Weakened by Ukraine, Russia’s Power Ebbs in Caucasus as Armenian Christians Are Routed in a Blitz by Azerbaijani Muslims

Peacekeepers sent by the Kremlin simply stand by as a 35-year separatist project comes to an end.

AP/Siranush Sargsyan
Local residents in a shelter during shelling at Stepanakert at Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. AP/Siranush Sargsyan

The surprise surrender of Armenian Christians in the western mountains of Azerbaijan on Wednesday will end a 35-year-old separatist project on the southern fringe of the former Russian empire. Today, as 2,000 Russian peacekeepers stand by meekly, the defeat illustrates how the Ukraine quagmire is shrinking Russia’s regional influence.

In a 24-hour blitz Azerbaijani forces ignored Russia’s peacekeepers, broke through Armenian lines, and forced leaders of the self-styled Nagorno-Karabakh Republic to surrender. During the artillery, drone, and rifle assault, separatist officials said at least 200 Armenian Christians were killed and more than 400 wounded. Today, talks started, in Russian, on the future of 120,000 Armenians living in an area about the size of Rhode Island.

For two centuries — since an 1828 treaty with Persia — Russia has been the guarantor of Armenia, an orthodox Christian nation surrounded on three sides by a Muslim populations. Now, Russia’s costly war in Ukraine brings “the death of the myth of Russia’s military power,” says the director of the Regional Studies Center, Richard Giragosian. He heads a think-tank at Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, 1,000 miles east of Ukraine.

“From Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan to Moldova, the realization is that Russia is much less to be feared, much less of a deterrent,” Mr. Giragosian tells The New York Sun. “Russia was distracted and overwhelmed by Ukraine. This emboldened Azerbaijan to go faster and much further in that vacuum.”

The Russian peacekeepers were posted to maintain a ceasefire after the war fought in 2020 between Muslim Azerbaijan and the Armenian separatists. After Azerbaijan shut down the sole mountain supply route, Russian soldiers refused to break what turned into a crippling nine-month blockade.

Mr. Giragosian says: “The Russian peacekeeping commanders in Nagorno-Karabakh complained that their phone calls were not being answered in Moscow because of Ukraine. They felt forgotten, neglected by Moscow.”

On Tuesday, the Russian peacekeepers say they learned of the Azeri attack only minutes before it started. Several Russian peacekeepers were killed when their car was caught in the shooting. The Russians then sheltered in their bases as Azerbaijan overran Armenian positions.

Today, the Russian soldiers are reduced to presiding over transition talks, collecting weapons, and providing residents with safe passage from Azerbaijan to the Republic of Armenia. Outside of the separatist enclave, pogroms in Azerbaijan caused the country’s Armenian population to fall from 500,000 in 1991 to about 300 today.

Similarly, the Azeri population in Armenia has dwindled to a few dozen. In coming days almost all of the 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh are expected to make the 125-mile road trip to the safety of Armenia.

“After the surrender of the criminal junta, this source of tension, this den of poison, has already been consigned to history,” Azerbaijan’s autocratic president, Ilham Aliyev, said in an address Wednesday night to his nation of 10.4 million people. “The Armenian population of Karabakh can finally breathe a sigh of relief. I said this before, and I want to repeat it: the Armenian population of Karabakh are our citizens.”

Fearing violence, though, thousands of Armenians are sheltering today with Russian peacekeepers or massing at the region’s sole airport in the hope of being flown out.

The end of the breakaway republic is expected to be followed by  changes for the Southern Caucasus, a region where a frozen conflict was nurtured —— or at least tolerated — by Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

With Russia’s wings clipped, Armenia is expanding its relations. Encouraged by the 1 million-strong Armenian diaspora in America, Armenia is cultivating partnerships with America, the European Union, and Turkey, its historic enemy.

Two weeks ago, Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, said it was a mistake for Armenia to rely on solely Russia for its security. “Moscow has been unable to deliver and is in the process of winding down its role in the wider South Caucasus region,” Pashinyan, who has won two multi-party elections, told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.

“Armenia’s security architecture,” he added, “was 99.999 percent linked to Russia, including when it came to the procurement of arms and ammunition…the Russian Federation cannot meet Armenia’s security needs. This example should demonstrate to us that dependence on just one partner in security matters is a strategic mistake.”

Three steps this month drew the ire of the Kremlin. First, Mr. Pashinyan’s wife, journalist Anna Hakobyan, visited Kyiv, bringing Armenia’s first-ever official humanitarian aid. Second, Armenia warned Russia that as a signatory of the Rome Treaty, Armenia would have to take into consideration the International Criminal Court’s warrant to arrest President Putin on war crimes charges.

Third, Yerevan hosted joint military exercises with the United States for the first time. In war games that ended yesterday, Eagle Partner 2023 involved 175 Armenian soldiers and 85 soldiers from American Army Europe and Africa Command. In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Armenian ambassador and protested the moves as “unfriendly.”

Armenia is part of the Moscow-led security alliance of ex-Soviet nations, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. It hosts in Gyumri a Russian base that, before the Ukraine war, had 3,000 Russian soldiers.

A landlocked nation, Armenia has open borders and trading relations with only Georgia to the north and Iran to the south. Now, the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh secessionist enclave could allow for normalizing ties with Azerbaijan to the east and Turkey to the west. Talks on a peace treaty with Azerbaijan are expected to conclude this year.

This would allow Turkey, Azerbaijan’s top backer, to open relations with Armenia. Relations between the two peoples have long been soured by the 1915-1923 Armenian genocide, where Turks killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians.

A century later, steps are being taken to open ties. Last spring, Turkey’s land border was opened to allow Armenia to ship relief supplies to victims of the Syria-Turkey earthquake. In June, Mr. Pashinyan traveled to Ankara for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inauguration to a third term as president.

The European Union is Armenia’s largest trading partner, and Armenia hopes to further expand ties. While EU membership seems distant, Armenia started an open skies airline agreement last year with the EU. Now, it is negotiating visa-free travel for the nation’s 2.8 million people.

“Armenia will move out of Russia’s orbit, seeking greater security ties with NATO and the EU,” a London-based Russia analyst, Timothy Ash, predicts. “Russia stands back essentially as it has no military capability to do anything, given its forces are committed in Ukraine.”

The New York Sun

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