Russia’s paradigm shift in Karabakh illustrates a process of managed decline.

Russia concedes Karabakh for stake in new regional order

In a military offensive on 19 September, in 24 hours Azerbaijan finally forced the surrender of the Karabakh Armenians – after 31 years of local, internationally unrecognized rule.

The terms of surrender include the disarming of the Karabakh Armenian armed forces and the dissolution of the territory’s three decades-old de facto political institutions.

A mass exodus of the civil population ensued, even as Karabakh Armenian representatives engaged in a long-delayed dialogue with Azerbaijani officials over the terms of their integration as Azerbaijani citizens.

Few believe, however, that significant numbers of Armenians will remain after the protracted hardship of blockades, shooting at agricultural workers, intimidating rhetoric, repeated escalations, and a large-scale military assault.

Russia’s acquiescence to Azerbaijan’s attack tore up the ‘Putin’s frozen conflicts’ script, the prevalent geopolitical narrative that stresses Russia’s instrumentalization of legacy conflicts in the South Caucasus and Moldova.

For the first time (with the exception of its own conflict with Chechnya, and arguably Aslan Abashidze’s regime in the Georgian region of Ach’ara in 2004), Russia has taken the side of the ‘parent state’ and forsaken the ‘de facto state’ challenging it.

Russia’s Karabakh policy: the avoidance of choice

As a local joke in the Caucasus put it, if Russia was to choose a side in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, it would always ‘choose the conflict’.

Russia’s entire policy on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict was for decades predicated on the avoidance of making a choice between the sides. Russia’s roles were complex – mediator, ally, arms supplier, deterrent – as it acted in different ways to sustain the conflict, and by extension, its leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Russia’s abandonment of this ‘irresolution’ policy is a significant gauge of its shifting priorities in Eurasia

Russia’s abandonment of this ‘irresolution’ policy is consequently a significant gauge of its shifting priorities in Eurasia. This is all the more surprising since for many Russia appeared to be the real ‘winner’ of 2020’s Second Karabakh War.

In 2020 Russia brokered the only ceasefire that held and, within hours, its peacekeepers had swept into Karabakh. The Kremlin inserted itself as co-signatory of the trilateral ceasefire agreement, which also secured a key role for Russian security agencies as the guardians of future transit routes.

Turkey, meanwhile, instrumental to Azerbaijan’s victory in 2020, was relegated to a largely symbolic – if still geopolitically significant – presence at a ceasefire monitoring centre.

The resulting situation could be described as ‘regionalization.’ In this process a conflict is ejected from a multilateral mediation process guided by principles of international law, and embedded instead within a conflict management process brokered by regional powers in accordance with their interests.

Regionalization is a corollary of multipolarity, as previously ‘globalized’ space supposedly governed by the norms and principles of the unipolar order are regionalized into ‘spheres of influence’, ‘near abroads’ or the ‘strategic depth’ of great powers – in this case, Russia.

The diminishing returns of irresolution

Yet while Russian-led regionalization appeared initially inexorable, it stalled with Russia’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine.

In the wake of the war the value to Russia of its relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan dramatically increased.

In the wake of the war the value to Russia of its relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan dramatically increased. Connectivity to Iran and South Asia – via Azerbaijan – suddenly assumed much greater importance.

In May Russia and Iran agreed on the construction of a railway allowing for uninterrupted rail transit via Azerbaijan along the International North-South Transportation Corridor, a project previously seen as improbable.

Moreover, the November 2020 ceasefire statement stipulates Russian Federal Security Service oversight over the transit route connecting mainland Azerbaijan with its exclave Nakhchivan and beyond it to Turkey.

Supervision of this route – referred to in Turkey and Azerbaijan as the ‘Zangezur Corridor’ – ensures a stake for Russia in Turkish-Azerbaijani connectivity. Ironically, it makes Russia a stakeholder in the ‘Middle Corridor’ that is promoted as an alternative to Russia’s own ‘Northern Route’, rendered obsolete by Western sanctions.

The diminishing returns of irresolution have been reflected in recent months in a growing convergence in Russia’s and Azerbaijan’s positions. In March Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mariya Zakharova denied that Russia had pledged any security guarantees to the Armenians of Karabakh.

Despite responsibilities in ceasefire provisions for guaranteeing movement along the Lachin Corridor, Russia objected to neither the civilian blockade beginning in December 2022 nor the installation of an Azerbaijani checkpoint on 23 April.

More strikingly, at a trilateral meeting in Moscow in July Russian officials strongly endorsed Azerbaijan’s position on the reintegration of the Karabakh Armenians. This was a startling U-turn if one considers the possibility of Russia making any much statement in relation to any other conflict in a former Soviet state.

Russian quiescence seemingly extended to a likely scaling down of its peacekeeping mission, which has suffered the loss of eight servicemen and now exists mainly as a face-saving measure for Moscow.

From patron to partner in an illiberal order

In three years, Russia’s positioning has shifted from regional hegemon and patron of conflict irresolution, to a partner and stakeholder in Azerbaijani-Turkish connectivity. This is a dramatic illustration of Russian decline and the realignment of regional power.

Russia has abandoned a familiar policy – ‘frozen conflict’ as a wedge against pro-Western development and liberal political order – for a new policy of ‘stake-building’

However, it appears that this is a managed decline. In this particular case Russia has abandoned a familiar policy – ‘frozen conflict’ as a wedge against pro-Western development and liberal political order – for a new policy of ‘stake-building’ in an alternative regional order dominated by similarly illiberal states.

Against this calculus, the widely discussed impact of Armenia’s recent overtures to Western actors, while offering convenient cover for Russia’s pivot towards Azerbaijan, is probably exaggerated.

The loss of Karabakh means a decline in the long term in Russian leverage over Armenia. But Armenia’s structural dependency on Russia in strategic sectors of its economy is still so great that it cannot, for now, avoid being dragged into any geopolitical order of which Russia is part.

However, the framework through which connectivity in the South Caucasus is restored remains an open question.

The trilateral ceasefire statement from 2020, on which current connectivity plans are founded, is dead. A new framework, capable of underpinning international confidence in the security of restored connectivity, is needed.

Source: Chatham House