Recent geopolitical developments in the South Caucasus have once again appeared in the headlines of media and analytical centers. Experts have been questioning whether Russia is distancing itself from the region. Armenian regional experts and officials have been questioning Russia’s motives in the region, considering developments in Artsakh and the latest Azerbaijani escalation. Russia is navigating the narrow complexities of the post-2020 Artsakh War regional architecture, asserting itself as the main power broker in the region (i.e. brokering the 2020 trilateral ceasefire agreement, arranging humanitarian aid to Artsakh via the Berdzor Corridor and Aghdam, and possibly a new deal in the coming days) through compromise or political flexibility. This flexibility has caused friction in Moscow-Yerevan relations.
Many in Russia, including high officials, are suspicious of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s motives towards their country. The Armenian leader has speculated that Russia seems to be leaving the region. However, Russia still views the region as “blizhnee zarubezhe” (its “near abroad”) or its “lebensraum” (its “vital space”). From Russia’s perspective, if it leaves the South Caucasus, its only route to the Middle East would be cut off, Iran and Turkey would clash for power, and the North Caucasus would become vulnerable to instability.
PM Pashinyan recently criticized the Russian peacekeepers stationed in Artsakh for not unblocking the Berdzor (Lachin) Corridor. While Russia does share responsibility for the continuation of the blockade, Russia also ended the 2020 war and imposed a trilateral agreement on Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia should coordinate its diplomatic efforts in Artsakh with Russia, as the EU-backed agreement in Prague in October 2022, where Armenia and Azerbaijan recognized each other’s territorial integrity, showed the catastrophic consequences of diplomatic miscalculations.
Instead, Armenia has chosen another direction, launching a battle of words with Russia. High officials from both countries have accused each other of relinquishing responsibility over Artsakh. Armenia accused Russia of being inactive in response to Azerbaijan’s blockade of Artsakh, while Russia accused Armenia of working with the West and weakening its negotiation position by recognizing Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan. Russia has tried to postpone the issue of Artsakh’s status by maintaining the status quo. However, the war in Ukraine has created a security vacuum in the South Caucasus, where Azerbaijan, taking advantage of Russia’s military and diplomatic distraction and increased dependency on Baku, has engaged in aggressive policy towards Armenia and Artsakh.
Instead of coordinating with Russia (even as it is avoiding a direct clash with Turkey), Armenia has taken a harsh diplomatic stance, causing friction with Russia. Eventually this rift was transferred to the ground as Russia chose neutrality amid the advancement of Azerbaijani troops in Artsakh.
The following analysis will reflect the background of this diplomatic friction, highlight the diplomatic “battle of words” between Yerevan and Moscow in chronological order, analyze it from a regional perspective, and argue that such a rift is not in favor of Armenia, given the geopolitical situation in the region and the post-2020 war balance of power which left Yerevan isolated in the South Caucasus.
The battle of words
On September 2, 2023, in a televised interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, PM Pashinyan discussed the blockade of Artsakh, Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) failure to fulfill their treaty obligations toward Armenia, ongoing negotiations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and Armenia’s foreign policy challenges. He called Armenia’s security and defense reliance on Russia a “strategic mistake,” sparking Russia’s outrage. This was followed by a diplomatic language clash between Armenian and Russian officials, rumors of Armenia abandoning the Russian-led alliance, and military exercises with the U.S.
After the interview, speaker of Armenia’s National Assembly Alen Simonyan engaged in a verbal altercation with Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, calling her “some secretary.” Later, in an interview with RIA Novosti, Zakharova said, “One should not look for an enemy in Russia. Russia has never been Armenia’s enemy and never will be.” She also warned that Armenia’s “unjust” accusations may “lead to catastrophic consequences” and this “is dangerous for Armenia.”
A Russian diplomatic source told TASS that Moscow is dissatisfied with the latest statements of the Armenian authorities. The source argued that Armenia is trying to shift responsibility for its own miscalculations and mistakes. They claimed the West is using Armenia as a tool to “artificially push Russia out of the South Caucasus.” Kremlin spokesperson Dimitri Peskov earlier said that Russia has no plans to leave the region or intentions of changing its security mandate in Artsakh.
Diplomatic relations have been so tense that a tweet caused another scandal between both countries. On September 4, Gunther Fehlinger, chair of the “European Committee for NATO Enlargement” NGO, called on Armenia to join the Atlantic alliance. While Fehlinger is not a government official, this remark caused outrage in Russia, which Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko called a “great fantasy.” Sargis Khandanyan, head of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Relations and a member of the ruling Civic Contract Party, responded that Armenia is open to cooperation with other countries in the security and defense spheres, while admitting that NATO membership is not possible due to “technical and political reasons.” However, the MP said that CSTO has “abandoned Armenia” and Yerevan “has many questions for Moscow.”
The U.S.-Armenia joint military exercises have also signaled deteriorating relations. In late August, Armenia announced that between September 11-20, joint military peacekeeping exercises with the U.S. entitled “Eagle Partner 2023” would take place. Similar peacekeeping trainings have happened before, yet the timing may have been suspicious to Russia. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryankov said that Russia has expressed concerns to Armenia over its decision to host military exercises with the U.S. The diplomat noted that Russia “has taken note of this” and argued that Armenia, as a member of CSTO, “in the spirit of alliance and partnership, should stick to conducting exercises with those who are members of this alliance.”
Furthermore, the PM’s wife Anna Hakopyan’s visit to Kyiv and delivery of humanitarian aid to Ukraine further added gasoline to the fire in the relations with Russia.
Finally, during the annual Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin argued that the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Artsakh is a result of PM Pashinyan’s decision to recognize the region as part of Azerbaijan. He said, “The President of Azerbaijan is now telling me, well, you know that Armenia has admitted that Karabakh is ours, that the issue of Karabakh’s status is closed…What should we say? There is nothing we can say…If Armenia recognized that Nagorno-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan…then what are we talking about? This is the key component of the whole problem. The status of Karabakh was decided by Armenia itself.”
However, it would be simplistic to view this battle of words from a bilateral angle. The diplomatic tension between Armenia and Russia is an outcome of recent geopolitical developments and competition between Russia, the U.S. and their regional allies. Armenia, which was an active player in the regional security architecture before 2018, is now becoming a proxy battleground, where great powers and their regional actors score political goals against each other. Such risks have catastrophic implications for Armenia’s statehood.
Regional and geopolitical perspectives
Despite Armenia’s attempt to diversify its foreign policy, Russia has been quick to assert that there is no alternative to Russian mediation in the region. In one of my conversations with an Azerbaijani expert, they argued that even if Russia’s plan in Ukraine goes bad and it feels desperate to leave the South Caucasus, it will make sure to “burn [the region] to the ground so that everyone, mainly the West, understands that under Russia’s influence [it] was better and stable.”
Many high-ranking Russian officials have affirmed this. In one of his TV interviews, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated, “We have information that they (the West) are signaling to the Armenians, ‘Come to us, kick the Russians out of your territory, remove the (Russian) military base and border guards too, the Americans will help to ensure your security.’” He also criticized Armenia for refusing the deployment of the CSTO mission with its borders and instead hosting EU monitors. Several times, Armenia has refused to host CSTO military drills, hinting that the alliance did not come to Armenia’s aid when Azerbaijan attacked the internationally recognized borders of Armenia in May 2021 and September 2022.
The battle of words between Armenia and Azerbaijan unsurprisingly pushed Azerbaijan to impose military pressure on Armenia by accumulating additional troops and deploying heavy weapons near their shared border. In response, Armenia has deployed additional heavy weaponry to its southern border.
Fearing a renewal of hostilities, Iran has engaged in proactive diplomacy. Iran’s Defense Minister Mohammadreza Ashtiani and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces for International Cooperation Brigadier General Mohammad Ahadi have both ruled out the possibility of the outbreak of war in the region. The former affirmed Iran’s stance that it “will not accept any change in the borders.” To impose pressure on Azerbaijan, Iran also once again mobilized its troops near its northern border. Iran’s FM Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also met with his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan in Tehran on September 3 to discuss multiple regional issues, including the situation in the South Caucasus.
Turkey and Iran have been vying for influence in the South Caucasus. While Russia is distracted by its war in Ukraine, Turkey’s influence has increased, as it fully supports Azerbaijan’s pressure on Armenia to open an extraterritorial “corridor” (known as the Zangezur corridor) connecting Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhichevan and Turkey through Armenian territories. Turkish analyst Sinem Cengiz argues that the U.S. is not interested in filling the “Russian vacuum” in the South Caucasus, which it does not see as a priority, leaving Turkey and Iran to compete for power. That is why Iran supports diplomatic talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to “ease highlighted tensions with Azerbaijan, to avoid pushing Baku further toward Israel, to take the mediator role away from Turkey, and to protect its interests in the Caucasus.”
On September 16, in response to Iran’s proposal to cooperate on regional issues in the South Caucasus on the basis of the 3+3 format, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to hold a top-level four-party (2+2) meeting on the Artsakh issue with the heads of states of Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure noted that Turkey will start work on the opening of the “Zangezur corridor” in the coming months.
PM Pashinyan’s remarks on foreign policy must be analyzed in this geopolitical context. Viewed from the Kremlin, his words can be seen as a signal to invite foreign (mainly Western) actors to a very vulnerable region, challenging Russia’s influence. Pashinyan’s characterization of relying solely on Russia as a “strategic mistake” could also jeopardize Russia’s relations with other CSTO members (mainly in Central Asia) or separatist states such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. According to analyst Guiliano Bifolchi, “Pashinyan’s affirmation about Russia withdrawing from the region … may encourage other regional actors, such as Turkey and Iran, to become more deeply involved in local dynamics.” Even Lavrov acknowledged Turkey’s increased role in the region in his recent meeting with his Turkish counterpart. According to Bifolchi, Pashinyan may endorse increasing Turkey’s role, along with greater involvement from the U.S. and EU. Pashinyan’s diplomatic strategy “not only confirms Armenia’s wavering foreign policy but could also lead to more severe consequences if this Caucasian republic loses the trust and full support of Moscow and concurrently fails to see various promises made by Brussels and Washington fulfilled,” Bifolchi concludes.
Armenia must calculate its steps, as it is unclear how long Russia will tolerate Armenia’s foreign policy shift. Is Yerevan analyzing the cost of its steps? One Armenian political analyst claimed that by moving away from Russia, “Armenia has nothing to lose.” Such conclusions don’t take geopolitical calculations into consideration and are based on emotional motives that would be disastrous for Armenia.
Azerbaijan is in a hurry to sign a peace treaty with Armenia. The foreign affairs assistant to President Ilham Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiyev, in an interview with the Russian TASS news agency, said that Azerbaijan doesn’t intend to discuss issues that may question its sovereignty or territorial integrity “either with Yerevan or with any third party (in reference to Putin’s recent comments).” He also mentioned that Armenia must stop allocating funds for Artsakh and hoped that by the end of the year, the Armenian government will sign a peace treaty that recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. It is noteworthy that this came after Putin announced that in the past 10-15 years, successive Armenian governments rejected his proposal to settle the Artsakh conflict, by which Armenians would maintain control of not just the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast region but also the Lachin and Kerbajar regions, sparking a furious reaction from the Azerbaijani public.
Azerbaijan’s former FM Elmar Mammadyarov claimed that to reach a peace deal between both countries, a military clash is required. This can be “a short-term clash, or it can be a war” that would force the Armenian leadership to sign a treaty. Mammadyarov also argued that PM Pashinyan knows that another war “could be the end not only of his political career but also of Armenia as a whole.” The former FM mentioned that a “counter-terrorist operation” is necessary to disarm the Armenians of Artsakh. “The separatists there pose a serious threat not only to our people but also to the state,” he added. He concluded that the Sarsang Reservoir and the Red Bazaar (Karmir Shuka) are strategic targets that must be taken by Azerbaijan.
Already these arguments were cemented as Azerbaijan announced “counter-terror” military operations against Artsakh, calling on the Artsakh authorities to give up arms and dissolve itself by raising a white flag. As a worst case scenario, Azerbaijan may advance to impose an agreement on Artsakh, forcefully annexing the region and in return accepting a temporary presence of Russian policemen to “guarantee the rights and security” of what is left of Armenians in non-strategic parts of Artsakh. Whether this catastrophe will have implications on Armenia’s domestic life will be decided in the coming days.
In the meantime, there is another argument coming from Baku. Engaging in war games with Armenia may not necessarily serve Azerbaijan’s interests if it doesn’t force Armenia to sign a final capitulation treaty. According to the Azerbaijani expert I spoke with, by destabilizing the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia would create additional tensions between Azerbaijan and Washington/Brussels (as EU monitors are deployed on the border). By doing so, Russia would nudge Azerbaijan toward itself and Iran and expose PM Pashinyan as a weak, unreliable actor who must be replaced. While it reports incidents on the border, Azerbaijan does not want to engage in major war, as it would be used against Pashinyan domestically, which would serve Russian interests. That is why a favorable outcome for PM Pashinyan in the Yerevan municipality elections was crucial for Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government prefers to deal with Pashinyan, since instability and a leadership transition may win Russia’s support and shift the negotiation format, thus prolonging the peace process past 2025. Since the ruling party failed to win a majority in the municipality elections, Pashinyan’s legitimacy has been challenged.
But is it true that Russia’s position has been weakened in the region? On September 18, Azerbaijan and Artsakh agreed to Russia’s proposal to open the Berdzor Corridor and Aghdam simultaneously. Opening communication channels is a key regional objective to Moscow. Russia once again has shown that by engaging with both sides, it is the only power that can broker a deal and guarantee the security of the Armenians in Artsakh. Azerbaijan has shown flexibility with Russia out of concern that the exacerbation of a humanitarian crisis would have forced Russia to take unilateral action to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, after Armenia accused Azerbaijan of engineering a genocide to starve the Armenians of Artsakh to death during the U.N. Security Council meeting. However, as we have seen later the next day, the agreement was torpedoed by Baku.
Regionally, a peace deal and stability serve Iran’s interests, but in a way that does not consolidate Turkey’s growing influence in the region at the expense of Russia. If Iran feels that its national security interests are threatened, it will be forced to intervene. Yaqub Rezazadeh, member of the National Security Commission of the Iranian Parliament, threatened Azerbaijan, mentioning that if Azerbaijan wants to carry out a military operation against Armenia, Iran will respond with an operation that is 10 times stronger so that “they do not send their soldiers to die unnecessarily.” However, he also reaffirmed Iran’s position that it considers Artsakh as part of Azerbaijan. Tehran’s cautious approach to Artsakh reflects its domestic demographic stability, as there is a large Azeri population and Armenian minority in its northwestern provinces. Iran uses both threats (military exercises) and proactive diplomacy (such as economic incentives) to get closer to Armenia and Azerbaijan and contain the growing Turkish and Israeli influence in the region.
If due to the war in Ukraine, Russia’s only access route to Turkey and Iran (Persian Gulf/Middle East) is now crossing via Azerbaijan, then Moscow’s dependence on Azerbaijan will keep increasing. Azerbaijan is aware of this and is trying to collect the fruits while Armenia distances itself from Russia. Russia is trying to balance between the conflicting parties and prevent other actors (Turkey or the West) from penetrating the region or brokering an agreement that would sideline it or not support its interests. The current escalation has shown that any rift between Armenia and Russia is not in the interest of Armenia’s national security. The continuation of the ongoing diplomatic fiasco will leave Armenia vulnerable and exposed in the region. Authorities in Yerevan must analyze the regional developments from a geopolitical perspective and take Russia’s interests into account by analyzing Moscow’s steps carefully. Coordinating with other international actors and mobilizing the international community are important for Armenia. However, this should not hinder the strategic dialogue with Russia over the future of Artsakh, given the fact that Russia occasionally has shown itself to be the main power broker in the region with leverage over different local and regional actors. Unfortunately, by the end of the day it will be too late for us to understand that diplomacy is not a football match. We don’t have 90+ minutes to change tactics or players to shift positions. Any mistake would cost our statehood.