Moscow Has Compelling New Reasons for Neutrality in Armenian-Azerbaijani Conflict

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 110


Many in Baku, Yerevan, Moscow and the West have expressed surprise at the Russian government’s efforts to remain neutral in the face of new fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But in fact, Russian military commentator Aleksandr Staver says, Moscow has always had good reasons to adopt an equidistant stance. And now, those reasons have grown even more compelling given Russia’s concerns over the possibility of Turkish involvement in the Caucasus and worries that clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Russian cities could spiral out of control. If Moscow were to tilt toward Armenia, the possibility of Turkish intervention—whether directly or, more likely, via support for Azerbaijan—against Armenia could not be ruled out; in that case, more violence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis inside Russia would be a certainty. But if the Kremlin were to tilt in the other direction, toward Azerbaijan, it would lose what has long been its means of ensuring the continuity of Russian influence in the South Caucasus and, quite possibly, in Iran as well.

Consequently, the Kremlin has chosen neutrality, Staver writes in the current issue of Voyennoye Obozreniye. That stance has led politicians in both Baku and Yerevan to keep the fighting restricted as they try to guess what conditions Russia (the only outside power likely to provide leadership in this case) will ultimately put forward to try to end the current clashes. Though each worries that backing away from a full-scale war now, while potentially strengthening their hands in the short term, might compromise their ability to survive longer term. Armenia and Azerbaijan may, therefore, continue to fight for some time, he says; but their wait-and-see attitude almost certainly will prevent the conflict from spiraling out of control. In this way, Moscow is achieving its goals, albeit without the dramatic actions some might have expected (Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 26).

According to Staver, Russian diplomats are delivering a clear message to both Baku and Yerevan: “We are neutral. We respect both peoples and will not come out in support of one against the other.” Armenians may have been expecting more, but this position shows them that Yerevan’s recent anti-Moscow statements and actions are not without consequences, although not fatal since the Russian base on the outskirts of Yerevan persists to this day. In turn, Azerbaijanis may have thought that Russia, from which Baku buys weaponry, would be more supportive of them, especially given Moscow’s desire to curry favor with Ankara. But they, too, have to learn that the Kremlin’s interests are broader than arms sales. As the analyst contends, Azerbaijan needs to be more cooperative on other issues given Russia’s overwhelming military superiority in the region , as underscored by the recent snap exercises centered on southwestern Russia, involving some 150,000 soldiers (Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 26; see EDM, July 23).

Staver argues that “neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan wants to fight.” Many people in both countries do not even understand how this conflict arose, he suggests, and do not realize that it is periodically allowed to heat up in order to cover the economic and political failures of their respective governments. “The conflict must be ended,” he continues. Moscow understands this and by adopting neutrality is doing more to achieve a modus vivendi than it could by any other means (Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 26).

A couple of weeks ago (July 14), Staver outlined the history of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and Russia’s role in it, thus laying out the basis for the conclusions he is now offering (Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 14). As this and his more recent piece make clear, two novel aspects of the present situation bolster Moscow’s decision to maintain the neutral position it has staked out.

On the one hand, even more than in the past, Russia wants to keep Turkey from playing a role in the latest hostilities. Ankara is unlikely to challenge Moscow directly, Staver writes; but it could facilitate Baku’s use of the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan as a staging ground from which to deliver a decisive thrust into the Armenian rear. Azerbaijan has, in recent years, taken steps to build up forces in this non-contiguous portion of its territory. And Ankara has notably shown its willingness to support those steps on the part of its regional ally (see EDM, June 12, 2018, July 10, 2018, May 18, 2020).

Nakhchivan has not figured prominently in most public discussions of the current bloodletting, but it should not be forgotten for three reasons: First, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s father and some of his other ancestors come from there and, consequently, he has always viewed it as especially important to the national patrimony. Second, this non-contiguous part of Azerbaijan was created by Joseph Stalin to be an asymmetric counter to Karabakh, the predominantly ethnic-Armenian area that the Soviet dictator included within the borders of Azerbaijan. As such the exclave has always informed thinking in Baku about the broader conflict with Armenia. And third, if Azerbaijan were to use Nakhchivan as a base from which to launch attacks on Armenia, it would constitute a far greater threat to Yerevan than anything that has happened in recent weeks. Turkey knows this but so, too, does Russia—yet another reason for Moscow to avoid provoking the situation by tilting too far to Yerevan’s side (, July 22).

On the other hand, Moscow faces a new and serious problem at home in the form of conflicts between ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azerbaijanis that have broken out in Moscow and other Russian cities. The street brawls have been a reminder that the conflict in the South Caucasus is spilling over into Russia precisely at a time when Vladimir Putin has several other crises already occupying his focus (see EDM, July 20, 27). Diplomats and leaders of both diasporas have appealed for calm, so far with little success (Svobodnaya Pressa, July 26; Meduza, July 25). At a time when thousands of Russians are in the streets in Khabarovsk and other Russian cities, and with the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic problems fueling popular anger, the last thing the Kremlin needs is a serious outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in its capital.