How Putin’s Karabakh calculus can undermine Russia’s clout in Post-Soviet Eurasia

Dr Simon Saradzhyan, Director, Russia Matters Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, recently published his take on Russia’s responses to this year’s crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Nagorno-Karabakh. Trenin infers from these responses that Russia’s foreign and security policies continue to be solely shaped by Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russia’s national interests, but that these interests no longer require anchoring ex-Soviet neighbours to Moscow. As per ‘Moscow’s new rules’ set by ‘just one decider’ (that is, by Putin) Russia, according to Trenin, ‘is embracing its loneliness as a chance to start looking after its own interests and needs,’ and ‘the countries that emerged from the ex-Soviet republics are on their own.’

I do not contest Trenin’s proposition that Putin is the sole decision-maker when it comes to Russia’s foreign, military and security policies. That point has been made many times before and I too hold the view that Putin’s Russia is close to what Graham Allison described as a Model 1 actor in those policy domains. However, I disagree with Trenin’s proposition that Russia has decided to leave other former Soviet republics to their own devices and to pursue what Vladislav Surkov had, before Trenin, described as ‘strategic solitude.’ Neither do I think that Putin has concluded that disentangling Russia from the ex-Soviet neighbourhood would be in Russia’s interests. Finally, I do not believe that Putin’s vision of the hierarchy of national interests was the sole guiding principle behind Russia’s response to the most consequential and deadliest of the three above-mentioned crises: the Karabakh war.

Putin’s vision of Russian interests explains his response to political turbulence in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan but perhaps not to war in Karabakh

One of post-Soviet Russia’s traditionally vital interests has been – and so that Moscow can thrive in a friendly environment – to keep its former Soviet neighbours anchored to itself while preventing the emergence or arrival of alternative regional hegemons. Had that interest vanished under Putin, the Russian leader would not have supported separatism in eastern Ukraine in 2014 in the hope of enhancing leverage that would dissuade Ukraine from trying to ‘escape’ to the West. More recently, Putin would have neither provided material support to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime nor promised to send police reinforcements to his aid if he had not believed that the massive protests in Belarus would lead to the replacement of ‘Europe’s last dictator’ with a pro-Western leader. In contrast, though, Moscow chose not to intervene in yet another revolution in Kyrgyzstan.  But here there was no threat to Russian vital interests: The winner of the latest Kyrgyz insurrection is as pro-Russian as his predecessor. There was thus no threat of losing this Central Asian republic to any rival hegemon, just as there had been no such threat in the aftermath of the 2018 revolution in Armenia.

     In contrast to the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, the Karabakh war clearly threatened vital Russian interests. One did not need a crystal ball to see that Ankara would significantly expand its clout in the South Caucasus if Azerbaijan defeated Armenia with Turkey’s direct military support. Russia was well aware of the scale of this Turkish support. This follows not only from statements by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and Foreign Ministry on Syrian jihadists dispatched by Ankara to fight in Karabakh but also from intelligence on Turkey’s military backing for Azerbaijan that was leaked to national media outlets by Russian ‘military-diplomatic sources.’ Neither did Russian leaders have to be psychic to see that Azerbaijan would win the war with Turkish support, especially given the easily calculable disparities in power between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

As I argued in early October, such an outcome runs counter to a number of Russian vital interests and yet it could have been avoided if only Putin had employed some of the leverage that Russia has vis-à-vis its ex-Soviet neighbours and Turkey. It could have compelled the warring sides to discontinue hostilities while Armenia was still able to repel most of the offensives. Had Russia successfully employed its clout earlier it could also have solidified its role as the primary arbiter and security guarantor in that part of the South Caucasus and without alienating either Armenia or Azerbaijan. This would also have helped to stem attempts by Turkey – with whom Russia is at odds over Syria, Libya and Crimea – to expand its influence and presence in the South Caucasus and further east to the Turkic-speaking republics of Central Asia.

Obviously, Russia’s desire to maintain a constructive relationship with Turkey, which can act as a spoiler for Russia in regard to Syria and energy exports among other issues, may have played a role in its reluctance to act earlier. It could also be the case that Moscow wanted to create additional leverage over Azerbaijan by having a Russian peacekeeping force in Karabakh. This could only have come about if Russian waited for events to take their course. This leverage can, perhaps, also help advance Russia’s interest in preventing Baku—which expelled the remnants of a Russian military presence in 2013 and which has since been deepening its alignment with Ankara—from drifting further away from Moscow.

Moscow’s decision not to intervene in the conflict earlier also ensured that Turkey and Azerbaijan would not curtail their trade with Russia. This would have run counter to Moscow’s vital interest in ensuring the viability and stability of major markets for and flows of Russian exports and imports in the short term. However, I think, on balance, that the expansion of Turkey’s role in the South Caucasus and the damage done to Russia’s reputation as a military ally in the eyes of the other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) may have outweighed these benefits.

Can personal animosity partly explain Putin’s response to the war in Karabakh?

So, if Russia’s vital interests cannot quite explain why Putin chose to delay intervening to stop the Karabakh war, then what can?  In the end, what I think did tip the balance of pros and cons in terms of this Russian delay may have been Putin’s personal animosity toward Armenian Prime Minister Nikola Pashinyan. Trenin claims in his article that Pashinyan’s fault in the eyes of the Russian leadership was that he pursued a ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy, ‘distancing itself [Armenia] from Russia and reaching out to the West.’ It is true that Pashinyan, before coming to power during the revolution of 2018, did appear more pro-Western compared to his predecessors, such as Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan.

Moreover, on taking power he sought to put pressure on local subsidiaries of Russia’s railway and gas monopolies. At the same time, however, Pashinyan installed Russian-educated leaders at the helm of Armenia’s defence and security agencies (even if he did then fire the security chief). He also publicly assured the Russian leadership of his intention to keep Armenia fully cooperating with Russia, essentially adopting the so-called complementary approach toward foreign policy crafted by his predecessors. This saw Armenia participate in all Russian-led integration and cooperation projects in the countries of the former Soviet Union, but also cooperate with NATO and the EU. Importantly, though, and as Putin and Pashinyan know perfectly well, even if Pashinyan were to try to take Armenia more into the orbit of the West, neither NATO nor the EU would be welcoming of such an attempt in the foreseeable future.

Where the Armenian leader did err, however, and drawing Putin’s ire, was in prosecuting Kocharyan, who remains Putin’s personal friend and whom Putin has described as  ‘a true friend of Russia.’ Pashinyan repeatedly ignored Putin’s clear signals to discontinue attempts to jail Kocharyan. He also sought to prosecute the then CSTO secretary-general, Yuri Khachaturov, which would not have pleased Moscow either. That Putin can feel personal slights in inter-state relations follows on from his promise to hang former Georgia president, Mikheil Saakashvili “by the balls.” Yet Pashinyan was either unaware of this quality of Putin’s or chose to ignore it. It was not until the war broke out that Pashinyan realised (perhaps as he made one futile call to Putin after another) that his treatment of Kocharyan may have impacted on Putin’s decision-making. Pashinyan then eased the pressure on Kocharyan, even granting him permission to travel to Russia, but it was too late. It is possible that Putin may have calculated that by leaving Pashinyan with no choice but to accept grossly unfavourable terms for discontinuing hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh he could thereby create conditions for his ouster as a result of public discontent within Armenia. A more pro-Russian leader could then have come to power in Yerevan. 

How lasting can damage be from Russia’s failure to intervene early in Karabakh war?

Going forward, I cannot, of course, rule out that the public discontent in Armenia will eventually force Pashinyan out of power, especially if he continues to lose support. Such a development might or might not please Putin but, in my assessment, it will not compensate for the damage that his decision not to compel the warring sides to peace earlier has done to Russia’s efforts to ensure the continuous and growing involvement of its ex-Soviet neighbours in Moscow-led integration projects – such as the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union. This damage is quite manageable at present, but it is not negligible and it may grow in the longer term.

In fact, members of these organisations may already be wondering why participating in the Kremlin-led multilateral integration initiatives in post-Soviet Eurasia, as Armenia does, does not prevent Russia from taking an ‘equidistant’ stand between two of its warring members. This is particularly pertinent in Armenia’s case when Azerbaijan patently initiated hostilities against an Armenia that was, and unlike Azerbaijan, a military ally of Russia. Trenin’s explanation was that Russia only did ‘what it is formally obligated to do, but no more.’ Indeed, neither the CSTO nor bilateral Armenian-Russian treaties requires Russia to come to Armenia’s aid – unless fighting actually spreads to the territory of the Republic of Armenia itself (which excludes Nagorno-Karabakh).

The problem with that explanation, however, is that in 2013 Russia had made a promise to do more given the statements of the then commander of the Russian military base in Armenia, Col. Andrei Ruzinsky. Specifically, Ruzinsky had made the following statement in an interview with the Russian Defence Ministry’s official daily (Krasnaya Zvezda) when Sargsyan was Armenia’s president: ‘If the leadership of Azerbaijan decides to use force to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh, the base can enter the armed conflict per Russia’s CSTO obligations.’ (Based on my 15 years’ experience as a defence and security jour­nalist in Russia, reporters for Krasnaya Zvezda typically seek pre-approval for the questions they ask military commanders and then vet the texts of the interviews before publishing. Thus Ruzinsky’s statement was no accident.)

While Russia reportedly did continue flying military supplies to Armenia during the conflict, it could not have escaped CSTO allies’ attention that Russia’s military base in Armenia chose not to jam the game-changer in the conflict—namely, Turkish-made and Turkish-operated drones—which it could have done at negligible cost to itself and with no casualties. In my view, Russia’s decision not to employ leverage to stop the conflict in its early stages will have made a lasting impression on its CSTO allies. This may ultimately influence their geopolitical choices in the longer term should Russia’s national power decline substantially vis-à-vis alternative ‘guarantors of security’ in the neighbourhood.

Why solitude could prove to be problematic for Russia

That Russia needs to continue fostering such alliances in its ex-Soviet neighbourhood—contrary to Trenin’s argument in favour of ‘loneliness’—should be clear to anyone who attempts to match Putin’s ambitions with Russia’s capabilities. Time and again, Putin, his ministers and Russian strategic documents have underscored Russia’s intention to continue to play a lead role in global affairs, acting as a ‘counterbalance in international affairs’. Having the world’s largest nuclear arsenal ensures Russia’s role as a nuclear superpower and prevents aggression by nation-states – but is not sufficient to back such a counterbalancing role in peacetime.

To play that role without having to ‘punch above its weight’ all the time, Moscow needs to ensure that traditionally important components of the combined national power of Russia and its allies, such as economic output and population, are significant enough for other great powers to take very seriously. This is where alliances in the ex-Soviet neighbourhood can prove very fruitful. As I have noted earlier, if Russia were to integrate all the ex-Soviet republics—with the exception of the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine, which are considered ‘lost’—into a Eurasian Union (see row “Russia+” in table below) that could increase Russia’s economic and demographic clout substantially; even though this union would still lag behind the U.S. and China in the aforementioned components of national power.

Contrary to Trenin’s claim, it is the name, not ‘the idea […] behind the former Soviet Union [that] is disappearing.’ Call it a Eurasian Union or a Pax Russica, but the idea of keeping former Soviet republics close to Moscow to ensure it can punch at a greater weight in international affairs remains valid in Putin’s eyes and he will keep pursuing it if only because Russia’s departure from the neighbourhood would inevitably be followed by the arrival of another dominant power. Geopolitics, after all, abhors a vacuum. And whoever fills it may not be to Moscow’s liking.

Share in world’s GDP as of 2019Share in world’s population as of 2019
Russia alone3.1%1.9%
Russia+4.03%3.17%
Increase from Russia alone to Russia+32%69%
China17.3%18.2%
U.S.15.8%4.3%

Conclusion

For Russia to maintain its role as a global player, as per Putin’s vision, it needs its ex-Soviet neighbours to retain interest in its military and economic integration projects. This is especially so as profound changes in the world order are creating uncertainties with regard to the future of Russia’s and other countries’ relative national power. Russia’s response to the war in Karabakh has been perhaps not the best way for a great power to incentivise such interest, to put it mildly.

Whether caused by personal animosities between leaders or other nuances, a great power’s refusal to use even some of its peacetime leverage to prevent a humiliating defeat of its ally is bound to create at least some lasting resentment in that allied country, especially if its adversary has received crucial military support from an external power. More importantly, a failure to help an ally, no matter how small, prevent a staggering defeat is also bound to make other, larger allies of that great power wonder what kind of support they can expect from it in their hour of need.

After all, countries prefer to participate in alliances that are built on mutual respect for each other’s military and security interests that are of existential importance. Such military and security alliances typically prove to be more lasting than those based on the premise that there is simply no alternative great power to either ally or bandwagon with.

2 thoughts on “How Putin’s Karabakh calculus can undermine Russia’s clout in Post-Soviet Eurasia

  1. Russia did however broker a peace treaty which was gainful for Azerbaijan, but not as gainful as a treaty following a military victory might have been, so they did use their influence. Also, the message was that anti-Russian politics come with a price. So Russia:
    1. Showed the degree their influence over regional politics.
    2. Showed Armenia that it’s better to be friends with Russia than not.
    3. Established a significant presence in the region.

    Like

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