It hasn’t been an easy year for Vladimir Putin. He has seen his country’s economy battered by an unprecedented oil crisis, his handling of the coronavirus crisis has been widely scrutinised, and, to top it all off, his domestic agenda has been disrupted. The news this week that fighting has erupted between two former Soviet states in Central Asia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, will only add to his woes.
Conflict between the two neighbouring states is nothing new, and their shared border has been the cause of violent clashes and political tensions since they gained their independence from the Russian Empire in 1918. At its heart is the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, a de jure part of Azerbaijan which is controlled by pro-Armenian separatists. In 1988, the predominately ethnic Armenian, Christian population voted to become part of Armenia, while the Azeri Muslim population boycotted the poll. This precipitated a bloody war for which a peace agreement has never been reached.
That historic conflict is now being reopened. In July, protestors took to the streets in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, even storming the parliament buildings to demand the country go to war with Armenia. Many will now feel their voices were heard, after a weekend of heavy fighting between Azeri troops and the Armenian-backed government of the Republic of Artsakh, as Nagorno-Karabakh is known. Both sides are claiming the use of heavy artillery and the targeting of civilians – with up to 60 people reported dead.
For Russia, the prospect of unrest on its southern border is a concern, but all the more so given its strategic interests in both countries. Moscow enjoys close relations with Armenia, basing troops in the country and selling large volumes of weapons and military hardware. Russia is also a key partner for Baku, which is economically reliant on Russia’s imports of Azeri oil.
There is also a likelihood that any conflict that begins in Nagorno-Karabakh will not end there. Dividing lines are already being drawn between geopolitical players in the conflict, with Turkey offering resounding support to the Azeri government. Turkish officials were, however, forced to deny the claims of Armenia’s ambassador in Moscow that they had dispatched up to 400 fighter planes, currently based in Syria, to support Azerbaijan. It is clear, however, that Turkey is prepared to support its ally, with which it has long-standing cultural and political ties.
Conflict with Turkey in the Caucasus region is likely to be among the worst possible outcomes for Putin’s Kremlin. While Moscow and Ankara have come to see each other as strategic partners, reinforced by a shared sense of isolation from the rest of Europe, goodwill is in rapid decline. The Syrian civil war has driven a wedge between them, with Turkish-backed militias inflicting defeats on the Russian-backed Syrian Government. Now, there are reports that those Syrian rebel fighters are being recruited by Turkey to serve in Azerbaijan.
The risk of geopolitical fallout from the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is amplified further by the involvement of another regional power – Iran. Although nominally supportive of Armenia, Iran has close economic ties to Azerbaijan, and both are Shia-majority Muslim countries. Already heavily involved in the Syrian conflict, Iran has established hostilities with Turkey and a fraying relationship with Russia.
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The involvement of religious and ethnic tensions could in itself cause problems for Russia. Much of Russian history has been dominated by bitter struggles in its largely-Muslim southern Caucasus regions, often centred around Chechnya and Dagestan, which lie just over the border from Azerbaijan. This conflict is fresh in the minds of many Russians and perhaps above all in the memory of their President. Putin personally oversaw the three-day siege of a school by Chechen separatists that left more than 300 people dead in 2004.
The effective ceasefire in the region has been one of Putin’s greatest successes. But, if Chechens feel they are forced to choose between an Armenia-backing Moscow and their fellow Muslims in Azerbaijan, there is no guarantee that the uneasy peace in the region will hold.
As for the Kremlin, this crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time. Russian foreign policy is seemingly overextended, engaged in multiple conflicts at once. The disputed results of the Presidential election in Belarus have triggered unprecedented civil unrest aimed at toppling Alexander Lukashenko, one of Moscow’s most dependable allies. In order to shore up the veteran strongman, Russia has provided support, as well as a loan of $1.5 billion. But this hasn’t been enough to end the turmoil on Russia’s western border, with French President Emmanuel Macron declaring this week that “Lukashenko has to go.”
At the same time, Russia’s operations in Syria are dragging on. Although broadly successful in restoring Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s grip on power, the campaign has proved unpopular at home. Polls conducted last year found that fewer than half of Russians supported their country’s role in the civil war. Another costly engagement to the south is unlikely to appeal to Putin, who faced minor but unprecedented losses in the Russian regional elections at the start of September.
Instead, the Kremlin is likely to judge that it has little to gain from the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its initial response to the outbreak of violence was to call for an immediate ceasefire, and to position itself as a peace broker. Given Russia’s credentials in both countries, this would seem to provide the greatest chance for avoiding further bloodshed. For Moscow, it would also avoid entanglement in what for many Russians might be one conflict too many.
Gabriel Gavin is a London-based policy consultant and an analyst of Eurasian politics.