Russia seems intent on reproducing in Karabakh the model it had earlier developed in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and Donbas—namely, a local proto-state with formal institutions under Russian military protection and economic sustenance (see EDM, December 8, 10, 2020 and January 21, 22, 26, 2021). Russia had itself created those proto-states, but it found a ready-made “republic” in Karabakh, carved out by Armenia from Azerbaijan’s territory. Russia’s military “peacekeeping” intervention in November 2020 has simply replaced Armenia with Russia as protector-guarantor of the rump-Karabakh centered in Stepanakert (see Part One in EDM, March 18).
Russia does recognize Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and its title to sovereignty over this would-be republic’s territory. Indeed, Moscow expresses its recognition emphatically at this early stage, without the ambiguities and conditionalities that Russia has attached to its theoretical recognition of Moldova’s, Ukraine’s and (until 2008) Georgia’s territorial integrity. Baku finds Moscow’s assurances reassuring politically and useful in practice. Those other countries’ experience, however, illustrates Russia’s way of piling up ambiguities and conditionalities that devalue and practically cancel Russia’s recognition of territorial integrity over time. This can culminate in Russia’s official de-recognition of the territorial integrity, as in Georgia’s case in 2008. In another version of this ongoing game, Russia has officially de-recognized Ukraine’s territorial integrity in Crimea since 2014, but not in Donbas. The Kremlin has worked with the latter proto-state’s institutions to administer and police the Russian-protected territory. Baku is aware of all this, and Moscow can use this awareness in due course as a lever of pressure on Baku.
In Karabakh’s case, Russia has taken over the protection of an almost 30-year-old “republic” with full-fledged institutional structures: its own constitution, president, government ministries, parliament, political parties, judiciary, and military and security forces. Although their existence and operation has (even from Russia’s official standpoint) no legal basis, Russia has no intention to dismantle them. Instead, Russia’s military and civil authorities in Karabakh work with those local institutions to handle day-to-day matters on the ground. This cooperation goes on discreetly at this early stage, the Russian side being careful not to offend Baku’s sensibilities.
Stepanakert (Khankendi) authorities have announced plans to overhaul the “Karabakh defense army” and other security structures in the wake of the lost war. The plans call for maintaining a permanent army with a mix of conscription and contract service, increasing the army’s mobility, updating the reserve training and mobilization system, and reinforcing the existing “state” security service and police by adding a special forces (spetsnaz) battalion to each with a view to conducting “anti-terror missions.” Stepanakert envisages continuing cooperation with Yerevan’s military toward those goals. Clearly, Stepanakert cannot expect any Russian military assistance in the foreseeable future (see EDM, January 14; Arminfo, January 26; Armenpress, News.am, February 4, March 13).
Stepanakert considers the territories regained by Azerbaijan last November as belonging by right to the “Artsakh republic” (the Armenian name for Karabakh). Based on its “parliament’s” March 1 resolution (News.am, March 1), Stepanakert‘s representatives routinely speak of “Azerbaijan’s aggression against the republic of Artsakh” (as if the latter were a legally recognized entity), declare that “Artsakh’s territories currently controlled by Azerbaijan are occupied territories,” demand the “de-occupation of the Azerbaijani-controlled territories,” and call for recognition of the “people of Artsakh’s right of self-determination.”
According to “foreign affairs minister” David Babaian, Stepanakert clings to “our traditional priorities”: aiming for international recognition, seeking de facto relations with other states—primarily with “fraternal Russia”—and reinforcing inter-Armenian relations (with Yerevan and the diaspora). The quest for international recognition shall continue to focus on local-level administrations in foreign countries, in hopes of moving up to higher levels in a later stage (Armenpress, February 5). Such a forlorn quest seems based on geopolitical delusions that have long ensnared some Armenian leadership groups.
As Babaian stipulates, Artsakh’s existence as such constitutes “a high-value asset to Armenia’s statehood, in regional politics and in global geopolitics.” Artsakh “stands in the way of dangerous geopolitical challenges, first and foremost the advance of pan-Turkism.” In this situation, “Artsakh must remain an all-Armenian priority [for Yerevan and the diaspora].” The tandem of Turkey and Azerbaijan being inimical to Russia by definition, Artsakh is therefore useful to Russia, and its position in the South Caucasus amounts to “geopolitical capital.” Russia’s peacekeeping operation provides for Artsakh’s security, but it does not resolve the conflict with Azerbaijan. A political solution to this conflict must be negotiated based on the people of Artsakh’s right to self-determination (News.am, March 12; Aravot, March 17, 18).
Moscow has unofficially helped Stepanakert to take a first step toward inter-parliamentary relations. Two members of the Karabakh “parliament” have visited Russia’s State Duma for talks with the latter’s prominent member Konstantin Zatulin (from the ruling United Russia party (Artsakhpress, March 17). More than 20 years ago, Zatulin helped pioneer inter-parliamentary relations between the Russian Duma and the legislature of Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea. In that case and in other conflict theaters, Zatulin steps in when the Russian government considers it premature to do so itself.