Authors: Pietro Shakarian and Benyamin Poghosyan*
Once in a while, certain parallels appear between contemporary global affairs and classical Russian literature. Particularly, looking at the relationship between the post-Soviet Russia and the West, one may unmistakably find echoes of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Just as the heroine Tatyana pined over the indifferent Onegin, so did post-Soviet Russia aspire for acceptance and integration as part of a “united Europe” from “Lisbon to Vladivostok.” However, much like Tatyana’s romantic aspirations, the once romanticized desires of Russia came crashing down on a mountain of ill-considered and unfortunate steps by Washington policymakers to assert “victory” over what it considered a “defeated” Cold War adversary. The decision to expand NATO to the east, a move opposed by even some of the most eminent of American foreign policy analysts, turned out to be the most unfortunate decision taken by the US in a series of unfortunate events.
It was this background that ultimately set the stage for today’s ongoing tragedy in Ukraine, representing perhaps the most dangerous crisis in Russian-Western relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The rumblings of the conflict continue to reverberate throughout the post-Soviet space, and in no place are they felt more acutely than in Armenian-inhabited Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh), a region faced with a looming humanitarian crisis amidst a backdrop of global upheaval. Azerbaijan’s ongoing blockade of the self-proclaimed republic presents a significant challenge to Moscow. However, it not insurmountable; it simply requires creative solutions to overcome the posed challenges. All the while, as tensions brew, Russia marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the end of another historical blockade: The Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War.
When future historians reflect on the events currently taking place, they will trace the origins of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine to several historical turning points. Undoubtedly, this will include, first and foremost, their first sin: NATO expansion. However, for an Armenian, the current global crisis did not begin on February 24, 2022, but on September 27, 2020, with the beginning of the second full-scale war over Nagorno-Karabakh. In its support for Azerbaijan, NATO member Turkey sought to expand its geopolitical influence deep into Russia’s post-Soviet neighborhood. Its infamous Bayraktar drones covered Karabakh’s skies like black clouds, terrorizing Armenian civilians for 44 consecutive days. Although today Turkey prefers to play the role of “peacemaker”, the demonstrated “success” of the Bayraktars in fact encouraged Ankara to market its drones to Kiev. It was this step that ultimately played a key role in transforming Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky from a “peace candidate” into a “war president”.
Despite the humanitarian tragedy and clear geopolitical setback of a much-diminished Armenian Karabakh, the end of the 2020 Karabakh War appeared to have a silver lining for Russian strategic interests. The deployment of Russian peacekeepers seemingly had the power to do what no Armenian or Karabakh army could—stabilize the fraught Armenian-Azerbaijani frontline. Indeed, the sheer strength of Russian forces alone initially appeared to act as an effective deterrent to any renewed clashes, ensuring a lasting stability in what was once a periodically unstable post-Soviet Eurasian conflict zone. However, the relative peace did not last long; Azerbaijan’s inflated sense of “victory” and a belief in its own invincibility soon set its ambitions on a collision course with Moscow’s stress on quiet diplomacy.
Putting Moscow’s strategic tolerance to the test, Baku launched periodic attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia proper, especially after the onset of hostilities in Ukraine. These “salami tactics” reached their height with Azerbaijan’s recent assault on Armenia’s eastern borders in September 2022. Such persistent and brazen provocations in the face of substantial Russian forces are clearly calculated to challenge the peacekeeping mission and obstruct its basic mandate, i.e., to stabilize the Karabakh conflict zone. Azerbaijan’s position on the diplomatic front has been no less disruptive, with Baku rejecting Russia’s offer on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. Instead, President Ilham Aliyev has asserted that there is no dispute at all and that the war had, in fact, “resolved” the conflict completely; it was now “already history”. He has openly derided Ruben Vardanyan, the newly appointed state minister of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, as “Moscow’s emissary” in the region. Such statements continue, even as the Kremlin has gone to great pains to avoid an open confrontation with Baku, as exemplified by the declaration of allied interaction of February 22, 2022.
Many may wonder why Azerbaijan is directly challenging Moscow’s strategic interests. The only logical answer appears to be the conviction on the part of Azerbaijan’s ruling elite that Russia will lose badly in its current confrontation with the West in Ukraine. As Azerbaijan’s newly emerging Western partners continue pursuing additional volumes of gas and oil, they are also undoubtedly working to influence Baku, by emphasizing what they view as Russia’s “strategic failure” in Ukraine. The “Kuwait on the Caspian” has been further emboldened by unconditional support from Ankara in its consistent efforts to undermine Moscow’s strategic interests in the Caucasus.
From Provocation to Blockade
Tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh have been exacerbated by the greatly diminished territorial size of the region as a result of the 2020 Karabakh War and its subsequent November 2020 statement. The Pashinyan government’s cession of the strategic districts of Kelbajar and Lachin to Azerbaijani control severely limited the overland connection linking the mountainous region to Armenia proper and the Russian peacekeepers to the Russian forces in Armenia. All that remained was a single road—the Lachin corridor—the only route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with the outside world, and even that lifeline became a bone of contention in recent months, involving Baku, Yerevan, and Stepanakert.
The drama culminated on December 12, 2022, when Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, in an effort led by “eco–activists,” who initially demanded access for the relevant Azerbaijani state institutions to monitor a copper-molybdenum mine in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, very soon, the list of demands started to increase to include the resignation of Ruben Vardanyan and the establishment of an Azerbaijani checkpoint in the Lachin corridor. Indeed, observers following developments in the post-Soviet space since the conclusion of the 2020 Karabakh War should have no doubt that what is going on in the Lachin corridor is connected much more with geopolitics than with any benign environmental concerns.
Through this overt violation of the November 2020 statement, Baku is sending a clear message to the civilian Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh—leave your homeland or face starvation. It is also sending a clear message to Moscow, regarding how it perceives its interests in the region, i.e., that Russia has been “weakened” due to its serious “miscalculations” in Ukraine, so much so that even Azerbaijan can afford to challenge the Kremlin directly. Thus, Baku is now backing the narrative of Russia’s Western critics: the conflict in Ukraine signals the beginning of Russia’s end.
By mocking and provoking the Russian peacekeepers deployed along the Lachin corridor and moreover by its earlier launch of periodic attacks, Azerbaijan seeks to amplify another Western message—that the Russian army is weak. Through such actions, it not only seeks to demonstrate that Moscow cannot deal with great and middle powers, but it can also be de facto humiliated by small countries, such as Azerbaijan. By taking steps to isolate and starve the Armenian civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani government seeks to promote yet another Western message—that Moscow is incapable of protecting its allies. The idea behind this message is that all states currently maintaining alliances or partnerships with Russia should make the “correct” conclusions—move away from Moscow and join the “right side of history.”
By imposing a blockade on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan is also helping to create and fuel anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia, where Russia’s image and soft power have seriously suffered as a result of Baku’s periodic attacks on Armenian civilians. An increasing number of politicians, experts, and activists in Armenia are now calling for the withdrawal of Armenia from the CSTO and the expulsion of the Russian military base and border troops from Armenia. Suffice to say, the outcome of such steps would be disastrous for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, for Armenia, for the Caucasus region, and for Russian national security. Moreover, as the experience of the difficult years of 1918–1920 illustrated, it is exceedingly naïve to expect that Western powers will come to Armenia’s “rescue”. The stark reality is that with no Russian presence in the Caucasus, only Ankara will fill the regional void; not Washington or Brussels.
Toward a New Road of Life
t has been more than a month since the blockade on the Karabakh Armenian civilians commenced. The people of the mountainous republic remain firm in their resolve, celebrating the New Year and Christmas holidays despite facing a looming humanitarian crisis. For its part, Moscow continues to facilitate negotiations in the conflict zone with the aim of removing the blockade. However, resolve and negotiations are not enough. In the present scenario, Moscow will need to think creatively about much more direct solutions that, while not resorting to the use of force, will prevent the onset of a humanitarian catastrophe.
One such possibility might involve Russian peacekeepers working with the Russian forces in Armenia to deliver much-needed supplies to the people, especially through plane and helicopter airlifts. Supplies could include food and much-needed medicines, both of which have been subject to panic buying in Nagorno-Karabakh since the beginning of the blockade. Likewise, toys can be delivered to the children of the beleaguered republic, in the holiday spirit of friendship and good will from those who protect them. The life and safety of every Armenian civilian—man, woman, and child—depends on the success of the Russian peacekeeping mission, working in close cooperation and coordination with Russian and Armenian forces.
This month marks the 80th anniversary of Operation Iskra. The establishment of the Road of Life across the frozen Lake Ladoga marked the beginning of the end of the Siege of Leningrad. 80 years ago today, that siege ended. Perhaps, a new “road of life” will allow the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, just like the people of Leningrad, to overcome this challenge and to live freely once again.
*Benyamin Poghosyan Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies
From our partner RIAC