Russia Can’t Protect Its Allies Anymore

Moscow is overstretched in Ukraine—and Armenia is suffering the consequences.

By , a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 27, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 27, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 27, 2018. Alexander NEMENOV / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

A tentative cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan has held for the past week, following one of the deadliest-ever outbreaks of fighting between the two frequent belligerents on Sept. 12-14. But it is unlikely to hold; Azerbaijani forces who marched into Armenia continue to occupy part of its territory, in particular heights around the town of Jermuk. Rumors swirl of further offensives.

A key destabilizing factor is a power vacuum in the region, which has emboldened Azerbaijan to press its advantages. Its military supremacy over Armenia was conclusively displayed by their previous conflict, the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous ethnic Armenian enclave within the de jure borders of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s 2020 offensive—with key support from Turkey and Israel—was settled only by an uneasy cease-fire mediated by Russia, which has a close relationship with Armenia. While the circumstances remain disputed, it appears that Russia threatened to intervene more forcefully if Baku did not agree. This marked an expansion of the Russian military’s presence into the South Caucasus region on a scale unprecedented since the Soviet collapse.

A tentative cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan has held for the past week, following one of the deadliest-ever outbreaks of fighting between the two frequent belligerents on Sept. 12-14. But it is unlikely to hold; Azerbaijani forces who marched into Armenia continue to occupy part of its territory, in particular heights around the town of Jermuk. Rumors swirl of further offensives.

A key destabilizing factor is a power vacuum in the region, which has emboldened Azerbaijan to press its advantages. Its military supremacy over Armenia was conclusively displayed by their previous conflict, the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous ethnic Armenian enclave within the de jure borders of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s 2020 offensive—with key support from Turkey and Israel—was settled only by an uneasy cease-fire mediated by Russia, which has a close relationship with Armenia. While the circumstances remain disputed, it appears that Russia threatened to intervene more forcefully if Baku did not agree. This marked an expansion of the Russian military’s presence into the South Caucasus region on a scale unprecedented since the Soviet collapse.

The deal provoked mass opposition within Armenia. But Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who had initially come to power three years prior on the back of an anti-kleptocratic liberalizing revolution, had no one to turn to but Moscow, as Washington and Europe were entirely absent from diplomatic efforts to end the 2020 fighting. Pashinyan ultimately allowed Russia to expand its military presence within Armenia, building new bases in the country proper in addition to its expanded role in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia is now incapable of sustaining that presence—and Armenia is now suffering the consequences. The question is whether the West will now recognize the opportunity to expand its own influence in the South Caucasus region.

What the Russian-brokered deal did not do was solve any underlying problems in the region. Instead, it opened more territorial disputes without solving the Nagorno-Karabakh one. Subsequent diplomacy proved unable to address both sides’ concern. Meanwhile, the Kremlin—long the major arms supplier of both sides—also continued to offer Azerbaijan more heavy weaponry. At the end of this August, Azerbaijan presented Armenia with a fait accompli, sending its forces to take the town of Lachin (known as Berdzor in Armenian) itself, revealing Russia’s impotence.

By that time it was increasingly apparent that the Kremlin had overstretched itself in its war in Ukraine, which it launched in February, having to draw on military personnel and equipment from across Russia itself, as well as its other overseas deployments as far afield as Tajikistan and Syria. Kyiv alleges that Moscow has redeployed soldiers from its 102nd military base in the Armenian city of Gyumri, one of its largest foreign bases, to Ukraine as well.

Yerevan began to consider other options, but the West’s interest was limited. Washington said it was open to new diplomatic avenues but took little effort to pursue them. European diplomats had their hands tied as well amid fuel shortages due to Russia’s war, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visiting Baku in July, pledging a new partnership based on doubling Azerbaijani gas supplies. The plan may not be feasible, but Europe is in desperate need of alternative energy allies. Brussels appears to believe it cannot risk a spat with Baku as a result.

Unsurprisingly, Yerevan sought further alternatives, including neighboring Iran. Yerevan and Tehran have economic links, and Iran also home to a large ethnic Armenian population. Iran also has frequent tensions with Azerbaijan, primarily over the issue of Azerbaijani irredentism. In August, Armenia agreed for Iran to establish a consulate in the border village of Kapan, in Armenia’s Syunik district, in hopes of deterring Azerbaijan. Known as Zangezur in Azerbaijani, Syunik is the territory through which Baku aims to establish its land corridor to Nakhchivan. But it is highly unlikely that Iran will intervene directly, and Tehran has hardly been an effective security guarantor elsewhere.

Following the Sept. 12-14 fighting, Armenia turned to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and requested a direct intervention to protect it. Pashinyan had backed Russia’s use of the CSTO as its vector for intervening in Kazakhstan following mass unrest there this January, in an effort to shore up support. However, the organization has no independent position from Russia. Amid the deteriorating situation for the Russian military in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no interest in diverting efforts.

The CSTO duly refused to get involved, just as it did in 2020, when it excused its absence by stating the fighting was not in Armenia proper. That justification was no longer available, revealing the organization to be a paper tiger.

Washington, however, did pick up the slack, brokering a cease-fire on Sept. 14. This prompted a long-overdue escalation of U.S. efforts to address the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. On Sept. 18, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was in Yerevan and declared Baku’s attacks illegal under international law. Although Azerbaijan reacted negatively, the following day U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken mediated a discussion between the two countries’ foreign ministers ahead of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. However, no progress was announced.

Despite the increased diplomacy, the United States has not directly demanded Azerbaijan withdraw, at least publicly. Nor has it signaled what actions it could take if Azerbaijan does attack again. And while Armenia has an effective lobby and allies in Congress, so does Azerbaijan. It is hard to imagine Washington intervening directly, let alone providing Yerevan with any significant defensive aid.

Notably, Azerbaijan also seems willing to act regardless of its partners’ positions. The latest offensive was launched without the explicit Turkish support that accompanied the 2020 war. In fact, Armenia and Turkey had in the preceding months made rare diplomatic progress on their own long-standing tensions, with direct flights resuming in February and talks about their long-shuttered border progressing as recently as July. However, Ankara has not publicly opposed Baku’s actions—and Turkey also has an interest in Azerbaijan securing a land corridor to Nakhchivan, which would result in direct overland access between mainland Azerbaijan and Turkey as well.

Baku appears emboldened, confident in its apparent military supremacy over Armenia. The power vacuum in the region resulting from Russia’s self-inflicted troubles and self-interested foreign policy risks turning into a black hole, the gravitational pull of which is so strong that it crushes all that falls into it. The regime of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev regime has made clear that would suit it just fine.

Unless the crisis moves far up the international agenda—and the United States, the EU, and Turkey can work together to disincentivize Azerbaijan—the outlook for Armenia is bleak.

Maximilian Hess is a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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