The ongoing fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh has already become the most serious escalation of hostilities since the 1994 ceasefire. That ceasefire came as a result of mediating efforts by multiple countries, but Russia played the lead role at the time. More than 16 years later Russia remains the only country capable of single-handedly compelling Armenia and Azerbaijan to discontinue hostilities. Yet, while repeatedly issuing calls for a ceasefire in various unilateral and multilateral formats, Russia has been so far unwilling to back its calls with credible promises of deeds that Moscow would need to take to compel the sides to lay down arms, even if only temporarily.
I think it is time Russia used its formidable leverage to bring Azerbaijani and Armenian diplomats to a negotiating table even if the ceasefire is the only deal they can now discuss as almost two weeks of fierce fighting have probably made a lasting peaceful resolution of the conflict over Karabakh unattainable in the near future. The Kremlin should also use its resources to put pressure on Turkey, whose direct military support for Azerbaijan includes deployment of pro-Turkish Syrian jihadists, is unprecedented for part of post-Soviet Eurasia, which Russia has declared to be a zone of its privileged interest. These actions will be in Russia’s national interests for three reasons, in my view.
First, I think every additional day of fighting is fraught with escalation that could make Kremlin’s current approach of being equidistant to Armenia and Azerbaijan untenable. If the fighting continues and escalates, making one side closer to prevailing over the other, Russia would have to choose from two unpalatable options: either side with Armenia and ‘lose’ Azerbaijan, or the way around. Moreover, if it chooses to side with Azerbaijan, Moscow would see its reputation of a reliable military ally, which it has burnished in Syria, seriously damaged. In fact, I wonder if that reputation is already being doubted by some of Russia’s allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). After all, could not have escaped their attention that even participating all in all of Russian-led integration projects in post-Soviet Eurasia, including CSTO, like Armenia does, does not prevent Moscow from being “equidistant” to you and your adversary even if the latter has initiated hostilities against you and, unlike you, is not Russia’s military ally. That Russia has not aided Armenia, opting to be equidistant to Yerevan and Baku in this war instead, also contradicts a statement, which then-commander of Russia’s military base in Armenia Andrei Ruzinsky made in 2013 . In an interview with the Defense Ministry’s daily that must have been vetted by Moscow, Colonel Ruzinsky said :”If the leadership of Azerbaijan decides to use force to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno Karabakh,the base can enter the armed conflict per Russia’s CSTO obligations.”
Second, Turkey’s decision to get militarily involved in the conflict by sending its proxies to fight on Baku’s side, deploying F-16s to Ganja and providing material support for the Azerbaijani military represents the first time an external power has become militarily involved a conflict in parts of post-Soviet Eurasia. If the Russian leaders do, indeed, post-Soviet Caucasus as part of what they describe as zone of its privileged interests, then Turkey’s intrusion into it should be not just a matter of grave concern, but also a reason for Russia to act. (In fact, Karabakh has become a third region, where Turkish proxies are fighting against Russia’s allies, after Syria and Libya.)
Third, participation of jihadists in the hostilities on Russia’s borders should be treated as crossing of a Russian red line. And don’t take my word for it. It is an advisor to the Russian president’s Security Council that has said so. “If direct participation of the Turkish military or militants from Syria is proven, that will be a red line,” said Alexander Dynkin, president of Russia’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations and member of the scientific advisory board of the Security Council. Dynkin’s “if” would appear redundant to anyone who has time to take a cursory look at recent reporting by such respected news organizations, as Reuters, Guardian, and RFE/RL. In fact, based on their reporting, I have compiled an entire list of these Jihadist groups whose past and present affiliates have been sent by Turkey to fight on Azerbaijan’s site. These groups include Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and ISIS (which is now quietly “rising from the ashes” in Syria and Iraq), according to information that I have collected from mainstream English-language news and analytical resources for the aforementioned list. In fact, chief of Russia’s own foreign intelligence Sergei Naryshkin has publicly listed, which jihadist groups have delegated their fighters to participate in combat on Baku’s side, saying that “we are speaking about hundreds or even thousands of radicals prepared to win earnings in the new Karabakh war.”
The presence of these jihadists in a country that borders Russia’s North Caucasus should be of great concern to Moscow. After all, one of the goals of Russia’s intervention in Syria were to prevent jihadists turning their gaze towards Russia upon ousting Assad and establishing a Caliphate there. It follows then that the Kremlin should have even less tolerance for the same jihadists being across the border from its North Caucasus, which has accounted for more of anti-state violence in post-Soviet Russia than any other region and which has been home to scores of al-Qaeda and Islamic State loyalists some of whom even proclaimed establishment of an ISIS vilayat there. That the Kremlin is discontent with the deployment follows from multiple Russian official statements, including one by Naryshkin and another one by the Russian Foreign Ministry that has described presence of foreign rebels in Azerbaijan as “inadmissible. ” However, we have so far seen no actions on the part of Russia to compel these jihadists from disengaging and leaving the South Caucasus, not in the public/overt domain at least. Russia should put meaningful pressure on Turkey so that it would at the very least withdraw these jihadists. So far Turkey has showed no signs of being willing to do so, but perhaps, it would change its mind if Russia signals that it would be prepared to impose economic and other costs on Turkey if it doesn’t withdraw its proxies. Turkey, which is already suffering from a weak economy, exports more than 4 billions of dollars worth of produce and other goods to Russia annually, so it would probably pay attention if Moscow sends such a signal just like it did when it curtailed imports from Turkey to punish Ankara for a deadly shooting down of a Russian warplane in 2015, forcing Turkish President Recep Erdogan to apologize and seek to mend fences.
Yes, such sanctions could cost Russia, which exports billions of cubic meters of gas to and via Turkey, too. However, I would argue that the Kremlin’s interest in ending Turkey’s military involvement in what Russian leaders insist to be a zone of their country’s privileged interests would trump the desire to avoid economic costs. (The need to defend Russia’s national interests should also trump whatever reluctance Vladimir Putin may be feeling on the personal level to do something that would be interpreted as support for Nikol Pashinyan who has sought to place Putin’s friend and ex-president of Armenia Robert Kocharyan behind the bars and keep him there in spite of signals from Putin not to do so.)
Putin’s Russia is not the only country that should be not only concerned with the continuing fighting over Karabakh with involvement of Turkish-sent jihadists in it, but also act on its concerns.
As news reports by cited in the aforementioned list of groups whose members have been deployed from Syria to fight in Karabakh indicate, the United States has helped to train and equip some of them. For one, we all remember what some of the rebels that US helped to train and equip to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan ended up doing in the 1990s-2000s. More important, it cannot be in U.S. interest to see jihadists, including past and present associates of Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and their affiliates, establish presence in yet another country. Yet, when it comes to mediating a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, “Trump is nowhere to be seen,” as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius lamented back in September and again in October. U.S. could, start with immediately suspending security aid to the initiator of the hostilities.
I also think that French president Emmanuel Macro really thinks the deployment of Syrian jihadists by Turkey to Azerbaijan has crossed a “red line” than he should act on it. Otherwise, it will become another of Europe’s multiple “pink lines.”
America’s small, but powerful ally Israel should also be concerned with Turkey’s behaviour and act on its concern. In fact, I have a question for realpolitik adepts in Israel to ponder: If Turkey is indeed a greater threat to Israel than Iran to per Yossi Cohen of Mossad’s view, then why is Israel arming, Azerbaijann, Turkey’s closest ally whose gains vis-a-vis Armenia, if they become reality, would strengthen Turkey’s geopolitical clout? (In fact, of all U.S. allies only Canada has so far moved from words to actions in its efforts to pressure Turkey into ending its involvement in the Karabakh conflict.)
If both U.S. and its allies were to throw their weight behind a meaningful Russian initiative to discontinue the Armenian-Azeri hostilities and to make Turkey (which is, BTW, a U.S. ally in NATO) withdraw its proxies and back that initiative with credible promises of economic sanctions and other punitive actions, then this war would be over soon. (To be fair, U.S. and France already joined Russia to issue a call for a ceasefire in their capacity as co-chairs of OSCE’s Minsk group, but only one of the warring parties [Armenia] said it is prepared to heed it wihout preconditions, while the other two either refused to heed it without preconditions [Azerbaijan] or rejected it altogether [Turkey]). Otherwise, fighting will continue, increasing the risk of escalation into a regional conflict, which will have dire consequences for the entire continent. (Last Defense Minister of USSR Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov apparently warned Turkey in 1991 that its intervention could lead to a WWII. I think his warning remains at least somewhat relevant today)
Going forward, once the ceasefire is achieved, perhaps, it will be time for Russia to take time and rethink its current approaches to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. As one of Russia’s best foreign policy experts Fyodor Lukyanov has observed, Russia’s long-time approach towards maintaining status-quo over Karabakh by convincing both sides they cant prevail in war no longer works. “Hence, Russia needs to give it serious thought what is that it actually wants” vis-à-vis the two countries and the region as a whole, Lukyanov said. I cannot agree more.
This is an evolving unedited draft, originally written on October 6, 2020
Updated on November 11, 2020 to include a quote by the commander of Russia’s military base in Armenia.