If anything could be worse for Putin and the Russian government in 2023, the drifting away of Armenia is one more misfortune. Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azerbaijan breakaway region with an Armenian majority, was under Azerbaijan blockade for an extended period, creating a humanitarian crisis. The swift Azerbaijan aggression forced the Republic of Artsakh, the region’s governing body, to declare its dissolution on January 1, 2024.
Moscow has been noticeably withdrawing from the situation. Russia previously provided international mediation to the Yerevan and Baku governments and peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh to secure the border passing. However, this time, Moscow almost ignored the existing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As anger among Armenians grows, Yerevan slowly drifts away from Moscow and seeks a new alliance.
Moscow lost the diplomacy campaign for multiple reasons. Russia’s lack of resources to maintain its sphere of influence, the fundamental mistrust between Armenia and Russia in recent years, and the outside powers playing a more critical role than ever have all contributed to the latest diplomatic defeat for the Kremlin.
The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has gone far beyond the expectations of Moscow. While Ukrainians bravely defend their homeland, Russia’s seemingly almighty war machine is deep in a predicament. From manpower to financial resources, Moscow is at its last stretch. The Kremlin has become so desperate that it even seeks support from North Korea. Meanwhile, the domestic instability, especially the aftermath of Prigozhin’s mutiny, further stretched Moscow’s capacity.
The limiting resources also forced Moscow to retreat from its sphere of influence. As the Kremlin rededicates its resources to the Ukraine frontline, Moscow is willing to give up its traditional sphere of interests. In the Baltics, Russia made no moves other than verbal confrontation when Sweden and Finland joined NATO, directly threatening St. Petersburg. In Central Asia, Russia-led CSTO chose not to intervene in the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. China’s latest railway investment, long facing opposition from Russia, now receives the green light.
The outer Caucasus is no exception, and Moscow’s retreat provoked Azerbaijan to take bold action. Russian forces failed to restore traffic when the Azerbaijani “environmentalists” blocked the road. The peacekeepers took no action when Azerbaijan set up checkpoints on the same highway connecting Armenia and Artsakh. The Azerbaijani government claimed that Russia was informed of the military action before it took place. From Moscow seeing no reason for Armenians to leave the region not to promote the Russian peacekeeping commander’s death by Azerbaijan, Moscow released signals that it has no interest in escalating in the area.
Russia also has a growing tension with Armenia. Armenia is the last remaining ally of Russia in the region, and the rift with Armenia also means the end of Russian influence in the area. Russia is the security guarantor of Armenia, maintaining military bases. Armenia participates in the Russia-led CSTO and Eurasia Economic Union. Russia remained influential from culture to military in the region.
However, those are just on the surface. Armenians have grown a great mistrust towards Russia since the Karabakh conflict in 2020. CSTO only released a verbal statement concerning the situation, while Russia refused to provide any substantial assistance. Under Russia’s mediation, the final cease-fire treaty heavily favored Azerbaijan as the Armenian separatists had to hand over parts of the Artsakh Republic. In contrast, the border had to be under Russian supervision. The seed of conflict starts to grow then.
The recent conflict has divided Yerevan and Moscow further. Besides Russia’s incompetence in maintaining the border opening, the latest battle in Karabakh struck away the remaining Armenian trust in Moscow. Armenian leadership has been more straightforward in addressing its dissatisfaction with Russia for lack of substantial actions, calling it failing to implement the mission. Armenians are now protesting in front of the Russian Embassy, directly targeting President Putin.
The leadership from both sides have also been critical of each other. The Armenian government has found the external security pact, CSTO, ineffective. There is a possibility that Armenia may walk away from CSTO. Russian leaders have also mocked Armenian leadership for relying on Moscow. Moscow is now directing the blame for the situation of Nagorno-Karabakh towards the Yerevan government and its Western allies.
As Russian influence shrank in the region, other outside powers became more interested in the area and participating in regional issues. Turkey is one of them. Turkey is a traditional ally and a crucial player in the 2020 War. Turkey provided military and political support to the Baku government over the years. Turkey even used “one nation, two countries” to describe the relationship. Turkey still actively called out the United States statement on the war in the recent conflict while criticizing Armenia for provocation. Turkey’s role in the competition should not be underestimated.
The West also sees the opportunity to become active in the Caucasus region. Other than the more vital call from Tbilisi to join NATO, Armenia’s relationship with the West has also grown. The United States leaders have visited Armenia last year. Meanwhile, Armenia and the US hosted joint military exercises. France’s leadership has also provided support to Armenia. The Moscow government even criticized the Armenian administration for moving closer to the West, calling it unfriendly gestures.
However, Moscow’s failure costs more than the dominance of Russia. The lives of people in Nagorno-Karabakh are also at risk. As many are trying to flee the area and the fear of genocide looms around, no one should ignore the failure of Moscow’s peacekeeping effort and its total defeat in diplomacy in the Caucasus.
Moscow believed it would provide something like Pax Russica, peace under Russia. However, the brutal reality at the Ukrainian frontline woke up this dream. After the diplomatic loss from the Baltic to Central Asia, the latest defeat came from Armenia. The drained Russian power from the Ukraine war, the icy relationship with Armenia since 2020, and the growing influence of other countries have made Russia lose one of its traditional spheres of influence.