As Armenia and Azerbaijan Clash, Russia Is a Distracted Spectator

Endorsing yet another cease-fire in the conflict that embroils two of Moscow’s closest partners — Armenia and Azerbaijan — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “noted with satisfaction” on Wednesday that the Russian peacekeepers he sent to the region to enforce an earlier, failed truce had helped quell the renewed fighting.

Not mentioned in the Kremlin’s account of Mr. Putin’s telephone discussion with the leader of Armenia, however, was the fact that Russia’s peacekeepers had done nothing to keep the peace in the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, as Mr. Putin had promised they would three years ago.

In just two days, Azerbaijan’s military, through a series of rapid attacks, forced the surrender of the pro-Armenian authorities in the region and shredded a 2020 cease-fire personally brokered by the Russian president.

Drained since by the war in Ukraine, Russia has been less the hegemon that Mr. Putin imagined — an indispensable power capable of knocking heads together until all sides come to their senses — than a distracted spectator of events across its formerly Soviet dominion.

“Russia only intervened at the very last moment to further its own agenda,” said Thomas de Waal, the author of “Black Garden,” a definitive book on decades of conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow, he added, has not given up its traditional role as arbiter of events in the volatile region south of the Caucasus Mountains but is “reviewing its options” in light of its weakened position, “betting more on Azerbaijan” than Armenia for the future.

Incensed by Moscow’s inaction, protesters gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, denouncing Russia as an “evil empire” and, in a few cases, burning Russian passports. In Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, residents celebrated their country’s victory by waving Russian flags, as well as those of Turkey, a vital source of diplomatic support and weapons for Azerbaijan.

Preventing this week’s eruption of violence in an intractable dispute — which tormented Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, in the late 1980s and outlasted seven American presidents — was never going to be easy.

But Russia’s inability or perhaps unwillingness to even try until the very last moment sent a clear signal, analysts said: Moscow, overstretched in Ukraine, no longer has the military or diplomatic oomph to support its long cherished role as the center around which war and peace revolve in the “near abroad,” as the lands of the former Soviet empire are called in Russia.

Because of the debacle in Ukraine, said Aleksandr Atasuntsev, an independent Russian journalist and expert on the Caucasus region, “Russia doesn’t have the resources to make everyone scared of it as it could before. Russia has one big goal — it wants to win in Ukraine and is ready to sacrifice a lot to achieve this, including allies.”

This was already apparent last year when Russia largely sat on its hands when a brief border war erupted in Central Asia between Tajikistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, both former Soviet republics and also members of Russia’s military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Six months later, shortly after Russian forces suffered a humiliating rout in Ukraine’s Kharkiv Region, Azerbaijan took advantage of Russia’s disarray to attack territory inside Armenia’s borders, confident that Russia would not respond.

But while falling down this week on its pledges to keep the peace around Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia kept faith with its own interests. It tilted away from Armenia, also a member of the military alliance, which promises collective security, toward Azerbaijan, which is not a member of the alliance but is much richer and militarily stronger than Armenia. Azerbaijan offers a bigger market for Russian goods, particularly weapons, and sits astride roads and railway lines vital for Russia’s trade with Iran and Turkey.

While the war in Ukraine has strained Russia, it has enriched and emboldened Azerbaijan, enhancing its role as a key alternative to Russia for supplies of gas and energy. Holding their nose at its dictatorial leadership, European countries have been courting Azerbaijan with zeal for its energy.

Russia is not pulling out of the South Caucasus and its troops will stay on, avoiding a sudden contraction of Moscow’s military footprint. But their task now will be protecting a likely wave of civilians fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh and discouraging interethnic revenge killings.

The continued presence of Russian troops, given their previous inaction, won’t allow Moscow to determine what happens on the ground but they do send a signal to the United States, which has only diplomats in the region, to back off from its recent efforts to get more involved.

Russia has been infuriated by what it sees as a push by Washington to take advantage of the war in Ukraine and lure once-close allies like Armenia out of its orbit.

“They are trying to artificially oust Russia from the South Caucasus, using Yerevan as a means of achieving this goal,” the Russian state news agency Tass said earlier this month, quoting an unnamed foreign ministry official.

“Armenia should not become a tool of the West to squeeze out Russia,” the official warned.

In many ways, though, Russia has squeezed itself out.

For months, its peacekeepers stood aside as Azerbaijan sent youth “volunteers” and then soldiers to block traffic on a strategic road that Russia was meant to keep open between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but inhabited by ethnic Armenians.

When the Azerbaijani military set up a check point in April on the road, known as the Lachin Corridor, Russian peacekeepers simply looked on as a large Azerbaijani flag was unfurled. Azerbaijan said its new “control mechanism” on the road was being “implemented in coordination” with Russian troops.

From the moment Russia ceded control of the road to Azerbaijan, say experts on the region, it was clear that Russia had neither the will nor the resources to preserve the 2020 settlement brokered by Mr. Putin.

“This was the moment when the Karabakh Armenians were doomed,’’ said Mr. De Waal, the author. “They were sealed off by Azerbaijan. The Russian peacekeeping force was clearly weakened. It probably lost some of its best people to Ukraine.”

Shortly before the recent fighting, Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper that the war in Ukraine meant that his country, in which Russia has a military base, had made a big mistake in counting almost entirely on Moscow for its security.

“Armenia’s security architecture 99.999 percent was linked to Russia,” including arms and ammunition, Mr. Pashinyan said, “but today we see that Russia itself is in need of weapons, arms and ammunition.” Even if Russia wanted to help, he added, “it cannot meet Armenia’s security needs.”

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has also voiced veiled disdain for the Russian military’s performance, complaining in a television interview early this year that land mines had somehow found their way from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, past Russian soldiers guarding the corridor. “How did Armenian-made mines produced in 2021 even get there?” he asked. “The Russian peacekeeping force cannot answer this question.”

When Armenia and Azerbaijan ended their first war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994, the economies of the two countries were roughly the same size. Azerbaijan’s, turbocharged since by earnings from oil and gas, is now nearly 10 times bigger. Both countries buy most of their weapons from Russia but, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Azerbaijan spent $2.2 billion on weapons in 2020 compared with $634 million for Armenia.

The war in Ukraine has widened the economic gap further and also boosted Azerbaijan’s diplomatic position. It created a “new world,” Mr. Aliyev told state television earlier this year, boasting that since Russia’s started its full-scale invasion foreign demand for Azerbaijani natural gas had dramatically increased.

By tilting away from Armenia, Russia also wins points with Azerbaijan’s most stalwart ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a NATO member but one that has frequently worked at cross purposes with the West over Ukraine.

With anger building in Armenia against Mr. Pashinyan, who distanced his government from this week’s conflict, Russia could secure one of its longstanding goals — replacing the Armenian leader, whom Moscow has never trusted because he came to power through street protests and presides over a democracy. Far more comforting is Mr. Aliyev, who inherited his position from his father, a former president who served as a senior K.G.B. official in the Soviet Union.

Russia’s distrust of Armenia increased sharply early this month when Mr. Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, traveled to Kyiv and met with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Mr. Pashinyan also enraged Moscow by pushing Armenia’s Parliament to ratify the Rome Statute, which would make Mr. Putin, should he visit Armenia, liable to arrest on suspicion of war crimes under a warrant issued in March by the International Criminal Court.

“Russia always calculated that it was a mighty big power that everyone was too frightened to challenge,” said Mr. Atasuntsev. “But after Ukraine, it can no longer play a restraining role.”