The security context for the month of April continued the structural reshaping of Armenia’s security architecture, as the growing cleavage between Armenia and Russia further revealed the systemic and geotectonic shifts in the regional configurations. The decoupling of Russia and Armenia is no longer simply a byproduct of different policy preferences between Yerevan and Moscow, but rather, the fundamental splintering between a failing regional hegemon that has enhanced the insecurity of its erstwhile ally. April confirmed the structural detachment between Russia’s inefficacy as both security partner and regional power and Armenia’s realization that Russia’s desertion of its obligations was not a conditional phenomenon, but the culmination of nine months of strategic negligence. The collapse of Armenia’s Russian-led security architecture finally resulted in the collapse of the Russo-Armenian security partnership.
What is the primary explanatory variable accounting for this collapse? Russia’s categorical refusal to either enforce or impartially implement the terms of the November 9 tripartite statement. Azerbaijan’s normalization of its continuous and egregious violations of the ceasefire regime, Russia’s acquiescence and tacit enabling of Baku’s behavior, and the complete indifference to and degradation of Armenia’s rights and interests under the November 9 agreement, reified the splintering. It is no longer a case of Armenia having a weak, distracted, or negligent security partner: it is the realization that Armenia, in effect, has no security partner. And this crystalizes the structural fissure: not only is Russia a failed and absentee security partner, but in essence, it is an actual obstacle to improving Armenia’s security.
What has been the consequence of Russia’s strategic negligence? The enabling of Azerbaijan to not only impose its interests in consistently violating the November 9 agreement, but for Azerbaijan to change the facts on the ground and establish the basis upon which the November 9 agreement becomes pointless. And Russia’s allowance of Azerbaijan to establish a checkpoint at the entrance of the Lachin Corridor, only 10 feet away from Russia’s military base, was the final confirmation. To this end, developments in Nagorno-Karabakh are to be qualified through a new maxim: the alignment of Russo-Azerbaijani interests define developments, and the basic interests of the Artsakh Armenians or Russia’s treaty obligations to the Republic of Armenia are no longer pertinent.
What explains Russia’s strategic negligence and its abdication of basic obligations towards Artsakh and the Republic of Armenia? Russia’s grand regional strategy of instituting frozen conflicts and utilizing authoritarian conflict management to control and dictate developments. Thus, Russia’s presence in Nagorno-Karabakh is not about the security of the Artsakh people, the enforcement of the November 9 ceasefire statement, or the structural basis to establish regional peace. Rather, Russia’s presence in Nagorno-Karabakh is to persistently manage the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and to dominate the peace negotiation process in order to be able to engage in authoritarian conflict management. As the empirical referents and extant scholarship will demonstrate, peace in the region is against Russia’s strategic interests. This, in turn, has allowed for the strengthening of the Russo-Azerbaijani axis, for peace with Armenia is also against the Aliyev regime’s strategic interests.
Armenia’s Security Context
Azerbaijan continued in the month of April with its multi-pronged hybrid warfare stratagem, with an aggressive fusion of kinetic diplomacy and “elastic geography” designed to both hamper the peace process while at the same time allowing Baku to change the facts on the ground. Azerbaijan implemented these tactical maneuvers in three specific cases. First, in the first week of April, utilizing the concept of elastic geography, Azerbaijani troops moved approximately 100 to 300 meters into Armenia proper, claiming lack of cartographical clarity. While negotiations between both sides sought to clarify this act of borderization, the Armenian side conceded that this was designed to provoke an Armenian response, which would thus be utilized by Baku to reinitiate hostilities. Second, on April 11, Azerbaijan initiated an interstate militarized dispute to substantiate the elastic geography of this area, resulting in casualties from both sides. And third, as an extension of its kinetic diplomacy, Azerbaijan installed a checkpoint in the Lachin Corridor, unequivocally violating the November 9 trilateral agreement.
While condemnation from the international community has been robust, including from the Council of Europe, European Union, Canada, France and the United States, Azerbaijan is framing this development as an internal matter, and primarily engaging with Russia on how to triangulate developments. At the same time, Russia’s posturing has been inchoate, with the Russian Foreign Ministry refraining from directly condemning Azerbaijan, and utilizing vague bothsideism to qualify developments. Considering the extent to which the installment of the checkpoint happened precisely under the nose of the Russian peacekeeping forces, the inchoateness of the Russian position becomes more puzzling, since it was the only actor in the vicinity, aside from Azerbaijan, that was privy to the installment of the checkpoint. The appeal of both the leadership in Stepanakert for Russia’s intervention, as mandated by the November 9 statement, as well as by Yerevan in demanding for Russia to fulfill its responsibilities within the scope of its mandate, reaffirms the complete loss of confidence on the Armenian side of Russia’s ability and willingness to play a constructive role.
In the backdrop of Russian strategic negligence, Armenia proceeded in April to continue its Western pivot. Within the framework of the Armenia-US Strategic Dialogue, Armenia hosted a delegation led by U.S. Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary for Global Markets Arun Venkataraman, designed around enhancing US-Armenia economic cooperation, specifically in the fields of technology and energy. This was followed by a visit from U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Erika Olson, with the implementation of democratic reforms as the primary subject of conversation. The contours of the Western pivot were more acutely displayed by developments: Defense Minister Suren Papikyan’s official visit to the NATO Supreme Headquarters in Brussels, and the Ministry of Defense’s plan for Armenia’s participation in two military exercises organized by the U.S. Army Command in Europe – KFOR (Kosovo Force) and Saber Junction military exercises.
Russia implemented punitive actions against Armenia’s continued strengthening of economic and military relations with the West by banning all Armenian dairy products from being imported to Russian markets. At the same time, it demanded an official explanation from Armenia for participating in NATO exercises, qualifying such developments as “anti-Russian” and “Russophobic.” Between the confluence of continued decoupling, Russia’s strategic negligence, and Azerbaijan’s enhancement of hybrid and kinetic warfare activities, the security context in April further amplified the disintegration of the Russo-Armenian security partnership.
The Persistence of Frozen Conflicts and Authoritarian Conflict Management
As the regional hegemon of the South Caucasus, Russia operates within its authoritarian orbit through three main regional strategies: frozen conflicts, structure of dependence, and authoritarian conflict management. As a great deal of scholarship on frozen conflicts demonstrates, not only are frozen conflicts difficult to resolve, these forms of conflicts also produce regional fracturing, conflict-persistence, and a structure of dependence on a mediating actor. In the case of the South Caucasus, the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan offers Russia an important strategic toolkit to both advance Russian leverage and influence in the region, while at the same time reinforcing the structure of dependence. Further, by monopolizing, or seeking to monopolize, the negotiation process for the resolution of this frozen conflict, Russia engages in authoritarian conflict management, where it does not allow for the resolution of the frozen conflict, but manages the conflict between the sides within the confines of its own strategic interests.
In this context, the resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijani conflict, and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conundrum, remains antithetical to Russian strategic interests. If these conflicts are resolved and peace is achieved, not only does Russia lose power and influence in the region, it also loses an important mechanism of leverage. Namely, as long as the conflict remains persistent, either as frozen or from time to time unfreezing into a “hot” war, actors involved in the conflict remain reliant on Russian involvement, thus enhancing the dependency structure. Further, conflict-persistence in the region allows Russia to serve as an authoritative arbitrar, both imposing its interests and influence upon the warring sides. In this context, the persistence of frozen conflicts remains fundamental to Russia’s regional grand strategy of influence, leverage and dependency: should such conflicts be solved and peace be achieved, Russia’s regional grand strategy will collapse.
Since 2016, Azerbaijan has become Russia’s partner in enhancing the frozen conflict toolkit, both utilizing maximalist and obstructionist techniques to hamper the peace process, while engaging in bad-faith negotiations to delegitimize the liberal peacebuilding model. In essence, the current Russo-Azerbaijani tandem is quite similar to the Russo-Armenian tandem prior to the Velvet Revolution: authoritarian conflict management by illiberal governments to obstruct the attainment of final peace. Thus, the way Armenia’s status-quo preservation by the Kocharyan and Sargsyan governments contributed to conflict persistence on the Armenian side, so did the untenable and extremist posturing by the Aliyev regime for the Azerbaijani side. The convergence of illiberal conflict management by both sides fully aligned with Moscow’s broader authoritarian conflict management model for the South Caucasus, thus allowing — for three decades — a structure of dependence, leverage and influence.
Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 Artsakh War was not a resolution to the frozen conflict, but rather, a temporary unfreezing of the conflict designed to enhance conflict-persistence and authoritarian conflict management. Considering the obstructionist behavior of Baku, and Russia’s enabling of such behavior, the post-2020 period has been defined by further deterioration of regional stability or the probability of peace. This, in turn, enhanced Russia’s frozen conflict toolkit, as a new status quo would allow for conflict-persistence. That the setbacks in the Ukraine War disrupted this regional grand strategy is beyond question. However, to mitigate such a setback, Russia has aligned itself with Azerbaijan to guarantee that authoritarian conflict management will hamper any attempts at liberal peacebuilding. To this end, the Russo-Azerbaijani axis, albeit for different reasons, has found an alignment of interests: the preference of authoritarian conflict management over sustainable and equitable peace.
In strategic terms, frozen conflicts are designed to both dominate and influence the domestic affairs of smaller states, while at the same time managing and structuring geopolitical developments in a fashion that are conducive to the interests of the arbitrating power. In this context, within its spheres of influence, Russia utilizes frozen conflicts to manipulate the power parity between the conflicting parties. At the same time, Russia manages the “frozenness” of the conflict in a fashion that does not allow for resolution. Russia’s broader objectives for implementing this regional grand strategy are three-fold.
First, it allows Russia a monopoly over geopolitical developments, and as such, a complete monopoly over the management of the frozen conflict. This, in turn, keeps outside powers away from Russia’s assumed sphere of influence, as Moscow acts as the only arbiter. Within the context of current developments in the South Caucasus, Russia’s enabling of Azerbaijan is precisely designed to collapse the Western-initiated peace track, thus reinstating Russia’s monopoly in managing the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
Second, authoritarian conflict management of frozen conflicts not only keeps the warring parties in check, they also make the given region inhospitable to either NATO or EU expansion. Considering the fact that neither NATO nor the EU can expand into fractured, conflict-prone regions, the continuity of frozen conflicts serves as a strategic Russian endeavor in mitigating the deep presence of Western interests.
Third, while frozen conflicts allow for some level of social, economic and political functionality, it disallows progress or development for the countries involved. Thus, frozen conflicts allow Russia to keep given countries within its orbit from either developing politically or economically, hence reinforcing the structure of dependence. As the broader scholarship on modernization and development demonstrates, economic development goes hand-in-hand with political development, where market-oriented, law and order societies not only experience economic growth, but also democratic development. The persistence of frozen conflicts severely limits the ability and capacity of such countries to sufficiently develop. Thus, underdevelopment becomes a symptom of frozen conflicts, and its management allows Russia to exercise influence and leverage over dependent states. To this end, stagnation for countries within Russia’s sphere of influence remains consistent with Russian strategic interests, while frozen conflict persistence and the disruption of final peace reinforces Russia’s preferences in relation to countries in its periphery.
Taken in its analytical totality, the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani frozen conflict remains antithetical to the strategic interests of Russia, for it diminishes Russia’s hegemonic influence, while taking away Moscow’s weaponization of authoritarian conflict management to preserve the regional status quo. It is within this framework that Russia’s policy of strategic negligence, and its refusal to meet its treaty obligations towards Armenia, serve a rational interest: it behooves Russia to work with Azerbaijan to disrupt not only the Western-led peace process, but also to maintain conflict-persistence as a mechanism of disrupting Armenia’s democratic growth. For Azerbaijan, authoritarian conflict management allows for continuity of the power parity it enjoys against Armenia, while also meeting the ontological insecurity concerns of the Aliyev regime.
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Examining the Context
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The analysis presented here ignores completely the role that the West has played in creating and supporting Azerbaijan. The West actively supported the building of the Baku Ceyhan pipeline which coincided with European, Turkish and Israeli interests. It was seen as a way to make Azerbaijan independent of Russia and it succeeded brilliantly, while creating enormous wealth for the Aliyev authoritarian clan. Also Azerbaijan was recruited to become part of the anti Iran coalition which again dovetails with Turkish, Israeli, US and Saudi interests. The end result is an authoritarian Azerbaijan awash with modern military equipment and the active diplomatic support of key Western powers. Contrary to public moralistic statements, the West has no fundamental problems dealing with autocratic fascist regimes; for example South Africa under apartheid, Spain under Franco, Turkey under Ataturk and all the way to Erdogan, Chile under Pinochet, and Saudi Arabia under Bin Salman, as long as key economic and military goals are met, and the human rights abuses are not too egregious and public. The point here is that the fundamental predicament of Armenia is that it is wedged between tectonic forces and it is suffering collateral damage as major and medium powers jockey for power. Until about 2014 Armenia was relying on Russia, but even Russia ditched Armenia in preference to Turkey and Azerbaijan for its own geopolitical calculations, which is the topic that you address in the article. Even if Russia supported a “liberal peace”, Armenia’s problems would not go away. They are rooted in fundamental imbalances in the economy, demographics and military power. To redress this imbalance, Armenia and Armenians must become “useful” to Russia and the West in terms of advancing military technology and development of its economy. Currently, the West is wooing Armenia to join its camp through peace with Turkey and Azerbaijan. The price tag is giving up Karabakh Armenians to an uncertain fate. This cataclysmic moment in Armenia’s history needs strong and imaginative leaders in Armenia and Diaspora. Unfortunately we have Pashinyan in Armenia and nameless unelected community leaders in the Diaspora. But that is a topic for discussion for another day.
Russia’s actions against Armenia can be explained very simply:
Russia fears that Armenia will go to the West under Pashinyan.
Russia knows that without Armenia, Russia will lose the Caucasus, Caspian, and perhaps even Central Asia.
That can happen because Georgia and Azerbaijan do not want to be subject to Russian dictates.
Thus, Armenia is Russia’s only hope.
Russia needs Armenia for its survival and, therefore, needs it to be totally under Moscow’s control.
This does not mean, by the way, that Armenia will necessarily find security in the West, which is Turkophilic and has never come to the physical defense of Armenia.
Is it true that Russia is hindering the movement of Indian weapons headed to Armenia through Iran?
My comments above should have added that Russia is being nasty to Armenia and betraying it precisely because of Armenia’s importance to Russia.
This seems contradictory, but it is not.
That is, Russia is trying to humiliate Armenia in order to make it nervous and thus turn to Russia for help against attacks by Azerbaijan (and threats by Turkey).
Thus, Russia seeks to inflict maximum PAIN on Armenia to make it desperate and turn to Russia as “savior.”
I should also mention that, no matter what one thinks of PM Pashinyan, he was entirely correct to reject a CSTO “observer mission” in southern Armenia.
Russia is just trying to get another foothold over Armenia (as Russia has in Artsakh) in order to pressure and blackmail Armenia into submission.
Once Russia and Turkic CSTO troops become “observers,” they’ll never leave and will allow Azeri attacks (as they have been) whenever Russia wants (again, to make Armenia nervous).
Such a mission is also absurd since Russia and the CSTO have ignored Azerbaijan’s attacks on and occupation of Armenia, contrary to signed defense agreements.
That Russia would even propose such an utterly ridiculous mission is a sign of just how absurd Russian statements have become. You have to wonder if Russian policymakers have become completely unhinged.
Russia has always been an imperialist power and does not know how to be otherwise. It plays off the ex-Soviet Republics against each other.
Sadly, most Armenians are still unaware of just how much Russia needs Armenia, since Russia has no other friends in the region.
Without Armenia, NATO will move right into the Caucasus/Caspian and Russia will be in deep trouble.
Of course, this does not mean that Armenia will be safe with the Western powers either.
It’s a difficult situation.