Why Russia can’t bring peace to south Caucasus - analysis

The problem for Moscow is that it has believed that this area is its own backyard – what is known as a “near abroad” – but is seeing its grip weaken.

A still image from a video released by the Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry shows members of Azeri armed forces firing artillery during clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in an unidentified location, in this still image from footage released September 28, 2020 (photo credit: DEFENCE MINISTRY OF AZERBAIJAN/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A still image from a video released by the Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry shows members of Azeri armed forces firing artillery during clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in an unidentified location, in this still image from footage released September 28, 2020
(photo credit: DEFENCE MINISTRY OF AZERBAIJAN/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Over the last several weeks, tensions have increased between Azerbaijan and Armenia – and Russia, Iran and Turkey have all consequently been involved in either mediating or adding fuel to the tensions.

The problem for Moscow is that it has believed that this area is its own backyard – what is known as a “near abroad” – but is seeing its grip weaken. This has implications for Iran, Turkey and other countries.

Recently Russia called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to “refrain from steps that may raise tensions on the line of contact,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. Meanwhile, Iran has held military drills near the border, warning Azerbaijan. This matters because Baku and Jerusalem are partners; Israel’s defense minister was in Azerbaijan in October. Therefore, what happens in the South Caucasus matters more to the region than it has in the past.  

Armenia-Azerbaijan conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh

In 2020, Azerbaijan clashed with Armenian forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is one of those areas in the world that is historically disputed and has no clear and easy resolution, partly because of how the Soviet Union occupied it and redrew maps, creating a powder keg.

At its essence, though, the shift in power since the 1990s has meant that Armenia, which defeated Baku in a war in the 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart, is now the weaker of the two states. A weakened Armenia, landlocked and poor, has not been able to assert its control over the disputed region. Baku believes the Nagorno region is part of Azerbaijan according to international law and that it will eventually return to control the area.  

A service member of the Russian peacekeeping troops stands next to a tank near the border with Armenia, following the signing of a deal to end the military conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces, in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, November 10, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/FRANCESCO BREMBATI)A service member of the Russian peacekeeping troops stands next to a tank near the border with Armenia, following the signing of a deal to end the military conflict between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces, in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, November 10, 2020 (credit: REUTERS/FRANCESCO BREMBATI)

Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in 2020 and in recent clashes, more Armenian soldiers were killed. Both Baku and Yerevan accuse each other of violations. Meanwhile, Iran believes that Azerbaijan’s power is growing too quickly and that the close alliance of Baku and Ankara mean that Turkey or Azerbaijan could make a play for a land corridor that would shift the balance of power in the region and end up with one of them controlling more area along the northern Iran border

It's important to note that Azerbaijan used drones in its conflict to defeat Armenia and has pioneered methods of drone warfare. Today, Iran is exporting drones to Russia, which is using drones against Ukraine. Israel recently admitted it uses armed drones. Azerbaijan has acquired various types of drones from Israel over the years. Therefore it is an important country because of its use of military technology. Iran appears concerned by this, and its recent drills are intended to warn Baku and Ankara.

MEANWHILE, the increasing energy needs of Europe in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine also puts more focus on Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. There are reports that Europe could be looking at Azerbaijan and Georgia for new energy deals and that Turkey may become an energy hub as Russia faces sanctions. Russia and Turkey are partners in TurkStream – and in the aftermath of the destruction of Nord Stream, all eyes are on Ankara, the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as the Middle East.  

There’s more to this energy issue. According to reports at The Jerusalem Post today, Energean PLC has announced a new commercial natural gas discovery of 13 billion cubic meters off the shore of Israel as a result of its exploratory drilling well dubbed Zeus-1. It has also confirmed the presence of an additional 3.75 bcm at its Athena site. The recent maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon means that these resources should be secure in the future.

There’s a lot at stake here: Israeli energy finds could lead to more work with Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. Even though Turkey and Greece do not get along, Israel has good relations with Greece and has some relations with Turkey.  

NOW, EYES turn back to Moscow. Recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan are of concern to the Kremlin. But Russia’s role in the South Caucasus appears to be weakening. Russia thought it could sort out the 2020 war by sending a few monitors to a ceasefire and treat these countries as if they are still Soviet satellites. But it appears that Russia’s rhetoric doesn’t match its influence today. Moscow talks, but Baku and Yerevan – and Ankara and Tehran – are doing their own thing. Russia simply can’t keep the peace.  

"Indeed, a statement adopted at a trilateral meeting in Sochi highlighted the determination of the parties, Azerbaijan and Armenia, to resolve the issue solely through peaceful political and diplomatic means," Russia’s spokesman said this week, commenting on reports of shelling attacks. “This is why we continue to urge the parties to refrain from dangerous actions and steps that may raise tensions on the line of contact.”

“The Armenian Defense Ministry earlier accused the Azerbaijani Armed Forces of shelling the Armenian army’s positions on the eastern part of the border,” Russia’s state media said. “Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, in turn, reported that Azerbaijani positions on the border had come under fire from Armenia.”

There has yet to be a major breakthrough in Moscow-backed talks between Baku and Yerevan. It seems like Russian President Vladimir Putin just can’t sort out the problems or send a clear message that the fighting needs to start. It’s plausible that Tehran and Ankara are doing things behind the scenes and that each of those powerful regional countries has its own agenda.

Iran doesn’t want any border changes, and is facing its own protests at home. While it has also said it has increased the range of its air defenses, Tehran’s bragging doesn’t meet with its actual military capabilities.

Azerbaijan is a rising power and Iran has too many domestic troubles to involve itself in any conflict in the South Caucasus. In fact, Tehran is a paper tiger. It can threaten the Gulf but only because the Gulf is so wealthy that it has much to lose in any conflict with the Islamic Republic.

But Iran must tread carefully in dealing with Baku and Yerevan; and Russia isn’t there to keep the peace. Moscow can’t keep the peace because it is at war in Ukraine and the war is not going well. As such, countries that rely on Russia now know that it isn’t as powerful as it was a few years ago.

Despite the work that Iran, Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan may be doing via Central Asia conferences, such as CICA and SCO, the overall perception is that Russia is declining in its abilities to keep countries from fighting – and this could lead to more tensions.  

Could the EU or US play a greater role in mediation between Azerbaijan and Armenia? It’s not clear if they can focus on this region with the attention it deserves – so long as they are dealing with the crisis in Ukraine.