Putin’s Karabakh Calculus Can Undermine Russian Clout in FSU (Was a Personal Gripe to Blame?)

Below is an unabridged version of my “Putin’s Karabakh Calculus Can Undermine Russian Clout in FSU (Was a Personal Gripe to Blame?)” commentary, which The Moscow Times published today: https://saradzhyan.wordpress.com/2020/11/19/putins-karabakh-calculus-can-undermine-russian-clout-in-fsu-was-a-personal-gripe-to-blame/

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, recently published his take on Russia’s responses to this year’s crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Nagorno-Karabakh. Trenin infers from these responses that Russia’s foreign and security policies continue to be solely shaped by Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russia’s national interests, but that these interests no longer require anchoring ex-Soviet neighbors to Moscow. Per “Moscow’s new rules” set by “just one decider” (that is, by Putin) Russia “is embracing its loneliness as a chance to start looking after its own interests and needs,” while “the countries that emerged from the ex-Soviet republics are on their own,” according to Trenin. I do not contest Trenin’s proposition that Putin is the sole decision-maker when it comes to Russia’s foreign, military and security policies. That point has been made many times before and I too hold the view that Putin’s Russia is close to what Graham Allison described as a Model 1 actor in those policy domains. However, I disagree with Trenin’s proposition that Russia has decided to leave other former Soviet republics to their own devices to pursue what Vladislav Surkov before Trenin had described as “strategic solitude.” Neither do I think that Putin has concluded that disentangling Russia from the ex-Soviet neighborhood would be in Russia’s interest. Finally, I do not believe that Putin’s vision of the hierarchy of national interests was the sole guiding principle behind Russia’s response to the most consequential and deadliest of the three above-mentioned crises: the Karabakh war.

Putin’s Vision of Russian Interests Explains His Response to Political Turbulence in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan but Perhaps Not to War in Karabakh

One of post-Soviet Russia’s traditionally vital interests has been to keep formerly Soviet neighbors anchored to itself while preventing the emergence or arrival of alternative regional hegemons, so that Moscow can thrive in a friendly environment. Had that interest vanished under Putin, the Russian leader would not have supported separatism in eastern Ukraine in 2014 in hopes of enhancing leverage that could dissuade Ukraine from trying to “escape” to the West in the wake of the Revolution of Dignity. More recently, Putin would have neither provided material support to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime nor promised to send police reinforcements to his aid if he had not believed the massive protests in Belarus could lead to the replacement of “Europe’s last dictator” with a pro-Western leader. In contrast, Moscow chose not to intervene in yet another revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the same as with the previous two revolutions in the country, because there was no threat to the aforementioned Russian vital interest: The winner of the latest Kyrgyz revolution is as pro-Russian as his predecessor; therefore, there was no threat of losing this Central Asian republic to any rival hegemon, just like there had been no such threat in the aftermath of the 2018 revolution in Armenia. (To be clear, I am no fan of regional hegemonies, but accept them as part of geopolitical reality in most parts of the world, and the purpose of this article is to analyze how Putin’s views shape Russia’s response to the crises in the former Soviet Union.)

In contrast to the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, the Karabakh war clearly threatened this vital Russian interest. One did not need a crystal ball to see that Ankara would significantly expand its clout in the South Caucasus if Azerbaijan defeated Armenia with Turkey’s direct military support. (Moscow’s need now to negotiate with Ankara on the peacekeeping role Turkey will play in Karabakh is just one obvious sign of how this clout has grown already.) Russia was well aware of the scale of Turkish military support. This follows not only from statements by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and Foreign Ministry on Syrian jihadists dispatched by Ankara to fight in Karabakh but from intelligence on Turkey’s military support to Azerbaijan that was leaked to national media by Russian “military-diplomatic sources.” Neither did Russian leaders have to be psychics to see that Azerbaijan could win the war with that support, especially given the easily calculable disparities in power between Azerbaijan and Armenia. As I argued in early October, such an outcome runs counter to a number of Russian vital interests and could have been avoided if only Putin employed some of the leverage that Russia has vis-à-vis its ex-Soviet neighbors and Turkey to compel the warring sides to discontinue hostilities while Armenia was still able to repel most of the offensives. (To be clear, the lack of Russia’s support was just one of multiple factors that led to Armenia’s loss. Which Armenian leadership failures and structural factors need to be examined thoroughly by Armenia’s equivalent of America’s 9/11 commission.) Had Russia successfully employed its leverage early on to stop the hostilities, it could have solidified its role as the primary arbiter and security guarantor in that part of the South Caucasus without alienating either Armenia or Azerbaijan. It would have also helped to stem attempts by Turkey, with which Russia is at odds over Syria, Libya and Crimea, to expand its influence and presence in the South Caucasus and further east to the Turkic-speaking republics of Central Asia, with which it will be able to have a shorter transportation connection thanks to the peace deal.  

Obviously, Russia’s desire to maintain a constructive relationship with Turkey, which can act as a spoiler for Russia vis-à-vis Syria and energy exports among other things, may have played a role, as could Moscow’s desire to create additional leverage vis-à-vis Azerbaijan in the form of a Russian peacekeeping force in Karabakh. Such leverage can, perhaps, help advance Russia’s interest in preventing Baku—which got rid of remnants of a Russian military presence in 2013 and has been deepening alignment with Ankara—from drifting further away from Moscow, (though one could argue that the unprecedented level of Turkish-Azerbaijani military cooperation in the Karabakh war demonstrates that hopes of re-anchoring Baku to Moscow militarily would be futile). Moscow’s decision not to intervene in the conflict early also ensured that Turkey and Azerbaijan would not curtail their trade with Russia, which would have run counter to Moscow’s vital interest in ensuring the viability and stability of major markets for and flows of Russian exports and imports in the short term. However, I think, on balance, the expansion of Turkey’s role in the South Caucasus and the damage done to Russia’s reputation as a military ally in the eyes of the other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, (which I detail further below) may have outweighed these benefits. After all, Russia can live with Idlib out of Assad’s control, and Russia’s exports of gas to Turkey fell by almost 70% earlier this year, with one of the two pipelines running from Russia to Turkey left idle for months. Besides, Turkey and Azerbaijan combined account for less than 5% of Russia’s trade.

Can Personal Animosity Partly Explain Putin’s Response to War in Karabakh?

So, if Russia’s vital interests cannot quite explain why Putin chose not to employ Russia’s leverage to stop the the Karabakh war early on, then what can?  In the end, what I think did tip the balance of pros and cons of Russia’s early intervention in the war toward not intervening may have been Putin’s personal animosity toward Armenian Prime Minister Nikola Pashinyan. Trenin claims in his article that Pashinyan’s fault in the eyes of the Russian leadership was that he pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy, “distancing itself [Armenia] from Russia and reaching out to the West.” It is true that Pashinyan did sound pro-Western compared to his predecessors, such as Serzh Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan, before coming to power during the revolution of 2018. Moreover, upon taking power he sought to put pressure on local subsidiaries of Russia’s railway and gas monopolies. At the same time, however, Pashinyan kept Armenian military personnel in Syria as part of Russia’s mission there, nd vote with Russia at UNGA on such contentious issues as Crimea (one of the few countries to do so) and installed Russian-educated leaders at the helm of Armenia’s defense and security agencies (even if he then fired the security chief). He also publicly assured the Russian leadership of his intention to keep Armenia fully cooperating with Russia in all formats, essentially adopting the so-called complementary approach toward foreign policy crafted by his predecessors. The latter had Armenia participate in all Russian-led integration and cooperation projects in the former Soviet Union , but also cooperated with NATO and the EU. Sargsyan even dispatched Armenian soldiers to participate in NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan even though he was considered to be staunchly pro-Russian. As important, as Putin and Pashinyan know perfectly well, even if Pashinyan were to try to take Armenia to the West, neither NATO nor the EU would welcome such an attempt in the foreseeable future.

Where the Armenian leader did err with regards to Putin, however, drawing the Russian leader’s ire, was in prosecuting Kocharyan, who remains Putin’s personal friend. Pashinyan repeatedly ignored Putin’s clear signals to discontinue attempts to jail Kocharyan, while also seeking to prosecute then-CSTO secretary Yuri Khachaturov, which could not have pleased Moscow either. That Putin can take things personally in inter-state relations follows from his promise to hang Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili “by the balls.” Yet Pashinyan either was unaware of this quality of Putin’s or chose to ignore it. It was not until the war broke out that Pashinyan realized (perhaps as he made one futile call to Putin after another) that his treatment of Kocharyan may have impacted Putin’s decision-making. Pashinyan eased the pressure on the former Armenian president, even granting him permission to travel to Russia, but it was too late. It is possible that Putin may have calculated that by leaving Pashinyan with no choice but to accept grossly unfavorable terms for discontinuing hostilities he could create conditions for his ouster as a result of public discontent with the deal and for the subsequent ascent of a more pro-Russian leader to power in Yerevan.  

How Lasting Can Damage Be From Russia’s Failure to Intervene Early in Karabakh War?

Going forward, I cannot, of course, rule out that the public discontent in Armenia will eventually force Pashinyan (of whom I have never been a fan, by the way) out of power, especially if he continues to lose support. I have little doubt that such a development would please Putin. But, in my assessment, it won’t compensate for the damage that his decision not to compel the warring sides to peace early on has done to Russia’s efforts to ensure the continuous and growing involvement of its ex-Soviet neighbors in Moscow-led integration projects, such as the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union in the longer-term. That damage is quite manageable at present, but it is not negligible, and it may grow in the longer term. In fact, members of these organizations may already be wondering why participating in all the Kremlin-led multilateral integration initiatives in post-Soviet Eurasia, like Armenia does, does not prevent Russia 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 and is relying on direct military support of an external power. Trenin’s explanation was that Russia only did “what it is formally obligated to do, but no more.” Indeed, neither the Collective Security Treaty nor bilateral Armenian-Russian treaties require Russia to come to Armenia’s aid unless fighting spreads to the territory of the Republic of Armenia. The problem with that explanation, however, is that Russia did promise to do more not so long ago through then-commander of Russia’s military base in Armenia Col. Andrei Ruzinsky. Specifically, Ruzinsky made the following warning in an interview with the Russian Defense Ministry’s official daily in 2013 when Sargsyan was still Armenia’s president: “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.” (Based on my 15 years’ experience as a defense and security jour­nalist in Russia, Krasnaya Zvezda reporters typically seek pre-approval for the questions they ask commanders and then vet the texts of the interviews before publishing, so Ruzinsky’s statement was no accident.) While Russia reportedly did continue flying military supplies to Armenia during the war, it could not have escaped CSTO allies’ attention that Russia’s military base in Armenia chose not to jam the game-changer in the conflict—namely, Turkish-made and Turkish-operated drones—which it could have done at negligible cost to itself and no casualties. In my view, Russia’s decision not to employ leverage to stop the conflict in early stages made a lasting impression on its CSTO allies in what may ultimately influence their geopolitical choices in the longer term should Russia’s national power decline substantially vis-à-vis alternative “guarantors of security” in the neighborhood.

Why Solitude Could Prove to Be Problematic for Russia

That Russia needs to continue fostering such alliances in its ex-Soviet neighborhood—contrary to Trenin’s argument in favor of “loneliness”—should be clear to anyone who attempts to match Putin’s ambitions with Russia’s capabilities. Time and again, Putin, his ministers and Russian strategic documents have underscored Russia’s intention to continue to play a lead role in global affairs, acting as a “counterbalance in international affairs” even as the world order is changing. Having the world’s largest nuclear arsenal ensures Russia’s role as a nuclear superpower and prevents aggression by nation-states but is not sufficient to back such a role in peacetime. To play that role without having to “punch above its weight” all the time, Moscow needs to ensure that traditionally important components of the combined national power of Russia and its allies, such as economic output and population, are significant enough for other great powers to take very seriously. That’s where alliances in the ex-Soviet neighborhood can come in handy. As I have noted earlier, if Russia were to integrate all the ex-Soviet republics—with the exception of the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine, which are considered “lost”—into a Eurasian Union (see row “Russia+” in table below) that would increase Russia’s economic and demographic clout substantially, even though this union would still lag behind the U.S. and China in the aforementioned components of national power. Contrary to Trenin’s claim, it is the name, not “the idea[,] behind the former Soviet Union [that] is disappearing.” Call it Eurasian Union or Pax Russica, but the idea of keeping former Soviet republics close to Moscow to ensure it can punch at a greater weight in international affairs remains valid in Putin’s eyes and he will keep pursuing it if only because Russia’s departure from the neighborhood would be followed by the arrival of another dominant power. Geopolitics, after all, abhor a vacuum. And whoever fills it may not be to Moscow’s liking.

Share in world’s GDP as of 2019Share in world’s population as of 2019
Russia alone3.1%1.9%
Increase from Russia alone to Russia+32%69%


For Russia to maintain its role as a global player, per Putin’s vision, it needs its ex-Soviet neighbors to retain interest in its military and economic integration projects, especially as profound changes in the world order create uncertainties with regard to the future of Russia’s and other countries’ relative national power. Russia’s response to the war in Karabakh has been perhaps not the best way for a great power to incentivize such interest, to put it mildly. Whether caused by personal animosities between leaders or other nuances, a great power’s refusal to use even some of its peacetime leverage to prevent a humiliating defeat of its ally is bound to create at least some lasting resentment in that allied country, especially if its adversary has received crucial military support from an external power. More important, a failure to help an ally, no matter how small, prevent a staggering defeat is also bound to make other, larger allies of that great power wonder what kind of support they can expect from it in their hour of need. After all, countries prefer to participate in alliances that are built on mutual respect for each other’s military and security interests of existential importance. Such military and security alliances typically prove to be more lasting than those based on the premise that there is simply no alternative great power to either ally or bandwagon with per  the Russian saying of “there is no running away from a submarine.”

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