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Armenia Backed into a Corner: Russia’s Strategy of Isolation

Lachlan Forster | Europe & Eurasia Fellow

"President of Azerbaijan met with President of Russia and Prime Minister of Armenia in Sochi 01" by The Presidential Press and Information Office's of Azerbaijan is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Located within the borders of Azerbaijan but holding a majority population of ethnic Armenians, Nagorno-Karabakh is an enclave which has created tension within the Caucasus. The will of the area’s ethnic Armenians to achieve a level of autonomy has never sat well with the Azerbaijani Government, and presents neighbouring Armenia with a challenge to protect a community for which it feels responsible, but has no real authority over.

On September 19 and 20, the Azerbaijani military launched a surprise offensive into Nagorno-Karabakh in an attempt to reassert the state’s authority. The mercilessness of the assault, which gained the tacit approval of the Russian government, has led to the mass exodus of a claimed 100,000 Armenians from the area, into neighbouring Armenia. Azerbaijan’s use of ethnic cleansing tactics at a time when the international community is distracted highlights Armenia’s challenging isolated position.

Being a former Soviet satellite state, Armenia traditionally aligned itself with Russia. However, after entertaining closer ties with the West, the country has found itself isolated. In emboldening Azerbaijan’s actions within Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has strong-armed Armenian into backing away from working with Western partners, its only option to protect the wider ethnic community.

"2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war" by Kalj, based of File:2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war map.png by User:Golden is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Azerbaijani invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh

The ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh have consistently argued that they deserve autonomy within Azerbaijan. Although neighbouring Armenia is directly connected by a mountainous road called the Lachin Corridor, the Armenian community has been living in Nagorno-Karabakh for centuries and feel it is their rightful homeland.

The state of Armenia has found itself in a difficult political position regarding this enclave. Previous historical events, such as the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide, have left historical scars within the wider ethnic community, making Nagorno-Karabakh a concern for neighbouring lawmakers. While limited in power, this concern has been leveraged by Azerbaijan to negatively impact Armenia. An example of this is the blockade of the Lachin Corridor by Azerbaijan to isolate the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia itself.

On September 19, Azerbaijan commenced ‘anti-terrorist activities’ within the region, shelling villages and overtaking local military outposts. Although touted as an effort to eliminate calls for secession, the goal of Azerbaijan’s operation was to reintegrate the region, without political autonomy for ethnic Armenians. Any resistance capitulated before twenty-four hours had passed, with the Azerbaijani military re-occupying the area.

Azerbaijan’s decision to undertake this operation during a tense period in relations between Armenia and Russia was opportunistic. Traditionally, Russia acted as a mediator between both nations to negotiate a settlement. Yet, Armenia’s decision to entertain closer ties with Western nations has angered President Putin and created an unsympathetic air from the Kremlin. This situation has driven Russia to reward Azerbaijan by choosing not to condemn its actions within Nagorno-Karabakh, ultimately empowering the use of ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic Violence

The circumstances of Azerbaijan’s operation within Nagorno-Karabakh suggest a coordinated effort to force out the region’s ethnic Armenian population. Azerbaijan’s government agreed to reopen the Lachin corridor just before their military operation commenced, funnelling ethnic Armenians out of the country as they sought to escape the violence. An estimated 100,000 people, nearly all of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population, have fled the region to Armenia.

Major figures, including Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, have already called the events ethnic cleansing. For their part, Azerbaijan’s government denies the accusation.

Ethnic cleansing is a serious crime in international law, which comes with extraordinary consequences if proven to have occurred. This likely explains Azerbaijan’s choice to undertake a military operation into Nagorno-Karabakh at a time when relations between Armenia and Russia are strained.

Russia’s Response

President Putin made it clear to Prime Minister Pashinyan that it was Armenia who was at fault for the conflict by entertaining deeper ties with the United States and provided little sympathy for the plight of ethnic Armenians on the ground. The response from the Russian President reflects his renewed hostility towards the West in light of his nation’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and highlights a decision to reward Azerbaijan for its loyalty and punish Armenia through its people.

Armenia formerly found security by allying itself with Russia, but in light of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Pashinyan has empathised with the struggle of the eastern European nation, even personally meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky. The Prime Minister’s anger at Russia’s Ukraine invasion drove his decision to entertain closer relations with the United States, creating a problem for Putin’s desired sphere of Russian influence over the old territories of the USSR.

The West’s relationship with Armenia is still developing, meaning that showcases of support from the European Union and United States have been solely diplomatic, consisting of statements of condemnation and threats to pause relations with Azerbaijan which have yet to manifest in spite of the evidence of ethnic cleansing. Russia is still the primary power of the Caucasus region and its strategy of isolation showcases a desire to reassert authority over Armenia.

Backed into a Corner

Landlocked and surrounded by more powerful regional powers, Armenia has historically had to make foreign policy decisions very carefully. Although politicians would like to move towards a more cooperative relationship with the West, the reality of the power dynamics of the region and Russia’s strategic interests have forced Armenia to reconsider its desired policies of collaboration in order to care for the ethnic community.

Russia is still the regional power of the Caucuses, and its support for Azerbaijan has empowered a loyal ally, whilst also isolating Armenia which is confronting the human cost of its decisions. Whilst the situation is still very much unfolding, it is likely that Armenia will have to halt its Westward moves for the foreseeable future to grapple with its humanitarian struggles, emboldening Russia who have kept Armenia isolated.

Lachlan Forster is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. A student of international Relations and History at the University of Melbourne, Lachlan is currently in Malaysia on a 2023 New Colombo Plan Scholarship. He is a contributing writer with the Young Diplomats Society and Asia in Review, and has also been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Undergraduate Journal of History, and Farrago.


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