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Russia’s Challenges in the South Caucasus Amid the War in Ukraine Russian peacekeepers and Azerbaijani soliders in November 2020. Russian Ministry of Defense photo. CC by SA 4.0

Russia’s Challenges in the South Caucasus Amid the War in Ukraine

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By Giorgio Cafiero

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war ended with a Russian-brokered truce, signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia’s heads of state. As part of this fragile deal, Moscow deployed roughly 2,000 peacekeeping troops to Nagorno-Karabakh. Underscored by the deadly flare-up between Azerbaijan and Armenia last month, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement has not entirely prevented violence in the enclave since its signing. Yet, the Russian peacekeepers, to their credit, have so far prevented such friction from spiralling into a third Nagorno-Karabakh war.

However, there are important questions to raise about Moscow’s ability to continue playing its peacekeeping role in this territory more than six months into the Ukraine war. Additionally, certain factors unrelated to the Ukrainian crisis also pose major dilemmas for Russia in the South Caucasus.

Bogged Down in Ukraine

With Russia’s military stretched thin in Ukraine, Moscow does not have the bandwidth that it did in 2020/21. Since February 24, Moscow has removed hundreds of its experienced peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh to fight in Ukraine.

“I understand that these were some of the most experienced peacekeepers,” said Matthew Bryza, the former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, in an interview with the American Security Project (ASP). “So, it seems that with a weaker and less experienced Russian peacekeeping operation in Azerbaijan, it’s likely that tensions will increase between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and there could be clashes.”

Moscow’s military footprint in the South Caucasus is decreasing while Russia devotes more manpower to Ukraine. On top of pulling some peacekeepers out of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Russians have withdrawn 1,200-2,000 of their forces from Georgia and they might remove some from Armenia too.

Some observers maintain that Baku is capitalizing on the removal of hundreds of Russia’s peacekeeping troops to further weaken the Armenians in and near Nagorno-Karabakh. From Azerbaijan’s perspective, however, the opposite is true, believing that Yerevan is taking advantage of the Ukrainian crisis.

“It’s impossible to say for certain how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has influenced tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia because the leadership of both countries is not speaking about this,” said Bryza. “It appears, however, though that from an analytical perspective that Russian peacekeepers are decreasingly capable of reducing tension and of keeping peace. I say that because there have been continuous shootings.”

Problematic is the fact that Baku and Yerevan have fundamentally different interpretations of the Russian-brokered truce. Both capitals accuse the other of violating it.

Azerbaijan’s understanding is that the ceasefire statement requires Armenian forces to leave Nagorno-Karabakh and with that the Russian peacekeeping troops would do so too. However, in Yerevan, the understanding greatly differs. “[The Armenians are] interpreting it to mean that the troops that are in Stepanakert (or Hankendi), [aren’t] Armenian but they’re Karabakhi forces and that therefore they can remain there indefinitely,” explained Bryza.

“Azerbaijan counters that by saying, no, of course not. The November 9/10 ceasefire statement recognizes all these previously occupied territories as Azerbaijani (as by the way Armenia always did from a juridical perspective) and therefore all these troops need to leave because they’re Armenian. So, we’re at an impasse here and Russia has not tried to resolve this impasse. I think that damages its relations with Baku.”

The Kremlin’s Challenges in the South Caucasus

The complicated and evolving landscape in the South Caucasus will probably make it more difficult for Moscow to navigate this former Soviet space. This year, Russia’s relationship with Azerbaijan has experienced ups and downs with Moscow worrying about Baku’s strengthened relationships with NATO powers.

“The war in Ukraine mostly downgraded the image of Russian peace forces in Karabakh,” Fuad Shahbazov, a security analyst focusing on the South Caucasus, told ASP. “Compared to Armenia, Azeri society has been more suspicious of Russian forces since their deployment in the Karabakh region in 2020. With the intervention in Ukraine, civil society members loudly voice their discontent regarding deploying Russian forces on Azerbaijani soil.” Some media outlets in Azerbaijan accuse the Russians of arming Armenian separatists in Stepanakert, informing a perspective in Baku about Moscow’s role not being useful.

Ultimately, Azerbaijan has a balanced and independent foreign policy. Baku leverages its multifaceted partnerships on the international stage to its advantage. Not antagonizing Moscow is important to Azerbaijan, which factors into Baku’s overall neutral stance vis-à-vis the Ukrainian crisis. In early March, Azerbaijan refused to join 141 UN member-states in voting in favor of a General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion.

However, Baku is not necessarily pleased with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. “Privately, I don’t think [officials in Azerbaijan] are very happy about the invasion. That is not surprising because Azerbaijan was also opposed to the 2008 intervention in Georgia in South Ossetia, and it did not look kindly upon the 2014 annexation of Crimea,” explained Samuel Ramani, an analyst at the Royal United Service Institute, in an interview with ASP.

“Azerbaijan and Russia have also had some periodic frictions since the war began. On March 26, there was a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense that accused Azerbaijan of actually entering the Russian peacekeeping mission zone of operation and escalating the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones in Nagorno-Karabakh was also chastised by the Russian media and the Defense Ministry,” added Ramani.

At the same time, the signing of the “Declaration on Allied Interaction between the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation” on February 22 boosted Baku and Moscow’s partnership to the level of an alliance. As Ramani pointed out, Russia’s interests in maintaining good relations with Azerbaijan factor into the Kremlin’s agenda of “mitigating the role of Azerbaijan as an alternative gas supplier to Europe.” Yet, Azerbaijan will probably be a gas supplier to Europe anyway, mindful of Baku’s determination to maintain its balance between the West and Russia.

Ultimately, the risks of another Karabakh war erupting or any open conflict breaking out in the South Caucuses would greatly undermine Moscow’s interests. Under such circumstances, Russia would come under pressure to intervene at the expense of its ability to put military resources into Ukraine.

Another reason why Moscow does not want tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh to intensify pertains to the future of Russia’s alliance with Armenia. Should a third Karabakh war erupt, and Moscow does not intervene on Armenia’s half, “the relationship between Moscow and Yerevan will be irreparably strained,” said Ramani.

“It’s already been quite severely strained by the fact that Armenia has asked them for help before and they didn’t [deliver], and in the last Karabakh war Turkey supplied Azerbaijan with aid and Russia didn’t do so for Armenia. If Armenia and Russia have a falling out over this, it would be bad for the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and for the increasingly moribund Eurasian Economic Union.”

In the final analysis, Russia has vested interests in working with various governments to try to lower such tensions and move the region toward greater integration, even if that is difficult to imagine now, especially considering problems between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Russia wants to present itself as an effective mediator and promotor of peace in the South Caucuses. But Russia’s capacity to do so has unquestionably suffered from its decision to overtly invade Ukraine on February 24. The longer the war of attrition in Ukraine continues,  there is greater likelihood that Moscow will find its problems in the South Caucuses worsening.