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OPINION

The story of a betrayal: Why Russia acquiesced in the ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh

On November 17, the International Court of Justice at the United Nations implemented temporary measures against Azerbaijan. These measures underscored the rights of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh—to return home without obstruction and to be free from the threat of violence. Simultaneously, the United States expressed readiness to propose an alternative to the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, as stated by James O'Brien, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. While the formal agreement dictates that the Russian contingent should remain in the region until 2025, Vladimir Putin has hinted at a possible reassessment of these agreements in light of recent developments. In late September, over 120,000 Armenians fell victim to ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh, compelling them to abandon their homes. Despite the Russian mandate to safeguard the civilian population and monitor the trilateral ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Russian peacekeepers remained conspicuously passive. Rasmus Canbäck, a Swedish anthropologist specializing in the Karabakh issue, notes that Russia's withdrawal, contributing to ethnic cleansing in Karabakh, signals its diminishing influence in the region. 

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The images of Russian military vehicles being transported by train from Azerbaijan are circulating on social media. Formally, the Russian military states that the vehicles are to be repaired in Russia. In practice, most observers of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh understand that these vehicles are not needed there. Russia's presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, or in Azerbaijan for that matter, was shorter-lived than anyone could have anticipated when a trilateral ceasefire agreement was signed between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia three years ago. On paper, Russia was to have a five-year mandate with a clause for extension, deploying 1,960 troops to Nagorno-Karabakh. The mission was defined to monitor the ceasefire, guarantee the safety of the local population, and ensure passage between the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia.

Three years later, none of the hundreds of thousands of Armenians that the Russians were supposed to protect remain in Nagorno-Karabakh. It took less than a week for the entire population to flee in horror of Azerbaijani oppression while Russian troops quietly stood by the sidelines.

While tens of thousands Armenians abandoned their homes and fled in horror of Azerbaijani oppression, Russian troops quietly stood by the sidelines

A recurring theory in Armenian intellectual discourse is that the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 was allowed by Russia. One argument suggests that Armenia, being in several formal alliances with Russia, had approached the West, and Russia had directly or indirectly lost interest in maintaining the prevailing security balance in the Southern Caucasus.

Another argument states that Russia, through military presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, advanced its geopolitical ambitions, also against Azerbaijan. As much as the peacekeeping forces were seen as a security function for the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, they also served as a tool of power against both Baku and Yerevan. With the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh and the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force, a vital part of Moscow's leverage has disappeared. Russia's position as a geopolitical actor in the region is weaker today than it was before the 2020 war.

Azerbaijan fills the vacuum after Armenia

But let's rewind first before the question of Russia's role in the ethnic cleansing is fully answered.

As the Armenian relationship, at least diplomatically, deteriorated with Russia, it steadily improved for Azerbaijan. Likely, the country's president, Ilham Aliyev, quickly understood that the security vacuum left by Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in recent years could be filled by Azerbaijani shoes.

Just prior to Russia’s major invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev met in Moscow to sign a new alliance agreement consisting of 43 points. Particularly interesting for this article are the points on deepened military cooperation and cooperation in the energy sector.

At a meeting in early summer 2022, the leaders of the countries once again emphasized the validity of the agreement. A year later, in May 2023, Ilham Aliyev strengthened the rhetoric, calling Russia not only an informal ally but also “de jure” – an ally in a legal sense. Note that this happened just a couple of months before Azerbaijan, on September 19–20, launched the final offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh. The fact that Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev are authoritarian leaders who, to some extent, understand each other in a way that Nikol Pashinyan does not, adds to the course of events.

Ilham Aliev named Russia an ally just a couple of months before Azerbaijan’s final offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh

Ironically, Azerbaijan's approach to Russia has occurred despite the changing winds in Azerbaijan. In a survey among Azerbaijani youth conducted by the Azerbaijani think tank Agora Analytics in early 2023, a larger proportion responded that Russia (77%) is a greater threat to Azerbaijan than Armenia (73%) is.

The weeks before the offensive

The weeks before the ethnic cleansing happened, the Armenian-Russian relationship deteriorated rapidly. The Russian side likely claims that it is due to Armenia's actions. There are three significant events.

The first was when Armenia sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine on September 7. It was the first time it happened. Additionally, Russia was further irritated when Nikol Pashinyan's wife, Anna Hakobyan, made a formal state visit to Kyiv. In Moscow, the Armenian ambassador to the Kremlin was summoned not only to present a protest but also a sharp warning.

Russia was irritated when Armenia sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and when Nikol Pashinyan's wife made a formal state visit to Kyiv

The second event is when Armenia held a ten-day joint military exercise with the United States on September 11. While it wasn't the first military exercise Armenia conducted with the U.S. or NATO, the Armenian government made a big deal of conveying the exercise to the world. Once again, the Armenian ambassador was called for talks in Moscow, and this time the rhetoric escalated further.

The third event took place on September 13 when Nikol Pashinyan, in a lengthy address to the nation, declared that Armenia can no longer rely on Russia as a security guarantor. He referred to Russia's war in Ukraine, stating that its presence in the Caucasus has proven unreliable.

At the same time, as this happened, images and videos of Azerbaijani troop movements were published on pro-Azerbaijani social media channels.

“It's all Armenia's fault”

The air raid sirens in the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakert, began sounding around 1:00 PM local time on September 19. From a military strategic standpoint, this differs from previous attack patterns, as assaults have typically taken place early in the morning or in the middle of the night. This occurred both on September 27, 2020, when Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno-Karabakh, and on September 12, 2022, when Azerbaijan launched an invasion of Armenia.

Reports of the Azerbaijani offensive seem to have caught European decision-makers off guard. The President of the Council of Europe, who has also been a mediator in peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan, expressed “deep disappointment” over Azerbaijan's actions. EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell emphasized that Azerbaijan's attack should not lead to an “exodus.”

Reports of the Azerbaijani offensive seem to have caught European decision-makers off guard

While EU representatives, lacking physical presence in Nagorno-Karabakh, took a critical stance on what was happening, Russia assumed a considerably more passive position. In the days before the offensive, Vladimir Putin stated that Armenia had itself to blame for “recognizing” Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. “If Armenia itself recognized Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, what do we have to do with it?”

When the offensive began, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in a similar vein. Armenia was accused of not only recognizing Azerbaijan's territory but also of moving closer to Europe rather than maintaining loyalty to Moscow.

According to leaked documents to the Russian news outlet Meduza, the message in Kremlin's instructions to Russian media is reflected. Russian regime-friendly media were instructed by the Russian leadership to emphasize that it is Armenia's fault that Azerbaijan has been given the opportunity to attack Nagorno-Karabakh.

This narrative should be seen as an attempt by Vladimir Putin to legitimize an upcoming change in course rather than a truth.

Civil population without Russian protection

Now we’ve come to Russia’s practical part of the ethnic cleansing. On the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, events unfolded rapidly. After almost ten months of blockade, the Armenian population had run out of almost all necessities. In the weeks before the offensive, there were talks that if nothing changed, the population was heading towards a famine.

Multiple independent testimonies from border villages suggest that the Russian troops, in connection with the Azerbaijani attacks, began to withdraw or stayed quietly by the sidelines. One of them, a Karabakh-Armenian soldier who fought in the city of Martuni, claimed that the Russian troops had already withdrawn from the frontlines in the morning. If true, this adds to the evidence that the Russian peacekeeping forces were aware of what was about to happen.

An eyewitness claimed that the Russian troops had already withdrawn from the frontlines in the morning, which means they could have been aware of what was about to happen

In cities and villages at the front, the civilian population tried to seek safety, mostly on foot or with animal transports as fuel had run out during the blockade. Thousands of people flocked to the airport outside Stepanakert, controlled by Russia since November 2020.

The Russian troops are said to have urged the fleeing population to leave, causing them to gather in terrible conditions in Stepanakert. During the critical days before the escape began, the blockade to the west towards Armenia was still active, and Azerbaijani armed forces were approaching from the east.

It was not until Nagorno-Karabakh's leadership, under Russian surveillance, signed an agreement to dissolve the army two days later, on September 23, that the blockade was lifted. More than 100,000 Armenians fled the region within a week. Not to forget, already as many as 50,000 Armenians were already displaced from the war in 2020.

While the Azerbaijani offensive was taking place, the Russian troops kept themselves away as much as possible. Ilham Aliyev was quick to apologize to Russia for the Azerbaijani army firing at a Russian military vehicle, causing the death of several Russian servicemen.

Shift in Russia's view of the Caucasus

As mentioned at the beginning of the text, Russia's role in the South Caucasus is undergoing a shift after the ethnic cleansing. The Russian relevance for the region can be seen through two different filters: one from a military perspective and the other from trade in the region.

The hasty withdrawal of most Russian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh, announced just weeks after the ethnic cleansing, shows how Russia is reducing its physical presence. In contrast to the diplomatic disputes between Armenia and Russia, trade continues to increase between the two countries. Due to sanctions against Russia, Armenia has become an intermediary for high-tech equipment that Russia lacks. In 2022, Armenia imported 515 percent more circuit chips from the US and the EU than the previous year. Most of these were later exported to Russia. Additionally, trade from Armenia to Russia continues to increase rapidly, despite the political rhetoric.

Armenia has become an intermediary for high-tech equipment that Russia lacks

A similar trend has been noted from Azerbaijan to Russia, where trade, according to dubious Russian and Azerbaijani sources, is increasing more than in many years, although not as dramatically as in the Armenian case.

What is more interesting is trade from Russia to Europe. Just as the Caucasian states are used to circumvent sanctions against Russia, the detour is also allowed by Europe to circumvent its own sanctions. The need for gas is so great that the EU overlooks Azerbaijan’s diluting its gas exports with shares of Russian gas and that Russia benefits from the gas trade with Azerbaijan.

EU prefers to overlook Azerbaijan’s diluting its gas exports with shares of Russian gas

In 2015, the same year the European Commission made the final decision to fund a new gas pipeline from Azerbaijan to Europe, Russian Lukoil invested in long-term contracts in Azerbaijan's gas fields. Today, Lukoil owns 20 percent of Shah Deniz, the largest gas field.

Furthermore, Russia and Azerbaijan signed new short-term gas agreements in the fall of 2022. Formally, they were supposed to expire in the spring, but EU diplomats lack transparent answers about how much of the Azerbaijani gas is actually Russian, which the European Parliament has reacted to.

Russia's role in the ethnic cleansing

In the end, it is difficult to see what Russia has gained geopolitically from the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh. What can be observed is that while the diplomatic relationship between Azerbaijan and Russia is in better shape today than two months ago, it is significantly worse between Armenia and Russia. However, Russia's leverage has decreased against both countries.

Azerbaijan has proven to be a more reliable partner for Russia than Armenia, despite public opinion in Azerbaijan being against Russia. Perhaps the emerging reality in the South Caucasus is what Russia can manage while the war in Ukraine is ongoing. Sustaining military capacity in Nagorno-Karabakh is both resource-intensive and geopolitically challenging, even for Russia.

The peacekeeping forces that entered Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia are now leaving the region through Azerbaijan. Appropriately, it symbolizes the shift in relations that has occurred in the last three years.

In practice, it can be argued that if Russia had fulfilled the ceasefire agreement from November 2020, the ethnic cleansing would not have taken place in September. Even though Vladimir Putin tries to blame the Armenian leadership for the humanitarian catastrophe, it was, in fact, the Russian troops that were both present in Nagorno-Karabakh and responsible for the safety—not Armenian.

if Russia had fulfilled the ceasefire agreement from November 2020, the ethnic cleansing would not have taken place

The decision to let the Russian troops passively watch as Azerbaijan, an authoritarian state, displaced over a hundred thousand people in flight was made by no one else but Moscow.

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