Why Stopping the War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan Is in Russia’s (Vital Interest)

As the saying goes, one of the typical follies – that practitioners of foreign policy commit – is to tell another country’s diplomats that it is in their country’s national interest to do something that these practitioners want them to do. Well, I am not a diplomat, and the list of Russia’s vital interests, which you may find below, has been distilled from Russian leaders’ actions, words and documents over the course of years. Therefore, I think it is permissible for me to both present that (dated)[1] list as well as present my views on what impact the ongoing war in the South Caucasus can have on those. Please see below, noting that this is an evolving effort, which I hope to refine and update.

Russia’s vital national interests.Potential longer-term impact of continuing war between Armenia, on one side, and Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s direct military support, on the other
1. Prevent, deter and reduce threats of secession from Russia; insurgency within Russia or in areas, adjacent to Russia; and armed conflicts waged against Russia, its allies or, in vicinity of Russian frontiers;Impact: high. The war is evolving among the countries, one of which borders Russia.That hundreds of jihadists are fighting on the side of a country, which borders Russia’s volatile North Caucasus (recall spatial proximity as a factor that can contribute to diffusion of political violence), where jihadist insurgency – that featured foreign fighters – became a national security threat in the late 1990s where jihadist groups continue to operate to date which thousands of fighters and other individuals had left for the Levante to join ISIS and other jihadist groups and to which they can return if they sense an opportunity to revive the local insurgency.If continued, the war can threaten the ultimate survival of Russia’s CSTO ally, Armenia in the longer term.
2. Prevent emergence of hostile individual or collective regional hegemonies or failed states on Russian borders, ensure Russia is surrounded by friendly states among which Russia can play a lead role and cooperation with which it can thrive;Impact: high. If war continues and Armenia wins, then Azerbaijan can be expected to be far less friendly to Russia.If war continues and Azerbaijan wins in the absence of Russia’s action, Armenia cannot be counted on to remain as allied to Russia as it is today.If Azerbaijan prevails, with Turkey’s direct support, such an outcome would undermine Russia’s efforts to play lead role in the post-Soviet Eurasia. Such an outcome would also lead to considerable strengthening of Turkey’s positions in the South Caucasus at the expense of Russia. It would also make strategists in Ankara to more actively consider  opportunities for Turkey to recover some of the hegemonic positions that the Ottoman empire once enjoyed in both South and North Caucasus while also advancing its efforts to lean Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia.Looking beyond post-Soviet Eurasia, one idea of Russia can ensure a global role for itself as the world order is changing, which RF policy-shapers have  been recently advancing, is that it can lead or co-lead countries, which don’t want to align with either US or China. That proposition’s now being severely tested that war.
3. Establish and maintain productive relations, upon which Russian national interests hinge to a significant extent, with core European Union members, the United States and China;Impact: medium. If Russia, jointly with US and EU (as Minsk group co-chairs) manage to coerce sides (including Turkey) to discontinue hostilities, using their formidable leverage (threats of exclusion from SWIFT, sanctions on ruling elites, ban on remittances, trade restrictions of the kind Moscow slapped on Ankara after shooting of the Russian warplane), then this success can contribute to repairing Russia’s relations with US and EU.  By this modest advancement towards normalization of relations with West, Russia would also be able to move to more balanced relations with China (a basket, in which Russia has had to keep more eggs than it’d like to).  
4. Ensure the viability and stability of major markets for major flows of Russian exports and imports;Impact: modest If Russia’s actions antagonize Turkey, with which Russia has been developing trade actively (will add numbers later) and which helps Russia to diversify energy exports roots, then Turkey will impose economic costs on Russia. These costs would be tangible, but manageable.
5. Ensure steady development and diversification of the Russian economy and its integration into global markets;No major impact.
6. Prevent neighboring nations from acquiring nuclear arms and their long-range delivery systems on Russian borders; secure nuclear weapons and materials;No major impact.
7. Prevent large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on Russia;Impact: high If the aforementioned hundreds of jihadists that are fighting on Baku’s sides – do not withdraw upon the end of the war back to Syria, but seek a new opportunity for waging jihad, in Russia’s North Caucasus like some of  the jihadists of the Soviet-Afghan war did, moving to Caucasus, Bosnia, etc.
8. Ensure Russian allies’ survival and their active cooperation with Russia.Impact: high: Not only the war can threaten survival of Armenia as a viable state in the long-term, and even if it does not, Armenian leadership will be hard pressed by part of the Armenian public on why Armenia is participating in Russian-led alliances, if Armenia loses the war in the absence of Russia’s tangible assistance.If Armenia loses the war in the absence of Russia’s tangible assistance, Russia’s other allies will be taking notice.In fact, I think the war is already impacting Moscow’s reputation of a reliable military ally, which it has burnished in Syria, seriously damaged in the eyes of these allies, who would conclude 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.

[1] As distilled from Russian strategic documents, statements by Russian leaders and other sources by November 2015 for a presentation at Harvard that is available  https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/russias-actions-syria-underlying-interests-and-policy-objectives. I might have updated that list since then, and I am now looking to see if there is such an update, so that I can update this post.

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