The Strategic Context of the Military Operation in Karabakh

On Tuesday 19 September Azerbaijan announced the start of what it termed “anti-terrorism measures” in the Karabakh region. These “measures” aimed to disarm Armenian forces, secure their withdrawal, and regain the “territories liberated from occupation,” as well as “restore Azerbaijan’s constitutional structure.”

One day following the Azerbaijani military attack that resulted in more than 30 deaths and over 200 injuries on the Armenian side, the two parties reached a complete cessation of “hostilities.” This was part of an agreement that called for the dissolution of the so-called “Army of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh,” disarmament, and the withdrawal of remaining Armenian armed forces from the area where Russian peacekeeping forces are stationed.

The two sides agreed also in a meeting between local Armenian representatives and Azerbaijani authorities in Yevlakh on 21 September to discuss issues related to reintegration and ensuring the rights and security of the Armenian population in Karabakh.

This military operation coincided with joint US-Armenian military drills that began on 11 September and concluded recently. These drills highlighted the extent of Russian and American polarisation of the Armenian leadership, revealing the Armenian Prime Minister’s inclination towards the West and his estrangement from Russia. This was especially noticeable after Nikol Pashinyan refused to participate in similar military drills with Russia under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Moreover, Pashinyan evoked the wrath of Russia by not supporting the invasion of Ukraine and even sent humanitarian aid to Kyiv along with his wife, which led the Russian Foreign Ministry to reprimand the Armenian Ambassador in Moscow.

Hence, the escalation of the crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan falls within the context of the deteriorating relations between Russia and Armenia. It also occurs amidst international and regional jostling to attract the Armenian leadership due to the strategic importance of the South Caucasus region. This region is particularly sensitive for Russia, which has one of its largest military bases abroad, as well as for Turkey and Iran, considering the economic, security, national, and demographic implications. All of this has an impact on preserving their roles in the Azerbaijani-Armenian file.

In this context, the Azerbaijani-Armenian file epitomizes a situation of intersections and conflict of roles in crisis management. This is highlighted in Russia’s complicity in Armenia’s defeat against Azerbaijan in 2020 to weaken Pashinyan’s popular standing and force him to rely entirely on Russia. Additionally, Russia attempted to sideline Turkey’s role after the end of the war by excluding Turkey from the Russian peacekeeping mission and excluding it from the working group that includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, tasked with reopening regional transportation routes. This pushed Turkey to seek a rapprochement with Armenia to reaffirm its role in response to being marginalised in collusion with Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, who was quoted by one of his government team members as seeking to distance Russia from Armenian-Turkish relations.

Iran’s refusal to accept any geopolitical changes in the region, and Azerbaijan’s harnessing of the deteriorating Russo-Armenian relations to establish its sovereignty over the Karabakh region, coupled with Russia’s exploitation of the Turkish-Azerbaijani conflict with Armenia, and the Armenian’s slow implementation of the trilateral agreement of 10 November 2020 between Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, to prolong the conflict, place Armenia’s interests in Russian hands, and subject Pashinyan to the will of the Kremlin, all this falls within these approaches. Russia blamed Pashinyan for failing to maintain security and disclaimed responsibility for its peacekeeping forces failure to confront the Azerbaijani forces in Karabakh, stating that they were merely responsible for protecting civilians and defending Russian peacekeeping troops. This was pointed out by the Duma’s Chairman of the Committee on Defence Andrey Kartapolov by saying, “The peacekeeping forces do not have the right to use weapons as long as their lives are not in danger.”

Moreover, Russia justified its disengagement from responsibility by considering the situation a domestic Azerbaijani issue, since Pashinyan himself admitted that Karabakh was Azerbaijani territory. Russia also hinted that Armenia’s suffering in the crisis with Azerbaijan was due to Armenia aligning itself with the West and distancing itself from Russia, according to Dmitry Medvedev, the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council. Pashinyan responded to Russia’s disengagement by saying, “Yes, we bear our share of responsibility, but that does not mean we should turn a blind eye to the failures of the Russian peacekeeping detachment in Karabakh.”

From the various positions and relevant facts, it is clear that the compass of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has fully shifted towards the US. Turkey and Azerbaijan have harnessed Armenian provocations, including the recent attempt to separate the Karabakh region from Azerbaijan through a referendum, military attacks by Armenian militias in Karabakh, such as the attack that led to the killing of three Azerbaijani soldiers at the beginning of this month, and the Armenian-American military manoeuvres to decisively settle the situation militarily amid Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine, to defuse tensions with Armenia, which no longer objects to the region’s return to Azerbaijan, and to settling the disputes and improve relations with Turkey while removing the Karabakh card from Russia’s hand. Russia uses this card to pressure Pashinyan and weaken him in favour of the opposition. Russia was forced not to oppose the Azerbaijani military operation, instead opting to sponsor negotiations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis to cut off Turkey, the US, and the Security Council; France called for a Security Council meeting to discuss the crisis whilst, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, stated that Russia continued to perform its duties as a regional security guarantor. Despite the absence of America and Europe from the recent negotiations, the results of the operation were not in favour of Russia and Iran on the geostrategic level.

Despite the success achieved by Turkey and Azerbaijan, which does not go beyond enhancing their domestic positions and consolidating their regional roles, the most significant dilemma lies in Turkey and Azerbaijan’s attempt to regain control of the “Zangezur Corridor,” which connects Iran to Armenia and allows for overland communication between Turkey and Azerbaijan. This corridor represents a leverage for Russia against Turkey and Azerbaijan and on the other hand threatens Russia’s vital interests in the South Caucasus and the Turkic-speaking countries in Central Asia if Turkey manages to expand its influence in the region through this passage. This contradicts Iran’s geopolitical, geo-economic, and nationalist interests as it would give Turkey additional power at its expense. Therefore, Iran opposes any geopolitical changes along its borders and maintains its relationship with Armenia. Iran justifies its hostile stance towards Azerbaijan to its domestic audience by pointing out Azerbaijan’s cooperation with “Israel”. Additionally, the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict affects the demographic factor in Iran and poses a threat to the loyalty of the Azerbaijani component within the Iranian regime.

As for the US, it seeks to control Armenian political decision-making through Pashinyan in order to influence the crisis and exert pressure on all parties involved. This is especially true as the economic and national factor represents a point of concern for President Erdogan, serving as a means to attract him and regulate his political behaviour while containing his nationalist and economic expansion in Central Asia and other regions. Simultaneously, the US uses the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds as a means to deter and discipline Erdogan.

Furthermore, the US leverages the Armenian-Azerbaijani crisis to control Iran and limit its relations with Russia, given that the Armenian-Azerbaijani issue poses a national threat to Iran. Therefore, America exploits the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement to alarm Iran. In addition to this, the region serves as a strategic hotspot of tension for Russia which the US uses as a bargaining chip to engage Russia and raise concerns in Europe.

All of this makes removing the Armenian government from Russia’s grip a cornerstone in the ongoing regional conflict. This would shape regional alliances and the interests of Russia, the US, and regional countries. Although the Armenian Prime Minister has firmly aligned himself with the West, he lacks the capability to implement America’s agenda without obstacles due to Russia’s influence in Armenia, which relies on Russia in various economic and security aspects, and due to the conflicting interests among the relevant countries in the region.

Copyright LCIR 2023

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