Aliyev’s Military Solution in Karabakh Is a Loss for Putin

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After waiting on the sidelines for more than a month, the Kremlin has finally intervened militarily in the bloody conflict that has unfolded in Nagorno-Karabakh since late September. But the deployment of Russia’s 15th Detached Motorized Rifle Brigade to the contested Caucasus region as peacekeepers in the early hours of Nov. 10 came too late for Armenia to avoid a humiliating defeat at the hands of arch-enemy Azerbaijan.

The Russian intervention sealed Armenia’s loss of much of the substantial territory it had won in 1993 for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, or Artsakh, as it is known to Armenians throughout the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s acquiescence to Azerbaijan’s military gains lets him pull out with some dignity from an ugly regional impasse. But his solution to the crisis is imperfect: It undermines his claim to mastery over the USSR’s legacy of frozen conflicts, and holds negative consequences for Russia’s future geopolitical role in the region.

As Tuesday opened, Putin, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed a trilateral statement that declared an immediate ceasefire, decreed a handover to Azerbaijan of four pieces of Armenian-controlled territory and announced the introduction of almost 2,000 Russian peacekeepers to control the separation line and a three-mile-wide transport corridor between Karabakh and Armenia. They are to stay in the region for five years.

There’s no question who benefits most from the deal. In Yerevan, the Armenian capital, Pashinyan’s announcement that he had signed it (“It’s no victory, but there’s no defeat until you recognize it,” he wrote on Facebook) unleashed riots. Protesters ransacked the prime minister’s residence (according to Pashinyan, his “computer, watch, perfume, driver’s license and other things” were taken), seized parliament’s meeting hall and beat up its speaker. Pashinyan is trying to keep the situation under control, but he has called on his supporters to “prepare for a struggle,” and his political future is in question.

That backlash against Pashinyan, who took over Armenia in a peaceful revolution in 2018, may be one goal that Putin was trying to achieve by withholding military force for a month. After all, he could have nipped the conflict in the bud by sending in, or even just seriously threatening to send in, Russian troops back in September or early October.

During the protests that brought him to power, Pashinyan had tried to convince Putin that his backers’ demands for liberalization and an end to corruption didn’t amount to an anti-Russian rebellion akin to the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity of 2014. Since then, Putin has maintained an outwardly cordial relationship with the new Armenian leader. But he hates post-Soviet uprisings on principle, and his resentment toward Pashinyan’s cautious liberal reforms and the expanded presence of Western non-governmental organizations in Armenia was visible in the posts of his propagandist-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, an ethnic Armenian.

“Burn in hell, you despicable creature,” she wrote of Pashinyan on Telegram in the wee hours of Nov. 10. “That’s more or less the current mood in Yerevan, on Pashinyan’s Facebook page and in my kitchen.”

A more complex calculus, however, was likely behind Putin’s decision to wait, allowing, by his own estimate, about 5,000 people to perish.

An early intervention would have been seen as open, one-sided support for Armenia. Azerbaijan is in better financial shape and better-armed than Armenia thanks to its hydrocarbon wealth. It is currently ranked 64th in the world by military strength, while Armenia is in 111th place among 138 countries. Armenia was badly outgunned when Azerbaijan attacked. Since the first days of the flare-up in Karabakh, the leaders of Russia’s powerful and wealthy Armenian diaspora have called almost tearfully for Putin to send in the troops. Besides, Armenia’s control over Karabakh lacks international recognition; its protection also falls outside the ambit of the defensive alliance between the two countries. If Russia had chosen to intervene on Armenia’s behalf, it would have acted above and beyond the call of duty.

That would have pushed Azerbaijan deeper into the embrace of Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enthusiastically supported Aliyev throughout the conflict. It would have weakened Azerbaijan’s energy ties with Russia and, ultimately, pulled yet another post-Soviet country further out of Russia’s orbit. Russia also has an Azeri diaspora that at least equals the Armenian one in wealth, influence and sheer size (Putin has estimated that each is 2 million strong). Given past clashes between Armenians and Azeris living in Russia over Karabakh, the Russian authorities have chosen not to favor either side too openly.

By interfering late, Putin attempted to salvage some credibility with Armenians: The Russian troop deployment saves them from a certain defeat and a complete loss of Karabakh. That’s how Pashinyan explained his acquiescence to the territorial losses. “The army said we had to stop because we had certain problems that it was unclear we could solve, and our resources were exhausted,” he said in a video address to the nation on Nov. 10. But he also checked Turkey’s growing influence by making sure Russian troops would play peacekeepers.

Still, Armenia’s willingness to remain in Russia’s orbit, as it has done so far, will undoubtedly be shaken. Unlike Azerbaijan, it’s a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin’s pet common market project, and of the post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization. Armenians — both in their home country and in Russia — will question the worth of these close links. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, will play up its ties with Turkey to extract more concessions from Putin; in his early statements after the deal was made, Aliyev even suggested a role for Turkish peacemakers alongside Russian ones.

Perhaps there was no avoiding it, but Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space has suffered a blow. Indeed, the most insidious consequence of the deal forged by Russia’s endgame intervention is the damage it has done to Putin’s ability to freeze conflicts in the former Soviet Union. Since the USSR’s dissolution, Russia’s sheer might as the world’s number two military power has held countries such as Ukraine and Georgia hostage to Russia’s will, despite their clear desire to break away from their former imperial overlord.

Consider Aliyev’s Nov. 9 address to his nation, in which he said something that should scare even Putin:“The people of Azerbaijan have repeatedly heard from mediators and leaders of some international organizations that there is no military solution to this conflict. I said that I do not agree with this thesis, and I was right. I was!”

The belief that a military solution is possible — that if Russia does intervene, it may do so too late — would upset the balance of all the post-Soviet frozen conflicts, starting with the Ukrainian one. Aliyev thinks he can afford to wait until Russian troops leave Karabakh; he hasn’t promised to give up Azerbaijan’s remaining territorial claims. The Georgians, Ukrainians and Moldovans may also decide that returning territory ripped from their countries by now-frozen conflicts is merely a matter of waiting for an opportune moment — in late September, the Kremlin was distracted by the dramatic events in Belarus — and launching a well-prepared military operation. Azerbaijan’s experience shows that Russia may not act even if its personnel die: Moscow appears to have accepted Azeri apologies for accidentally shooting down a Russian helicopter over Armenia on Nov. 9.

Put bluntly, the status quo in the post-Soviet world hangs too heavily on perceptions of Russia’s military strength and its willingness to use it. The apparent outcome of the latest Nagorno-Karabakh conflict suggests those perceptions are changing, with unpredictable consequences for Putin and a complex post-imperial space.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. His Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984" is due out in early 2021.

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