20 years under Putin: a timeline

The recent Azeri-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the fiercest conflicts in post-Soviet history, leaving over 5,000 dead on both sides and tens of thousands displaced. After six weeks of heavy military action, a ceasefire deal was signed with Moscow’s mediation, but Russia’s initial reluctance to interfere raises questions about its true interests in the region.

 

October 14, 2021: A Nagorno-Karabakh housing complex destroyed by the Azeri bombing. Photo: Aykhan Zayedzadeh / Wikimedia Commons

 

Roots of the war

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over various ethnic, political and territorial disputes goes back over a hundred years, occasionally erupting into full-fledged wars as the ruling empires—first the Russian, later the Soviet—were about to collapse. 

Most recently, the epicenter has been Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave inside Azerbaijan that saw two bloody wars: the first in 1988-1994, the second in the fall of 2020 (September 27 – November 9). The end of the first war, which claimed about 16,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands, was negotiated by the OSCE Minsk Group, chaired by Russia, the United States, and France in May 1994. By that time, Nagorno-Karabakh had already declared independence (with Armenia’s backing), but its status was not recognized by anyone, including Armenia. The conflict was not resolved but “frozen”—still, the armistice was largely observed by all sides, with the exception of a short escalation in 2016, until 2020. Baku never accepted losing Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and vowed to return the land. Starting in the 2000s, it invested considerably in military buildup as well as strengthened its ties with Turkey, which has been emerging as another regional power. 

A few weeks before the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Baku—most likely to discuss Russia’s reaction to Azerbaijan’s plans to engage in an open conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. One can safely assume that Russia’s position was, as later publicly articulated by the Kremlin in response to Armenia’s request for military help under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), that it would not get involved, because Nagorno-Karabakh is an unrecognized republic, officially being Azeri territory. An attack on Nagorno-Karabakh would not technically constitute one on Armenia. However, it is also likely that if Shoigu’s message had been that Russia would support Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the war might not have taken place.

Taking observations of U.S. foreign policy to heart, the Kremlin decided that appeasing Washington would be pointless, and started to pursue its own interests where it could, discovering along the way that its enemy was not as formidable as it had postured to be.

Moscow’s behind-the-scene manipulations can be confirmed by another fact: when Azeri forces took control of Shusha, a strategic Nagorno-Karabakh town located a few miles away from the region’s capital of Stepanokert, they abruptly halted their advance on the verge of a full victory. Why? Most likely due to a call from the Kremlin. A Russia-brokered ceasefire deal was signed the following day. According to the deal, Azerbaijan retained the areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that it had gained during the war, Armenia ceded all occupied territories surrounding the region back to Azerbaijan, which was also granted direct land access—through a corridor across Armenia—to its exclave of Nakhchivan. It was also agreed that Moscow would deploy about 2,000 Russian peacekeepers in the region. The 2020 war resulted in over 5,000 dead on both the Azeri and Armenian sides, including at least 143 civilians, with tens of thousands displaced. 

In their post-war analysis, many experts address the question of why the Kremlin was reluctant to engage in the conflict early on. Several explanations are being offered.

 

Russia’s game

Following international law?

One potential explanation of Moscow’s reluctance to engage in the war is exactly what Putin claimed it to be—the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is an unrecognized republic and officially remains part of Azerbaijan, which did not attack Armenia directly. This legalistic argument implies that the Kremlin simply followed international law. But in reality, that was hardly the case, as shown by the Putin regime’s long record of disregarding legal norms both internationally and domestically.

Punishing Armenia for flirting with the West?

On the surface, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s flirtations with the West could be one of the reasons why Moscow was unwilling to side with him in the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the first place. Still, the scope of his dissent should not be overestimated. Pashinyan never considered quitting the pro-Kremlin CSTO, and Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, continues to operate freely in Armenia, despite recurring feuds over gas prices. The Kremlin actually tends to “forgive” leaders of former Soviet republics who dare to flirt with the West, if such advances could be used by Moscow in its own geopolitical game. Belarus’s Lukashenko is a clear example of this strategy.

Fear of U.S. retaliation? 

Could Moscow be afraid of Washington’s wrath? Although direct confrontation with the U.S. is not something the Kremlin would risk, this explanation doesn’t quite hold water either. While the Kremlin’s resurgence is a big concern in the West, Moscow actually does not harbor grand plans of global domination and usually acts quite cautiously—in contrast to the interventionist impulses of U.S. neoconservative foreign policy.

Putin’s understanding of international politics, and America’s role in it, crystallized by 2007, and he relayed his vision in the infamous Munich speech. The speech reflected the Russian ruling class’s realization that the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were part of the behavior patterns inherent to hawkish groups in the American leadership who believed that Washington should, from time to time, find some “small crappy country” and “throw it against the wall” to show that America meant business (the so-called “Ledeen doctrine”). The Russians also concluded that U.S. elites had disregarded the advice of ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu, who said, in his classic The Art of War, that “a good strategist always provides the enemy with options for retreat, for if no choice for retreat or honorable surrender exists, the enemy, driven into a corner, will fight to the last breath.” Washington did not seem to care to provide a political alternative for its adversaries, nor did it guarantee their physical survival—sometimes even their family’s (the names of Slobodan Milosevich and Saddam Hussein spring to mind). 

Taking observations of U.S. foreign policy to heart, the Kremlin decided that appeasing Washington would be pointless, and started to pursue its own interests where it could, discovering along the way that its enemy was not as formidable as it had postured to be. The examples of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the war in Ukraine’s Donbass, as well as the 2015 intervention in Syria, showcase that the Kremlin’s calculations were mostly accurate. All of this was allowed to happen despite strong objections from Washington and the rest of the West. Against this backdrop, the idea that the Kremlin would fear U.S. retaliation over Nagorno-Karabakh is rather baseless.

Moscow’s gas interests?

Gas interests are often the main driver of Russia’s geopolitical forays. This rule offers a plausible explanation of its behavior in the Azeri-Armenian war, in which Turkey, Russia’s implicit competitor in the region, was backing up Baku. 

Russia’s relationship with Turkey has not been smooth in recent years: in 2015, the two countries came to the brink of war over Ankara’s downing of a Russian bomber jet, but eventually managed to overcome this issue and return to a more friendly footing. Turkey’s declining relationship with the West has been encouraged by the Kremlin, especially given Ankara’s membership in NATO. To expedite this deterioration, in 2017 Moscow pitched to Ankara its S-400 missile systems—a $2.5 billion deal to which Turkey agreed, but got sanctioned by the U.S. as a result. Still, as much as the Kremlin hoped to pull Turkey into its orbit, the real reason behind these maneuvers was Russian gas interests.

Even before—but especially after—the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the Kremlin has been seeking to secure a smooth flow of Russian gas to Europe, preferably bypassing Ukraine, whose leadership often refused to fall into line with Moscow’s demands. TurkStream, which replaced the earlier unsuccessful Russia-backed gas pipeline project South Stream, emerged as an opportunity to achieve this goal. Running from Russia’s south to Turkey’s north across the bottom of the Black Sea, the pipeline is set to hook up to the gas infrastructure of South-East and Central European countries (Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria) that have been heavily reliant on cheap Russian gas. The project was officially launched in January 2020.

Given Moscow’s long-standing gas interests in the region, and the timing of the Azeri-Armenian war, the intention may have been to frame Baku as an unreliable gas supplier, something that would play right into the Kremlin’s hands.

The Kremlin believed that the project fit Turkey’s interests—by satisfying most of its gas demand and providing additional revenue through transit fees—but gravely miscalculated. Russia’s support for the Syrian ruling regime became a major point of contention with Turkey, which sought to squeeze Syrian President Bashar Assad out. To signal its disproval, Ankara turned to Azerbaijan as Russia’s major gas competitor in the region. Baku had its own reasons to deal with Turkey. Harboring large gas reserves, it has been anxious to sell it to foreign markets, including Europe and Turkey. It has also emerged as Turkey’s natural ally—some Azeri leaders claim, for example, that Azeris and Turks are one people divided by a border. 

Moscow has been concerned with Azerbaijan’s gas competition for a long time. In 2008, then-President Dmitry Medvedev visited Baku seeking a deal to purchase large amounts of Azeri gas to essentially prevent competition. The deal never materialized, as Azerbaijan decided to participate in a different gas project—the Southern Gas Corridor, proposed by the European Commission in 2008 to diversify its gas supply sources. One of its three sections was the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), intended to deliver gas from Azerbaijan’s part of the major Shah Deniz gas field to Turkey and then to Europe. TAP was scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2020. 

Given Moscow’s long-standing gas interests in the region, and the timing of the Azeri-Armenian war, the intention may have been to frame Baku as an unreliable gas supplier, something that would play right into the Kremlin’s hands. Instability in the South Caucasus would thus elevate Russian gas as a safer option in the eyes of European customers. It is likely that Moscow skillfully exploited the existing tensions between Baku and Yerevan, as well as Ankara’s global ambitions, to achieve this goal. 

The outcome of the Azeri-Armenian war can be assessed in different ways, but one conclusion is clear: the Kremlin’s plan to undermine Baku has failed, as TAP was officially launched in November 2020. Moreover, Turkey recently announced its discovery of a major gas field off the coast of the Black Sea and intends to develop it to reduce dependence on foreign energy supplies, thus upsetting Russia’s plans even more. The question of what Russia will do next to pursue its gas interests remains open, but the Kremlin has already shown that it will not shy away from inciting a deadly conflict to meet its objectives.

 

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