Did Russia miscalculate in recent Azerbaijan-Armenia clashes?

Russia has behaved throughout the conflict like it had other important issues to deal with.

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 (photo 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
Russia brokered the end of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh last week in a deal that will see many Armenians leaving their homes and areas handed over to Azerbaijan. It is a humiliating defeat for Armenia, a reverse of what happened in the 1990s when Armenia defeated Azerbaijan in the same disputed area.
For Russia, it is a point of prestige. On Tuesday, Russia’s TASS media said Moscow was sending 64 pieces of military equipment for its peacekeepers who are being deployed.
Russia has behaved throughout the conflict as if it had other important issues to deal with. An Egyptian naval group was scheduled to arrive in mid-November. Turkey was testing Russia’s S-400s. The southern Caucasus is not the priority. That would surprise many who believed that Russia was deeply invested in Armenia and saw it as an ally.
Pro-Azerbaijan voices, including pro-Turkish lobbyists in Washington, celebrated the war against Armenians by claiming that defeating Armenia would be a setback for Russia and Iran. Yet Iran supported Azerbaijan’s claims under international law and Russia basically held the same view. As long as the fighting was confined to Nagorno-Karabakh, which was supposed to be an autonomous area under Azerbaijan control, it wasn’t a setback for Moscow.
Defending Armenia is ostensibly part of Russia’s strategic interests. It launched massive surprise military drills in southern Russia in February 2016 and July 2020 to show off its power. Kavkaz drills also involved Armenia in September 2020. Belarus, China, Iran, Pakistan and Myanmar were involved.
Furthermore, there is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that was formed in 1992 with several post-Soviet states, such as Armenia, Russia and Kazakhstan. But this isn’t the Warsaw Pact, and Russia didn’t feel the need to defend Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, only Armenia inside its international borders.
Why? One might have assumed that Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin has rapidly expanded its military and improved its capabilities, would defend a small and poor Christian Armenia against a Turkish-backed Azerbaijan offensive. Russia has the capabilities to do so. Former Russian airborne commander Vladimir Shamanov had said seven years ago, according to an RIA Novosti report, that Russia’s airborne troops could be moved quickly to places like South Ossetia, or Armenia.
So why wasn’t Nagorno-Karabakh seen as similar to Abkhazia, which Russia defended in its 2008 war with Georgia? Why wasn’t it like the Donbass and Crimea, which Russia has defended, and in the second case annexed, in 2014? It’s not even like Transnistria, apparently.
To understand why is to try to understand Russia’s current geopolitical stance. Moscow sees the Caucasus as part of its historic sphere of influence, but it apparently did not see Azerbaijan’s war as harming that influence. It believes it can broker a deal with peacekeepers and remain the key player, with Baku and Yerevan relying on it. Russia has in the past balked at countries in its sphere seeking out Western support.
When the war broke out in September, many experts said Moscow was displeased with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Moscow remembered that he had come to power after the “Velvet Revolution” of 2018, and that he was critical of Moscow’s role in Armenia. In short, he had said in the past, according to reports, that Armenia was treated as a kind of vassal, a relationship with Moscow of “speaker and listener” – and Armenia was supposed to listen.
He also reportedly opposed Armenia’s role in the Eurasian Economic Union – an economic pact led by Russia and including Belarus and Kazakhstan – believing that Armenia’s sovereignty was being eroded.
However, Armenia was not in a position to make many changes. Sandwiched between a hostile Turkey and Azerbaijan – and with an Iran that is not helpful and also under sanctions, and a Georgia that was not deeply supportive – the country had no real options. It couldn’t rely on the West because the era of Western expansion was over. The US no longer cared about protecting countries like Armenia. And Turkey, although it is hostile to the US, is a NATO member – and Armenia wasn’t going to grow closer to NATO with such a hostile neighbor and Azerbaijan seeking a closer relationship with the US and NATO.
As such, Armenia was not only forced to be dependent on Russia; there was also a powerful group of people deployed by Turkey to cheer-lead a war against Armenia and pretend it was actually a war that would harm Russia and Iran’s interests. Armenia was forced into the tragic position, by voices in the US close to the Trump administration, of being sacrificed as the last hurrah in a policy designed to appease Turkey and confront Iran by destroying the lives of a few thousand Armenians.
RUSSIA, HOWEVER, didn’t buy into this. Moscow believed its role in the end was to swoop in and treat the squabbling countries like children. It saw this as a kind of police action. Russia has done this before in Syria and Libya: It moves in and appears to end the fighting and creates a tenuous cold peace or frozen conflict. It did this as the Trump administration created chaos in eastern Syria through its withdrawal of US forces in October 2019.
That Trump decision was also pushed by the same pro-Ankara voices in Washington that claimed the Syrian Democratic Forces – US partners in eastern Syria who defeated ISIS – were somehow a leftover from the Obama administration’s pro-Iran policy. As the Armenians were forced to pay the price for a mythical link to Iran, so the Kurds were also sacrificed.
Russia doesn’t see the region this way. It didn’t view the defeat of Armenia’s fighters in Artsakh as a setback. It did appear to hope to teach Yerevan a lesson: Depend on Moscow and listen to us, or more of this will happen. Armenia’s army proved woefully incapable of confronting Baku’s modern army, which is festooned with drones, some supplied from Israel and others from Turkey.
This should be humiliating for Russia’s arms industry, that it couldn’t supply Armenia with the right weapons. But Moscow has proven cynical in this respect before, enabling Turkey to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in February 2020, before Russia swooped into areas near Aleppo and Idlib to stop the fighting. This is the Russian model.
Putin has memories of the humiliation of Serbia in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. He has vowed to remake Russia as a massive power and to project strength amid the chaos unleashed by US withdrawals from areas around the world and Trump’s isolationism. However, that comes at a cost. Moscow is willing to let some areas of some countries be sacrificed for what it sees as the greater good. That is why airstrikes can hunt down Iranian elements in southern Syria while Moscow claimed it would send S-300s to Syria in 2018.
Moscow believes in the long game. That game is consistent, reliable foreign policy based on a Clausewitz model of policy following military affairs. It believes in energy as a weapon of policy and foreign military sales. For Moscow, Turkey is a bigger prize than Armenia. Ankara is moving toward the authoritarian alliance of Tehran, Moscow and Beijing, and that is the larger goal.
Russia wants to weaken Europe more than it is already weakened and encouraged US isolationism. If getting there means a few thousand people fled Nagorno-Karabakh, and that Armenia is now even more dependent on Moscow, then Russia thinks it has won. After all, there are no more humiliations like the Kosovo war and the battle for Grozny in the 1990s. Now Russia can wait. Time is on its side, it thinks.
Did it make a mistake in waiting too long and not enforcing a ceasefire in October with Armenia and Azerbaijan? It appears that it might think it is the senior partner with Turkey but that Ankara’s ambitions are larger. And it may find that constantly coddling Ankara has enabled Turkey to do the same to Russia as it did with the US: run circles around them while pretending to be friends to both.
The problem is that Moscow and Washington compete for Ankara’s affections while Turkey views itself as an equal to both. This is the trouble that Moscow has gotten itself into now in the Caucasus. It thinks it won by weakening Armenia. But in the long run, it may not see that it lost a bit of prestige by not standing by Yerevan.
Russia prefers its partners to be weak and subservient. That is why the Donbass republics, poor and incapable, like Abkhazia and other areas, are preferred. But that does not add to Russia’s strength; it means it has to prop up a bunch of poor countries. Turkey has preferred a strong Azerbaijan, while Russia preferred a weak Armenia. Time will tell if Russia played this conflict correctly.