In the month of September the status quo established by the Russo-Azerbaijani tandem in Nagorno-Karabakh completely disintegrated, as Baku initiated a full-scale invasion of the Armenian-populated enclave, while coordinating its operations with the Russian forces. What had been brewing since June culminated into the collapse of the Artsakh Republic, with the Russo-Azerbaijani axis having set an inescapable trap for Stepanakert. This trap, however, was designed to extend all the way to Yerevan, thus seeking to profoundly alter the geopolitical configurations in the region: the collapse of the Artsakh Republic being complimented by the collapse of democratic Armenia, with Aliyev getting Stepanakert and Putin getting Yerevan. One part of the stratagem is in the process of being realized, as the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh is being ethnically cleansed, while Russia criticizes and mocks the collective suffering of the Armenian people. The second part of the stratagem, which accounts for Moscow’s gloating and mocking, is designed to destabilize Armenia, as the collapse of Artsakh and the massive inflow of refugees is to be complimented by Moscow activating the pro-Russia opposition with the objective of triggering a regime change. Considering the pending collapse of the South Caucasus as Russia’s southern security belt, and noting the viability of this belt being profoundly hinged on Russia’s control of Yerevan, Moscow’s endeavor remains singular: to obstruct Armenia’s Western pivot and reduce Yerevan to a subservient satellite. That the attempt to engender domestic instability failed, at the least for the moment, is indicative of Russia’s shortcomings. Nonetheless, Russia still maintains an important toolkit to harm democratic Armenia: a comprehensive hybrid warfare strategy and the use of Azerbaijan as a proxy.
Contours of the Russo-Azerbaijani Trap
As Russia has amplified its hybrid warfare capabilities against Armenia, it has reverted to a strategy of blaming Yerevan for Baku’s belligerence, while scapegoating the Pashinyan Government for Russia’s abdication of all of its security and treaty obligations. Intrinsically, this has created a new geopolitical reality within the South Caucasus: Azerbaijan and Russia working together in tandem to collapse the sovereignty of Armenia. While Azerbaijan’s objective is the complete absorption of Nagorno-Karabakh, the continuous preservation of the power asymmetry, and occupation of more territories within central and southern Armenia, Russia’s objectives are a bit different: to eradicate democracy in Armenia, reinforce the deteriorating security environment, and install a pro-Kremlin puppet regime that would acquiesce to joining a Union State. The endgame of the Russo-Azerbaijan trap is two-fold: 1) to collapse the peace process by absorbing Nagorno-Karabakh through force, which not only humiliates the Western-led peace process, but also places Yerevan in an impossible political situation; and 2) utilize the collapse of the Artsakh Republic to undertake regime change in Armenia, thus reestablishing Russia’s dominance over Armenia and ousting the West entirely from the process.
The first endgame is commensurate with Baku’s objectives, while the second endgame aligns with Russia’s. In more simple terms, Russia made the decision to sacrifice Stepanakert to Baku in order to regain Yerevan. Russia’s rationale, however, is not simply defined by its hatred of Velvet Armenia, but rather, its desperate need to preserve its southern security flank, which is entirely hinged on its influence and suzerainty over Yerevan. In this context, if it loses Yerevan, it loses its southern security belt. Interestingly, Russia lost Yerevan in September of 2022, but failed to realize it. But once it came to this realization, Moscow knew it only had one option: either install a puppet regime in Yerevan or lose its entire southern security architecture. How was Russia to preserve its southern security belt and re-subjugate Yerevan as a satellite? Formulate a trap with Azerbaijan and collapse the Artsakh Republic. Not because Moscow wanted or sought to destroy the Artsakh Republic, but rather, because it had no other options, it had no other hand to play in the South Caucasus. Formulaically, the collapse of the Artsakh Republic will trigger the process of maximizing whatever resources Russia has left in the South Caucasus to overthrow Armenia’s democratically elected government.
The deterioration in Russo-Armenian relations appears to have been almost synchronized with the formation of the Russo-Azerbaijani axis, as Moscow methodically abdicated all of its obligations towards Armenia, while embracing the talking points of Baku. To even the most simplest observer in Armenia, there was a conviction that Russia was setting up the Armenians to be trounced by Baku. While Azerbaijan continued to arm itself, Russia refused to fulfill its contractual agreements with Armenia; while Azerbaijan invaded Armenia proper, Russia refused to recognize Armenia’s borders and fulfill its security obligations; and while Azerbaijan decimated the November 9 trilateral statement, Russia stood idly by and merely protected its own interests.
The collusion between the two became even more evident, for in no time, Azerbaijan’s attacks against sovereign Armenia, or Azerbaijan’s starvation of the Artsakh population, or Azerbaijan’s operations against Nagorno-Karabakh, were somehow qualified by Russia as being Armenia’s fault. As developments played out, Moscow not only proceeded to provide Baku with international political cover, but also attempted to develop a narrative that the pending catastrophe was Yerevan’s fault, regardless of the fact that for all means and purposes, Yerevan had almost no agency with developments in Nagorno-Karabakh. In essence, the two dominant actors in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia and Azerbaijan, were blaming the one actor, Armenia, who had been completely neutralized from having any presence in Nagorno-Karabakh.
A simple empirical trend analysis of the international reaction to Azerbaijan’s invasion on September 19 demonstrates a clear pattern: relevant actors such the European Union, United States, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Norway, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Greece, Spain, Argentina, and Japan all unequivocally called out Azerbaijan for its aggression, while only two international players, Turkey and Russia, provided Baku with diplomatic cover. In this context, while the dominant Western players, US, France, and Germany, were working with Armenia to find a solution, Russia was more preoccupied with diplomatically attacking Yerevan. More so, at the emergency UN Security Council meeting, as Brazil, Ecuador, and Switzerland joined the chorus of the above-mentioned states calling out Azerbaijan for its aggression, Russia aligned itself with Turkey in offering Baku diplomatic cover. Contextually, Moscow is not simply supporting or helping Baku because of its newfound love for the Aliyev regime, but rather, it is grooming its new proxy. The proxy-ization of Azerbaijan is the underlying result of Russia’s formation of its axis with Baku. But this proxy-ization remains specific to one singular objective: an instrument of brute force against Armenia. To this end, Baku is not nor will it become a satellite of Russia, however, to serve Russia’s authoritarian interests in the region, to derail Armenia’s Western pivot, and to collapse democratic Yerevan, Azerbaijan will be instrumentalized as an extension of Russian interests in the region.
The outcome, to this end, has been the construction of a well-orchestrated trap by the Russo-Azerbaijani axis: the proxy will receive support in its absorption of Nagorno-Karabakh, while serving the interests of the hegemon in destabilizing and fracturing Armenia. The evidence is overwhelming: the illegal attacks and occupation of Khtsaberd and Hin Tagher villages in December of 2020, of Black Lake and Verishen in May of 2021, of Verin Shorza in July of 2021, of Parukh in March of 2022, of Saribab in August of 2022, and of Syunik and Gegharkunik in September of 2022. For over two years, Azerbaijan, right under the watchful eye of the Russians, has continuously attacked Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, with Russia’s tacit and methodical support. The culmination of these broad ranging operations were designed to consolidate the two main objectives of the Russo-Azerbaijani axis: the collapse of Velvet Armenia, with the residual spoils in Nagorno-Karabakh going to Azerbaijan. However, Russia’s setbacks in the Ukraine War altered the configurations of the trap by late 2022, as the absorption of Nagorno-Karabakh became the primary mechanism through which the collapse of Yerevan was to be secured. To this end, the proxy-ization of Azerbaijan became a byproduct of the Russo-Azerbaijani axis when it became evident that Russia’s resources in the South Caucasus were insufficient due its almost-total concentration on the Ukrainian front.
Dismantling the Trap
As a Potemkin hegemon, Russia has always presented the facade of a security guarantor, yet when action was required, it engaged in every conceivable method of obfuscation to justify its refusal. What Armenia learned too late was that Russia was never going to fulfill its security obligations, especially after Azerbaijan’s egregious violations of Armenia’s territorial integrity. It is no surprise then that Yerevan sensed the trap after the Jermuk invasion in September of 2022, triggering Armenia’s Western pivot and the disintegration of Russia’s influence in the country. To mitigate this development, the proxy-ization of Azerbaijan was instituted as a crucial component of the Russo-Azerbaijani axis. What followed was Yerevan’s continuous awareness of not to fall into the Russo-Azerbaijani trap, and the activeness of the axis to strengthen the trap by initiating the blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan’s mass-scale invasion of the Artsakh Republic. The continuity in synchronized demeanor by Baku and Moscow, their collective monopolization of the Nagorno-Karabakh conundrum, and the consistent endeavors of attempting to entrap Armenia into a war, encompassed the overarching characteristic of their geopolitical trap. That Armenia did not fall into it obstructed the end game sought by both, and to trigger the final lever of the trap, a horrific dance was choreographed by Moscow and Baku. While Baku starved the Nagorno-Karabakh population, Moscow strong armed decision-making in Stepanakert; while Azerbaijan prepared its ambush, Moscow forced Stepanakert to walk the plank; and while Azerbaijan sharpened its knives by surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow dictated Stepanakert’s suicide.
That the West stood by, mesmerized by their own political haughtiness and a sense of inchoate naivety, while spewing endless and performative iterations of “concern,” does not absolve them of their complicity. But unlike the positive complicitly of Russia, which entailed active collusion, the West suffered from negative complicity: complicity by inaction. The prevailing arguments from Washington to Brussels that Aliyev lied and misled the West with false promises of not using force reeks of strategic indifference. Namely, the West was simply waiting for a tenable rationale through which it can justify its inaction: we were tricked. But in more honest terms, three factors stand out: 1) blind devotion to the peace process made the West, especially the U.S., tolerant of Baku’s obstructionist behavior; 2) inability to comprehend the Russo-Azerbaijani axis allowed Russia to utilize Baku against Western interests; and 3) the West only cares about the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, and as long as the population is safe in Armenia, strategic indifference allows them to make peace with their diplomatic failures. But the West has a role to play, and that is why Samantha Power and the full weight of American diplomacy became activated once the exodus of the Armenian population from Artsakh began: to help Armenia in dismantling the trap. Or more simply, the West will, at some level, tolerate the gains that Azerbaijan reaped from the trap, but the ultimate goal of the trap, the endgame that Russia has been seeking, will be dismantled by the West. Not because it loves democratic Armenia, but rather, because it needs to see the collapse of Russia’s southern security flank and Moscow’s “soft” exit from the region as a powerplayer. And to achieve this, the “sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and democracy” of Armenia must be made inalienable. Or at least that’s what Washington keeps saying…
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