Soros-backed revolution of 2018.
- Azerbaijan is clearly allied with, and supported by, Turkey – a country currently in one form of political crisis or another with pretty much everybody else. Erdogan is clearly a lose cannon and he cannot be trusted under any circumstances.
- Under international law, Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. For this reason, Armenia cannot appeal to the CSTO (just as Erdogan’s plea for NATO support against Russia when the Turks shot down a Russian Su-24M over Syria was rejected by the alliance).
- Militarily speaking, Azerbaijan has the quantitative and even the qualitative edge over Armenia, even if the latter does have some modern equipment. Yet, because neither side has a modern air force, it is not impossible that Turkey did send some F-16 to help the mostly outdated Azeri air force deal with Armenian Su-25s.
One would have imagined that Russia would immediately side with the Christian Armenia against the Muslim Azeris, but this time around there is some evidence that Russians have (finally!) learned some painful lessons from history, especially about Russia’s putatively “Orthodox” putative “brothers”. The sad truth is that, not unlike Belarus under Lukashenko, Armenia has, since at least 2018 been following the same type of “multi-vector” political course as Belarus. I would sum up this policy like this: “holding an anti-Russian political course while demanding the support of Russia”. The Russians did not like this any more in Armenia than they did in Belarus. But the big difference is this: while Russia cannot afford to “lose” Belarus, she has no real need of Armenia at all, especially an Armenia hostile to Russia.
That is not to say that Russian ought to back Azerbaijan. Why? Well, this has nothing to do with language or religion and everything to do with the fact that modern Azerbaijan is a political protégé of Erdogan’s Turkey, which is truly one of the most dangerous countries and political regimes out there, which Russia ought to deal with with the caution of a snake-handler dealing with a particularly nasty and unpredictable pit viper. Yes, Russia has to engage with both Turkey and Azerbaijan, if only because these two are powerful countries (at least in a regional sense) and because they are almost always up to no good, especially Turkey.
Then there is the issue of the US role in all this. We can be pretty sure that the US is talking to both sides telling them that as long as they maintain an anti-Russian course they will get the support of Uncle Shmuel. There are two problems with this:
- Both sides know that the US is talking to both sides
- When push comes to shove, the support of the USA really matters very little
I would even argue that any major escalation of the conflict will prove to both parties that the US is long on promises and short on actually delivering on them. In sharp contrast, Turkey does deliver. Yes, recklessly and, yes, in violation of international law, but still – Turkey does deliver and they are not shy about confirming this.
Just like in the case of Belarus or the Ukraine, Russia could stop this conflict, especially if the Kremlin decides to use military force, but this would be terrible in political terms and I am confident that Russia will not intervene overtly. For one thing, this war is a clear case of a zero-sum game in which a negotiated compromise is almost impossible to achieve.
Furthermore, both sides appear to be determined to flight this one to the end, so why should Russia intervene?
Seems to be that remaining a neutral intermediary is the best and only thing Russia ought to do for the time being. Once the dust settles and once either side fully realizes that Uncle Shmuel is more about words than action, then maybe Russia can, once again, try to offer a regional solution, possibly involving Iran and excluding the USA for sure. But that can only happen later.
Right now both sides have painted themselves into a corner and both sides seem to be equally committed to a total military victory.
Conclusion: in this conflict, Russia has no allies and no friends. Right now the Azeris seem to be winning, but if Armenia engages its Iskander missiles or recognizes the independence of NK (both of which the Armenians are now threatening to do), this will get ugly and a Turkish intervention will become possible. Let’s see how (and even if) the USA will do something to help Erevan. If not, it will be interesting to see what will happen once the Armenians re-discover a well-known historical truth: Armenia cannot survive without Russia. And even if the Armenians come to this conclusion, I still would recommend that Russia be very careful in placing her weight behind either side of the conflict (especially since the Azeris have international law on their side).
In other words, I recommend that Russia act only and exclusively in her own geostrategic interest and let the entire region discover how much help Uncle Shmuel can really deliver. Specifically, I submit that it is in Russia’s national security interest to make sure that:
- Turkey remains as weak as possible for as long as possible
- The USA remains as weak as possible in the entire region
Right now the Pax Americana is as bad in the Caucasus as it is in the Middle-East. This is good for Russia and she ought to do nothing which would help Uncle Shmuel. Only once the US is out of the picture, including in Armenia, should Russia offer aid and support to a peace settlement between the two belligerents.