No, Russia Does Not Want War in Nagorno-Karabakh

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In a recent op-ed in Al Jazeera, Caucasus political analyst Richard Giragosian argued that Russia, desperate to retain its influence in the former Soviet space, seeks to spark an armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). Specifically, he asserted that the military build-up between Armenia and Azerbaijan has “greatly enhanced Russian power and influence” and that “the looming risk of ‘war by accident’ may be a tempting tool for Moscow to consolidate its leverage in the region by provoking, promoting and then exploiting renewed hostilities.”

The move, wrote Giragosian, could “garner greater dividends for Russian hard power.” He added that this “stems from the Russian desire to further project its power in the South Caucasus by seeking to spark further military confrontation in order to deploy Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh.”

The notion that Russia aims to purposefully instigate a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is illogical and conflicts with the basic realities of the Caucasus region. The allegation by Giragosian is an extreme version of the idea of Russia using the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as a “divide and rule” mechanism to retain Armenia and Azerbaijan in its sphere of influence. This concept is derived from a flawed historical understanding of the origins of the dispute, which attributed the assignment of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan to the cynical interests of Stalin and Soviet Russia.

However, this myth has recently been put to rest. The historical research of the scholar, Arsene Saparov, persuasively argued that Nagorno-Karabakh was assigned to Soviet Azerbaijan based on the fact that it was, despite its overwhelming Armenian majority, controlled by Azerbaijan at the time of Sovietization. Simply put, it was easier for the Bolsheviks to sanction the pre-existing situation on the ground while giving the Armenians the concession of political autonomy, a solution that satisfied neither side. Stalin, far from the height of his power, played only a minor role.

This debunked divide-and-rule premise notwithstanding, the idea that Russia would want a war in Nagorno-Karabakh also runs contrary to Russia’s strategic interests in the region. Russia’s primary interest is stability and security, not war and chaos. This is especially important given Russia’s concerns with the rise of Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus. Specifically, Moscow wants to shore up its position in the region by having a secure buffer of friendly states south of the Caucasus Mountains that will help it contain and isolate this threat.

Armenia, Russia’s main military ally in Transcaucasia, is a key part of this strategy. Georgia, which has its own problem with Islamic extremists, is likewise an important component of it. However, Russo-Georgian tension, especially during Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency, has hindered these efforts. The current Georgian government, led by the pragmatist prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, seeks to mend Russo-Georgian ties—and with good reason.

Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, home to a Chechen subgroup known as the Kists, has become a prime target for ISIS recruiting efforts. One of its natives is Omar al-Shishani (born Tarkhan Batirashvili), a veteran of the 2008 war in Georgia and now a top ISIS commander.  This has raised much concern in Moscow, which faces a similar problem across the border in the North Caucasus.  In a recent 60 Minutes interview with Charlie Rose, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that “more than 2,000 fighters from Russia and Ex-Soviet Republics” are fighting on Syrian territory.

This only underscores the need for cooperation between Tbilisi and Moscow. Both share a common interest in combating the spread of terrorism and Islamic extremism in Pankisi and in the Caucasus generally. Yerevan too shares this interest. In fact, for both Armenia and Georgia, the presence of ISIS in the neighborhood has reawakened bad historical memories. Having a large country like Russia nearby to ward off such threats is a major advantage for the security of both states.

Russia’s concerns in the Caucasus are not just limited to Islamic extremism. Moscow is also troubled by efforts, led by the United States, to expand NATO, to promote Western-backed energy projects, and to encourage pro-Western “color revolutions” in the region. Russia is perplexed by these moves, which it regards as a continuation of Cold War containment. These measures are also viewed by the Kremlin as creating the conditions for instability in the region, as the 2008 war in Georgia demonstrated.

Given this, a war in Nagorno-Karabakh, especially in light of recent events in Ukraine and Syria, is the absolute last thing that Russia wants or needs. This explains the reason for the Russian-backed Sochi summit on Nagorno-Karabakh in August 2014. Hostilities on the ceasefire line between the sides reached alarming levels and Russian President Putin sought to calm tensions between Baku and Yerevan. If Russia really wanted a war, it would have permitted the ceasefire violations to escalate until a major conflict erupted. Instead, Russia sought to avert that prospect.

In Giragosian’s view, “Russia has largely benefitted from the unresolved nature of the conflict” over Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire. This is not the case. Although the tenuous ceasefire has maintained some peace and stability in the region, in the long term, Russia is not interested in seeing any renewed hostilities over Nagorno-Karabakh. At the same time, long-term solutions to the issue have been elusive; Putin and other Russian officials acknowledge this.

Nevertheless, Giragosian is correct on one point; Russia has indeed supplied both sides with weapons. It is true that Moscow has cautiously supplied weapons to Azerbaijan, in part to entice it to join the Eurasian Union.  However, the political reality is that Armenia remains Russia’s major military ally and most reliable partner in Transcaucasia. Russia’s major military infrastructure in the region, including the 102nd military base at Gyumri, is located in Armenia.  Further, Moscow’s military obligations and security guarantees to Yerevan remain firm.

The Russian-Armenian relationship, determined by hard political factors and security interests, is mutually beneficial for both countries. For Armenia, Russia remains the strongest guarantor for its security against potential threats and concerns from its hostile neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan. For Russia, Armenia remains an important and friendly pillar in a strategically vital region.

The conclusion of Giragosian’s piece is that, “…the danger of a ‘war by accident’ over Nagorno-Karabakh necessitates much more strategic scrutiny and greater attention by the West. This remote and fairly removed conflict can no longer be so easily ceded to Russian control. Moscow has been afforded too much room as a primary actor for far too long.” This conclusion is based on another troubling premise.

The West, he wrote, “can no longer so easily cede” the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to Russia. However, is the dispute the West’s to “cede” at all? Conflicts, such as the one in Nagorno-Karabakh, are not pieces in a “great game” between the “great powers” on a “grand chessboard” (to quote Zbigniew Brzezinski). Instead, they are international disputes that require international cooperation, not competition.

In addition, the view that the West can “cede” the dispute to Moscow also implies that Armenia, Georgia, and other post-Soviet countries are objects that can be “ceded” from one power to another. According to this perspective, Yerevan, Baku, Tbilisi, Kiev, Astana, and others are not independent political players, whose relations with Moscow and the West are determined by savvy, pragmatic interests. In this view, they cannot decide for themselves what kind of future or political system they should have. This problematic position also arises from an outlook based on international competition, not cooperation. However, the Caucasus needs much more of the latter and much less of the former if is to find peace, security, and stability.

The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Armenite.

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16 Comments

  1. Excellent article, not to mention the fact that Russia and Armenia are tied with both a military security treaty CSTO and an economic union the EEU. What kind of suicidal political move would that be for Russia to let Armenia enter a security treaty only to try to escalate a war with Armenia? That would obligate Russia to intervene, and if they don’t then well their reputation would go to the toilet and CSTO would simply seize to exist. The same can be said about EEU of which Armenia is to assume presidency in 2016. Russia doesn’t need to do much if it really wanted a war in Nagorno Karabach, just leave Armenia break all pacts and Armenia will be swallowed by two vultures on our borders in no time.

    Giragosian and many others are spreading utter garbage and sensational fear journalism with a very narrow partial view of the world. Armenia is to be part of the western block to them and nothing else. The same western block that has Turkey as it’s NATO ally, which Merkel recently visited only to promise the Turks accession into EU in exchange for aid with the immigrant crisis. They even postponed the approval of the Armenian Genocide resolution by their parliament, just to please their old time partner in crime, which is one of the main supporters of ISIS and several other Islamic militant groups in the first place. The same western block that is making 50 billion dollar oil deals with Azerbaijan, hosts European Olympics and regularly receives Sultan Aliyev for “bilateral relations” talks, totally ignoring the international outcry over the horrendous human rights violations. Armenia is simply not that important to the west, we have much less to offer to them and that’s just the fact of life. A landlocked, poor country without an excess to the sea and no fossil fuels, two blockades and a frozen conflict. That’s not something the west is interested in and unless Giragosian and the likes know some magical facts that the rest is unaware of, I doubt it will change anytime soon.

    There is only one thing the west might need from Armenia, and that’s for Armenia to frustrate Russia and to be used as a pawn against Russia much like Georgia has been with devastating results (like the loss of two vital provinces, Abkhazia and Ossetia, not unlike Ukrainian loss of Crimea and perhaps Donbas). But even wouldn’t be nearly enough to ensure proper backing for Armenia, because after all we’ve all seen time after time that when push comes to shove and western countries have to chose between Armenia or Turkey+Azerbaijan they won’t hesitate much as they didn’t when we invited them to attend the Armenian Genocide centennial commemoration.

    No, Russia is not at all interested in a war in Nagorno-Karabakh or Armenia. As the Armenian president has vowed at the latest UN convention, Armenia will be a guarantor of Nagorno-Karabakh in case of Azeri aggression and that would certainly oblige Russia to intervene. At this moment Russia is an outstanding partner to Armenia and we would best keep this relation as such. If anything it’s rather the west that could be interested in a war in Nagorno-Karabakh to involve Russia in another senseless conflict, not unlike their support for the Syrian civil war in attempt to overthrow one of the very few secular governments in the Muslim world.

    That said I don’t see why we can’t cooperate with western countries on common interests, let Giragosian and the likes help to achieve this goal instead of constantly whining and crying about Russia. But I’m afraid our love affair with the west is very much conditional, and that’s why these people find it very hard to find us new friends without creating enemies out of the old once. We’ll have to turn Russia into an enemy for them to even consider us, but even that won’t put us above Turkey and/or Azerbaijan. So we’ll have to be pragmatic and build bridges instead of creating more enemies than we can count for a hope at a western embrace. But hey if they know a way to gain more friends for Armenia, then more power to them, just stop searching for new enemies, cause frankly, that’s exactly what the enemy wants from us.

    Thank you for the insightful and a thought-provoking article.

  2. This is a good article by Mr. SHAKARIAN.
    Re-enforces well known facts.
    But, honestly, Giragossian does not deserve a rebuttal.
    The man is a fraud and an idiot.
    He has an Armenian last name, but he is as far removed from being Armenian as Ilham Aliyev.
    He is a one-man think tank that gets funding from somewhere to produce disinformation, with the goal being to sow division and distrust.
    But the guy is so obviously incompetent that it is puzzling why anyone is paying him a dime.
    .
    Here is a video of the alleged Caucasus expert bloviating nonsense for his Turkish hosts.
    The intellectual level of discourse is barely above kindergarten .
    Embarrassing really.
    .
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2cz9vw_adnan-oktar-s-live-discussion-on-a9-tv-with-richard-giragosian-director-of-the-armenian-think-tank-r_news

  3. Richard Giragosian is a half Armenian, half Anglo mutt from Rhode Island. He has a US military background and he flaunts it. While I have no way of proving it, Richard most definitely works as a spy for the CIA. Interestingly, his path into Armenian society was paved by the Raffi Hovanissian, another well-known US agent currently working in Armenia.

  4. the claims that Giragosian is a spy are at best laughable – we just can’t stand somebody who doesn’t share our viewpoint, looking for some hidden agenda however ridiculous that may sound (at least the guy concedes he cannot prove it 😉

    So looks like I am a spy, too. Because, while I also think Russia has no real need to cause a war in the region, for one I do not think $4B worth of weapon can be characterized as “Moscow has cautiously supplied weapons to Azerbaijan”. I cannot pretend Armenia and other small countries with a GDP of the size of an American football team can indeed conduct an independent foreign policy (if you live in such a bubble, then I am sure regular ‘tsarist’ remarks from some Russian functionary can make it burst). And I do think the Russian influence in Armenia should be counterbalanced – a nation without choice can hardly dream about pursuing its own interests.

    • Can you please list some counties that ” should be counterbalance” Russian influence in RoA ?
      Please note that the countries so listed need to be able to meet certain qualifications:
      .
      1. Be able and willing to prevent NATO member Turkey from invading and overrunning both RoA and NKR: i.e. have some national strategic interest not to allow Islamist Turks to spread their influence in Caucasus and beyond.
      2. Be able to supply natural gas to Armenia at below market rates. RoA has zero hydrocarbon reserves and is entirely dependent on Russia or Iran to keep its 3+ million residents warm in severe winters of Caucasus.
      3. Be willing to continue supplying fuel and operating RoA’s NPP, which supplies about 40% of nations electricity. No, that is not a typo: it is forty percent, not four percent.
      .
      There are some other qualifications, but let us start with those there.

    • btw: which American football team is it that has a budget the size of RoA GDP of $24.28 billion (2014 est.purchasing power parity).

    • No, Vahe jan. You are not a spy, you are just a typical idiot. At the end of the day and despite what you think, no Russia in Armenia = no Armenia in the south Caucasus. So, instead of fear-mongering about Russians (which in fact makes Moscow distrustful of Armenians), try embracing Russians with the hope of deriving benefits from them for your homeland. I know it won’t happen because pathetic, westernized Armenians such as yourself only know how to cry at the feet Western reptiles. That is why I say Armenians deserve every drop of spit they get on their faces by their beloved Western masters.

  5. Russia would like a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan if it caused the destruction of the BTC and BTE pipelines, the occupation of those paths by Armenian or Russian troops. and severe damage to Baku’s energy fields.

    This would damage Azerbaijan’s credibility in the West and NATO’s plans to infiltrate the Caucasus, and would put a stop to Azerbaijan’s supply of gas to Georgia.

    Azerbaijan has been attacking Armenia proper, not just Artsakh, and yet Russia has done nothing despite the Armenian – Russian treaties. This is not the behavior of a real ally.

    Combine this with Moscow’s affirmation of the treaties that the Soviets signed with Turkey to give away certain parts of Western Armenia.

    Russia is still an ally, but it can help itself by playing its old imperial games. I know this upsets Armenian Russophiles who cannot stand the smallest criticism of Russia. They get very angry and throw fits. That’s unfortunate.

  6. Dee, if you don’t want me getting “angry” then Russophobes like you need to stop make baseless comments and accusations like the ones you just made. Pro-Russian Armenians such as myself get angry when they see idiots or Western activists (I do not know which of the two you are) throwing stones on the only factor that has helped Armenia survive the ravages of the region. Now, let me educate you. 1) By treaty, Russia will only intervene on Armenia’s behalf if Armenia is threatened with an invasion (i.e. border skirmishes don’t qualify) and if Armenia asks for military assistance from Russia (it has no happened). 2) It was not Russians but Bolsheviks gave historic lands to Turks and Azeris. Moscow today has no choice but to recognize that current borders of Turkey – until the day comes when it won’t. I suggest you learn your political history before you write comments. Armenia’s good relationship with Russia is the only thing that is keeping the country afloat. If you love Armenia and want to see it survive in a nasty place like the south Caucasus I suggest do what you can to better Russo-Armenian relations instead of talking nonsense.

  7. PART2
    .
    The $4B weapons sales to Azerbaijan by Russia has been discussed extensively in other forums.
    All the arguments against its sale have been debunked.
    But people – and antiArmenian, antiRussian propaganda/disinformation channels (e.g. rferl.com, azatutyun.am,…) – keep churning the story to create mistrust and friction between Armenia and Russia.
    .
    Again, here are the facts:
    1.Azerbaijan has the money and plenty of it to buy weapons from any country on the world markets at market prices.
    2.And has: in addition to $4B from Russia, Azerbaijan has purchased $1.6B from Israel, and continuing purchases from Turkey, and a half a dozen other countries.
    3.If Russia does not sell to Azerbaijan, somebody else will: China has excellent copies of Soviet/Russian design heavy weapons. Israel is eager, and so are several former Warsaw pact countries who manufacture or upgrade Soviet weaponry. If you have money, weapons sellers will line up around the block to sell you anything you want.
    4.Naturally, neither Israel nor Turkey have put any restrictions on their weapons sales to Azerbaijan vis-a-vis NKR or RoA: quite the contrary. See below.
    5.Russia has officially and publicly warned Azerbaijan that only peaceful resolution is acceptable for the NKR “conflict” (read: do not use weapons we sell you against RoA or NKR).
    6.Russia selling weapons to Azerbaijan allows RoA strategic ally to exercise some level of influence and control on their use against RoA and NKR: no such influence on behalf of RoA by its enemies. (e.g. withholding spare parts in case of war; tech information…).
    7.Will the fact that Russia has told Baku not to use sold weapons against RoA or NKR stop the criminal, terrorist state from actually using them some day ? No: of course not. But Russia at least admonishes Baku: none of other weapons sellers do. What would you (generic you), who cares about Armenia prefer ? Is it the fault of Russia or Russians that we Armenians are in the situation we are in ? Why not direct the venom against the actual, mortal, genocidal enemies of our Armenian Nation: Turks ?
    8.RoA has no choice but to buy Russian weapons: below market rates, at cost, or oftentimes gifted to RoA by its strategic partner. RoA simply has no money to equip its (and NKR) military on its own to match Azerbaijan.
    9.Azerbaijan military would have an advantage with their knowledge of Soviet/Russian design weaponry in RoA/NKR inventory, given theirs was not Soviet/Russian (e.g. Turkish, Isralei). If Azerbaijan was mostly equipped with Israeli and Turkish heavy weaponry, RoA would know little about them and would be at a disadvantage.
    .
    And the fact that RoA, with a defense budget of $450 million, has maintained the military balance since 1994 vis-à-vis Azerbaijan, which has an offense budget of $3.8 Billion with a B (2014), should put to rest the useless chattering about Russian weapons sales.
    In addition, nobody but Russia and RoA/NKR military know what advanced weapons Russia provides to RoA/NKR, without advertising.
    .
    Finally:
    .
    During the 2014 and this year 2015, Azerbaijan mounted several good size incursions into RoA and NKR.
    Several dozen young Armenian men were KIA defending their homeland from Turk invaders.
    What the anti-Armenian, anti-Russian disinformation channels carefully avoided mentioning is that Israeli and Turkish military equipment was used by these specially trained commando teams to kill Armenians. Proof is the equipment that our guys captured.
    .
    During the recent bombardments that killed Armenian civilians and soldiers, Azerbaijan extensively used Turkish-made TR-107 rocket launchers. But Neocon disinformation channels carefully avoided publicizing it.
    Instead they cleverly re-worded some other weapon’s origin (D-30) to give the impression that “Russian-made” howitzer was used against Armenian positions:
    Well, No, it isn’t “Russian-made”: D-30 is Soviet era howitzer that Azerbaijan SSR had plenty of. So do dozens of countries around the world.
    And RoA Defense Ministry has publicly confirmed that no weapons sold by Russia to Azerbaijan in recent years have been used in the recent attacks against RoA and NKR.
    But Turkish and Israeli military equipment _has_ been used: to KIA young Armenian soldiers and murder Armenian civilians.
    .
    So there you have it.

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  10. Shakarian is correct. Russia does not want war in the Caucuses. This isn’t the mid 90’s when the FSB was caught planting bombs in apartments in Ryazan and pinned it on Chechens in order to start a new war in Chechnya to get an unknown ex-KGB officer elected who would then pardon his corrupt boss Yeltsin and his circle a la Gerald Ford and Nixon.

    The thought is absolutely ridiculous.

    God Bless Mother Russia!

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