oDR: Analysis

What Russia-Ukraine war means for disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory

Thousands of Russians have fled to the Armenian capital of Yerevan. But the war has far bigger implications for the Caucasus than migration

Knar Khudoyan Constance Léon
22 April 2022, 4.45pm

A rally in Armenian capital Yerevan after the PM signalled a strategic shift on the 'status' of Nagorno-Karabakh, 19 April 2022

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Aleksandr Patrin/Kommersant/Sipa USA/Alamy

“There is nothing worse than a Russian who feels at home in the Caucasus,” jokes a waitress in a downtown cafe in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, angry as a new influx of Russian customers expect her to be fluent in the language.

Since late February 2022, thousands of Russians have arrived in Armenia, a country of 2.5 million people. They walk in silence in central Yerevan, often with pushchairs, heads buried in their phones checking maps for orientation, avoiding chit chat with local residents. They sit quietly in downtown restaurants, making work for hospitality staff who have been largely idle since COVID and war hit Armenia. Most of the new clients left overnight in fear that the Russian government would introduce martial law and close its borders in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.

As well as the sudden influx of Russians, Russia’s war is bringing up some hard choices for Armenia as it tries to retain control of its borders – and future – after the devastating 2020 war with Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

That war not only redrew the balance of power in Nagorno-Karabakh, with Azerbaijani forces taking positions deep within the territory. It also gave Russia a direct peacekeeping role, with Russian troops stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh – in effect, significantly strengthening Russia’s role in Armenia’s security.

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“If Russia loses the war in Ukraine, Armenia will have security problems at its borders with Azerbaijan,” said Tigrane Yégavian, a researcher at the French Intelligence Research Centre, a think tank.

“If Russia wins, there will be questions about Armenia’s sovereignty. Russia is already implementing a kind of protectorate over Armenia, or it might create an autonomous region [in Armenia] as with Belarus. It’s an annexation which doesn’t say its name,” Yégavian said.

Lessons learned from the Karabakh War

For years, Russia, which has military troops stationed in Armenia, has been seen as the country’s main security guarantor against Azerbaijan and Turkey.

But that relationship has come under strain since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, when Azerbaijani forces, backed by Turkey, made sizable advances inside the disputed territory over 44 days between September and November.

A Moscow-brokered ceasefire that month confirmed Azerbaijan’s positions, forced Armenia to return the remaining three regions of the “buffer zone” that surrounded Nagorno-Karabakh, and launched a Russian peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory, giving – in the eyes of some observers – the Kremlin a greater say over the future of the region and Armenia itself. Armenia, meanwhile, now has to deal with a line of contact with Azerbaijan that has doubled in length and edged much closer to Armenia’s own borders since the 2020 war.

Indeed, Azerbaijan has made further incursions since the 2020 ceasefire, advancing at least 45 square kilometres into Armenia. Armenia has tried to de-escalate, suggesting the withdrawal of both Armenian and Azerbaijani troops from the border and appealing to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for assistance. The silence of the CSTO makes Armenians doubt their only security ally: Russia.

Meanwhile, Armenia’s official reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been muted. Nikol Pashinyan’s government, though dissatisfied with Russia, did not join the other countries in imposing sanctions against the country, and abstained from the 2 March UN resolution that condemned the Russian invasion.

If Russia loses the war in Ukraine, Armenia will have security problems at its borders with Azerbaijan

Armenian society has also been relatively silent, at least in public. Gayane Ghazaryan, a sociologist in Ashtarak, a town outside the capital Yerevan, believes that the public’s relative silence is linked to the country’s defeat in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan.

“For ordinary people, the main explanation of the defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war is that Russia betrayed us to protect its own interests and strike pacts with Turkey and Azerbaijan,” Ghazaryan notes. Armenia relied on buying Russian arms, and its armed forces lacked fighting power during the 2020 war.

According to Ghazaryan, Armenian society is waiting to see what will happen in Ukraine in light of the 2020 war.

“If Ukraine wins, it will mean Armenia could have won [in 2020] if it had pursued a more diversified foreign policy. If Russia wins, Russia will deepen its hold over Armenia, and a Union State [with Russia] will become a realistic possibility,” she says. The Union State refers to the long-term political and economic integration between Belarus and Russia.

Pushing people to leave

In Karabakh itself, people have looked to Russia for guarantees against further incursions by Azerbaijan’s military.

In the past few weeks, Azerbaijani forces have violated the November 2020 ceasefire agreement by entering territory in Nagorno-Karabakh currently under the control of Russian peacekeepers. The largest violation since the 2020 ceasefire took place in late March, when three soldiers were killed and 15 wounded in an operation by Azerbaijani forces to take the strategic height of Karaglukh and the surrounding village, Parukh. Pashinyan has since called for an investigation into the “adequacy” of the Russian peacekeeping mission directly with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

This fragile situation has been compounded by humanitarian concerns, as inaction by Azerbaijan has left Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh without gas for three weeks in an unusually cold and snowy March.

“The idea is to push the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to leave, using different methods ranging from intimidation to creating a humanitarian crisis via cutting off the gas,” says Taline Papazian, a military expert and researcher at Paris university Sciences Po.

While residents have voiced anger at the situation, and the authorities have restricted freedom of assembly, some Karabakh Armenians – including a former regional governor – have voiced their readiness to join the Russian Federation.

But Hayk Khanumyan, who is the minister of territorial administration in the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh administration, has said that neither Armenia nor Russian peacekeepers were able to guarantee Karabakh’s security.

Strengthening ties with Russia

With the war in Ukraine, the prospect of Armenia joining the Union State treaty with Russia and Belarus has emerged in public debate.

The idea was famously mentioned by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka in early February, drawing sharp criticism in Armenia. But as Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on, the idea of a Union State is no longer dismissed as a threat to Armenian sovereignty but treated more apologetically – at least by pro-Russia opposition politicians and pundits. For some, it’s an alternative to succumbing to Turkish dominance.

“In the contemporary world, there are models of integration that people admire, such as the EU. The Russian-Belarusian union is far behind the EU in terms of integrational scale… One should weigh up what is to be gained and what is to be conceded,” suggested former president Robert Kocharyan.

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Russian-Armenian business owner Ruben Vardanyan, who styles himself as a philanthropist in Armenia, made a similar call to the Armenian public in early March.

“If [joining Russia] is inevitable, what can we do to become the most successful region in Russia, like Tatarstan?... If we are becoming part of a bigger country again – though we tried for centuries to be independent, we might not be able to resist it in the future – how can we maximise the gain and minimise the loss for ourselves?”

This discussion of Russian integration preceded a meeting in Moscow between the Russian and Armenian foreign ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Ararat Mirzoyan, on 8 April, where Lavrov announced more events and commitments to strengthen bilateral relations. This programme included the opening of more Russian schools in Armenia, an increase in Russian investments in Armenia, and a two-year “consultation plan” about Russian and Armenian foreign policy.

“We are, in general, interested in strengthening the unified education, scientific and linguistic territory between us. We will definitely support Armenian language and Armenian culture in the Russian Federation,” Lavrov declared. On the same day, Yerevan committed to further collaboration with Russia on cybersecurity.

Diplomatic front

The internationally led peace process in Nagorno-Karabakh is supposed to be spearheaded by the so-called ‘Minsk Group’ from the OSCE. But relations between its co-chairs Russia, France and the US have been somewhat tense since the invasion of Ukraine.

As a result, Azerbaijan and Armenia have stepped up their own bilateral negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Minsk Group co-chairs France and the US visited the region, and the European Council has volunteered to mediate talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but Russia – the original broker of the 2020 ceasefire – has not welcomed these attempts.

All the same, on 12 March, Azerbaijan communicated a five-point proposal to Armenia, through an unnamed co-chair in the Minsk Group, which included the precondition of both countries recognising each other’s territorial integrity. Though fundamental differences of approach between Armenia and Azerbaijan (“territorial integrity” and “right to self-determination”) have powered the deadlock over Nagorno-Karabakh talks for the past 30 years, in its official reply, Armenia said it saw “nothing unacceptable” in the proposal.

Russia doesn’t want to part with its status of mediator in Karabakh talks – or its outsized role in Armenia

Prime minister Pashinyan signalled a further possible shift in strategy regarding the future “status” of Nagorno-Karabakh in an hour-long speech on 13 April.

“Today the international community clearly tells us that being the only country in the world that does not recognise the territorial integrity of Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan is a great danger not only for Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] but also for Armenia,” he said.

“Today the international community tells us again: ‘Lower your benchmark on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh a little and ensure greater international consolidation around Armenia and Artsakh.’ Otherwise, says the international community, please do not rely on us.”

He expressed regret that he didn’t relinquish the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh – the “buffer zone” – in 2019 or 2020, and seemed to signal a firmer commitment to peace with Azerbaijan.

The announcement stirred reaction in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

One opposition leader, Artur Vanetsyan, started a sit-in protest in Freedom square to protest the “abandoning of Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh]”.

The parliament of the unrecognised Nagorno-Karabakh republic called Armenia’s new position “catastrophic”, and Arayik Harutyunyan, the president of the unrecognised administration, declared he wanted Russian peacekeepers to remain in the territory permanently.

Russias intentions

The events of the past month have shown that Russia clearly doesn’t want to part with its status of mediator in Karabakh talks – or its outsized role in Armenia itself. Russia and Armenia announced a new round of cooperation measures on 8 April, and Pashinyan made an official visit to Moscow on 19 and 20 April to meet Vladimir Putin.

During this meeting, the two leaders signed a 30-point statement “to expand and deepen the interstate relations” in almost all spheres, from sports and culture to military and trade. The document contains a range of ideological declarations such as a shared approach to the “fight against the revision of the aftermath of the Second World War and the distortion of history”.

Other points appear to be informed by Russia’s war in Ukraine: Armenia and Russia agreed “not to permit third parties to use their territories for activities against biological security”, to counter “negative trends in the field of international security”, and to jointly “overcome the challenges” posed by “unilateral restrictive measures” – presumably Western sanctions.

The statement also underlined Russia’s role in the security of Nagorno-Karabakh, the normalisation of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, and Armenia’s new dialogue with Turkey, which was, the statement underlines, “launched with Russian support”.

The joint Putin-Pashinyan statement may be declarative for now, but the declaration is clear: the Russian government is looking to strengthen its supervision of Yerevan.

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