Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023: Russia

The Problem of the South Caucasus May Turn Out to be One of the Parameters of the New World Order

Arkady Dubnov, independent political analyst, expert on post-Soviet space

- What was Russia’s agenda during the establishment of ceasefire in November 2020, and what has changed now? With the interests of which countries is the current agenda most correlated?

First of all, when concluding the tripartite agreement in November 2020, the Russian Federation followed its own interests. In my opinion, they consisted, of course, in a ceasefire, which, actually, to put it cynically, was ceasing to be beneficial for any of the parties, and, secondly, this allowed Russia to strengthen its influence in the South Caucasus and even increase its military presence, which at that time seemed to have been achieved - I mean the agreement on the presence of a Russian peacekeeping corps in Karabakh. For the RF, a former empire, seeking to revive imperial influence throughout a large space in Eurasia, it was important to preempt the strengthening of other world actors in this region - primarily, Turkey and the West. A lot has changed in two years, and on February 24 of last year, the world changed drastically. Of course, this could not but affect the situation in the South Caucasus, where Russia's readiness to retain its influence ceased to be self-evident. Russia, I repeat, is a country, which is trying to regain the imperial influence lost during the collapse of the USSR, therefore it is equally important for her to preserve the interests of not only Armenia, its historical Christian ally in the region, but also all the other countries, primarily Azerbaijan. I wouldn’t say that Azerbaijan is a trump card, but it’s an extremely weighty card in this region, since stable relations with Azerbaijan strengthen the position of Russia as one of the energy sponsors of the global, and primarily the European energy order. From this standpoint, today the influence of the RF, of course, is significantly undermined, since it was unable to satisfy, first of all, the aspirations and hopes of Armenia as its CSTO and historical ally - she proved to have no leverage to alert or preempt the desire of Azerbaijan to achieve its goals with maximum efficiency, which were largely settled in the victory in the 2020 war.

- Can we say that the activation of Turkey, Iran, Israel, the USA, the EU, other Western countries and structures in the South Caucasus in varying degrees amid the Russian-Ukrainian war has already changed the algorithms of relations in the region, which everyone was accustomed to? With the policies and actions of which countries is this most connected?

They are changing significantly, and this is all a continuation of the topic of the previous questions. I repeat, seeking to maintain its influence in the South Caucasus, Russia is simultaneously making an effort not to turn its friends - Armenia - into enemies, and turn its potential enemies into friends, I mean Azerbaijan, and Russia is forced today to abandon some harsh attempt to coerce Azerbaijan and Turkey to stop the pressure on Armenia. This pressure in itself, speaking objectively, is carried out on the principle of “might makes right.” Baku won the 44-day war, from the viewpoint of a winner’s logic, it’s demanding to receive its “bonuses.” Armenia is resisting these Azerbaijani terms, and here we are apparently drawing an analogy with the aspiration of Russia to force Ukraine to accept the imposed demands, which were announced at the end 2021. I’m making a pretty rough analogy: today Russia is failing to solve the set task - Ukraine is resisting, just like Azerbaijan is failing to overcome the resistance of Armenia in the pursuit of forcing Armenia to agree to fulfill the Azerbaijani demands. A lot will depend on the results of how the confrontation will unfold in Ukraine. If Ukraine succeeds in regaining the territories she considers her own, which today, so to speak, are joined to the RF, then Azerbaijan will have much more chances to regain all those territories in which it is now trying to formally establish itself - I mean Karabakh, to do away with the status of independence of Karabakh, after which all the other territorial claims to Armenia can also be put on another, more radical level. Currently, the situation has changed so much that the balance of power seriously depends on the situation in Ukraine. It must be understood that a weakened Russia has discovered a certain vacuum for the presence of world actors in the South Caucasus, and it is quite naturally being filled by others. They significantly weaken Russia’s position - this is one thing. They are drawing Armenia to Western actors. Yerevan's stakes on cooperation or hopes for help by a Western actor make Armenia, on the one hand, a hostage of the West, and on the other hand, Armenia risks losing special relations with Russia. On the one hand, this may turn out to be a very risky and successful game, on the other hand - a trap. But the latest initiative of inviting a European humanitarian mission of the EU to the territory of Armenia can be considered a great diplomatic victory for Yerevan. In this regard, it should be noted that Azerbaijan is reacting very calmly, and so does Turkey. This means that this tandem can count on a much greater disposition to accord and pliability of Armenia, which will also depend on the European Union, and this whole tangle will be aimed at solving the problems of the West in ensuring energy tasks, dependence on the supply of Caspian and Central Asian energy resources, which will bypass Russia. This is a big and ambitious task that is changing the whole nature of interdependencies in this region.

- At the moment, what is sphere of influence and responsibility of Russia and the CSTO in the South Caucasus in official Moscow’s understanding? Is there more influence or responsibility now?

Comparing responsibility and influence to me is like comparing green with cold. But since the question is raised, I would answer this way: the level of responsibility, in this case of Russia, is determined by the size of the measures of influence. If the RF measures of influence on the situation in the region are small, then the responsibility of Russia is basically reduced, if not devalued. In the case of the CSTO, it was a priori clear from the beginning that Armenia should not rely on real support - we know this from the 44-day war. There are at least three countries in the CSTO that are more loyal to Azerbaijan than to Armenia for well-known ethno-confessional reasons. The desire to use this incapacity and inefficiency of the CSTO on the part of Yerevan is precisely political and is clearly aimed at showing Russia that Armenia may have no other way out: if the CSTO is unable to help, then Armenia should search for other ways out and methods of solving its national problems. Which, in my view, the Pashinyan government is doing more or less successfully.

- What hampers the overcoming of the lengthy blockade of the Lachin Corridor and other forms of pressure on the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia by Azerbaijan?

This is hampered by resistance, on the one hand, of Armenia, which is not willing to satisfy the Azerbaijani demands, and, first of all, doesn’t agree to the idea of the so-called “Zangezur Corridor,” where it will lose control over this territory, and on the other hand - by the appearance in Karabakh of such a figure as Ruben Vardanyan, who actualized the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, once again raising it to a rhetorical or partly a political level. For some time, they had stopped talking about this issue - de facto, there was a consent in Armenia that the problem of the NK status ceased to be a primary concern for the Armenian national consensus and narrative. And then came Vardanyan, and it was revitalized again. Azerbaijan is extremely frustrated by the appearance of Vardanyan, and this does not contribute to the unblocking of the Lachin Corridor. Yet, we can see that Baku is quite skillfully manipulating this problem. After all, this corridor is not totally blocked, measures for the delivery of some goods are still being taken. Therefore, I would say, this is a very skillful politics of Baku in response to the quite successful attempts of Armenia to resist. I repeat, there is a winner and a loser in the war, but the loser does not want to and cannot fully acknowledge the right of the winner to demand his “bonuses.”

- Under what circumstances can the prospect for establishing a lasting regime of stability in the South Caucasus emerge? Does it depend solely on the parties to the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation?

Here I’m not an optimist at all. I do not see such prospects not only because of politics, but also the deeply rooted level of mutual hatred on both sides, and, in general, sometimes pretty astonishing regimes. I’m not talking about Azerbaijan - from the point of view of inciting hatred, lots of things were done there by the leadership, starting with the old story of justifying the Azerbaijani officer who killed an Armenian: state policy was almost built on that. But now, I am reading an opinion by one of your scholars, head of the Department of Iranian Studies Voskanyan, who argues that the evacuation of the Azerbaijani embassy from Tehran as a result of a terrorist attack is extremely useful for Armenia, as it makes it possible to unite Iran and Armenia under the format of “two states - one civilization.” If such ideas prevail in Armenia, it will be very hard to expect reconciliation.
This is not only about the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, this is about the overall establishment of a possible new world order. While that may sound rather vulgar, it is to be formulated one way or another. Be it a new Yalta, Potsdam, however, the confrontation in Ukraine cannot but end with the establishment of a new order. And here the problems of the South Caucasus may turn out to be one of the parameters of this new order, not the most important one, we need to understand this. Thank God, there are no nuclear ambitions and powers in this region, except for Iran, which is not given the opportunity: thank God, we are not seeing such nuclear blackmail, and this is so far the only positive perspective on the situation.

Series of interviews "Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023" has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black See Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners.


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