Tag Archives: Armenia

Endgame in Armenia?

Sometimes I get things right. Other times, I get them badly wrong. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for RT in which I somewhat disparaged pundits who were saying that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was proof of Russia’s declining power and of its weakness relative to Turkey, which has been strongly backing Azerbaijan in the war. I argued that when the time came to negotiate a settlement between the two warring parties – Armenia and Azerbaijan – Russia would play a key role, thereby proving its continued importance. Well, that now looks like a mistake.

My assumption was that the fighting would eventually bog down into some sort of stalemate, which would require Armenia and Azerbaijan to turn to outside mediators. I didn’t count for the possibility that one side or other would be able to win a decisive victory. But it seems that that outcome is now quite probable..

The war is not going well for Armenia or for the Armenian backed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yesterday, Azeri forces seized the key city of Shusha and are now approaching the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert. What is particularly impressive about this is that the Azeri advance took them through very difficult mountainous terrain. Shusha itself is considered an easily defensible position, occupying as it does high ground with difficult approaches. I had thought that the Armenians would fight for every last inch. Instead, they abandoned the town, largely intact.

This does not bode well for the future prospects of Nagorno-Karabakh. While it is still possible that the Armenians might halt the Azeri advance, perhaps with a bit of help from the weather if winter arrives early, there is now a very real possibility that Azerbaijan will be able to conquer the entirety of Nagorno-Karabakh by military means. This will preclude any need for outside powers, such as Russia, to play any role in settling the conflict.

On the surface, this shouldn’t matter too much to Russia. Whether Armenia or Azerbaijan controls Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t a question of vital important for the Russian Federation. That said, the potential Azeri victory must be a cause of some concern in Moscow.

First, it does indeed make Russia look weak. Armenia is a Russian ally. It is true that Russia’s alliance obligations apply only if Armenia itself is attacked, and since Nagorno-Karabakh is officially part of Azerbaijan, Russia has no duty to come to Armenia’s aid. Nevertheless Russia’s willingness to see its ally suffer a serious military defeat is bound to at least somewhat dent Russia’s prestige . Other states may begin to doubt whether Russia can be relied on for support in time of need.

The impression of weakness may be furthered by the news today that Azeri troops shot down a Russian helicopter flying in Armenian airspace, killing two Russian servicemen. Azerbaijan immediately admitted responsibility, offered compensation, and promised an inquiry. I suspect that this rapid reaction will be sufficient for Moscow to avoid taking any serious action against Azerbaijan. Russia clearly doesn’t want to be dragged into this war, and so will probably have to let this event more or less pass unpunished.

The second reason for concern is the possibility that other states may look at the Azeri success and imagine that they may be able to repeat it themselves at some time in the future. Viewing what’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh, politicians in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine may say to themselves – ‘We too have lost territories, but let’s not give up, or seek to resolve the problem through negotiation. Instead, let’s build up our military force, and some time down the road, when we’re strong enough, we can attack and get our land back by force. The Azeris have done it; so can we.’

This would, of course, be a big mistake, as Russia is likely to defend the former Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as also it is likely to defend Donbass if push truly comes to shove. Russia’s inactivity in Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t so much a sign of weakness as a sign that Nagorno-Karabakh doesn’t matter very much to Russia. But, as we found out when Georgia attacked South Ossetia in 2008, politicians in other countries may not understand that, and may not realize that Russia regards other places far more seriously. An Azeri victory in Nagorno-Karabakh may encourage irredentist ambitions, and so create some serious problems at some future date. In the meantime, it may also discourage efforts to resolve these problems through negotiations.

So the pundits were perhaps right after all: this time round, Turkey has indeed got the upper hand. And that’s another problem for Russia. For it can only serve to encourage the Turks to continue their assertive policies in other places such as Syria, thereby frustrating Russian efforts there too.

For all these reasons, it’s unlikely that Moscow is looking at Azerbaijan’s military gains with joy. But as far as I can see there is very little it can do about it. It will have to accept whatever happens, and take solace that, at the end of the day, no vital interests will suffer. It’s not great, but it’s not a disaster either. Best just to suck it up and stay on the good side of the winner.

Spontaneous protests?

I don’t often agree with anything in The Interpreter magazine, an online publication whose content is almost uniformly hostile to Russia and its government, but it has recently had some sensible things to say about the protests in Armenia against electricity price increases. The magazine failed, however, to push its argument through to its logical conclusion, perhaps because doing so would have forced it to reassess some of its own preconceptions. Let me give two examples.

First, The Interpreter cites Russian sociologist Igor Eidman (a cousin of the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov), as saying that members of the Russian government, particularly the so-called siloviki (representatives of the military and security and intelligence services), ‘simply cannot imagine that people are capable of protesting against a government of their own free will to seek changes, democracy and so on. In their picture of the world, the special services of competitor countries must stand behind all such events.’

Second, Paul Goble remarks that, ‘Many Russian analysts are hurrying to suggest that this week’s protests in Yerevan and their suppression by the Armenian government are the opening round of a new Maidan, an anti-Moscow action that is being promoted and exploited by the West as part of a broader geopolitical struggle.’ Goble argues that this point of view is mistaken. Viewing the Armenian protests as engineered by the United States could lead Moscow into counter-productive policies, he concludes.

This is all true enough, but it isn’t the full story. The phenomenon which The Interpreter describes is not an exclusively Russian one; indeed The Interpreter itself has been guilty of it. For it and many others who oppose the current Russian government and who also oppose the rebellion in Ukraine, have consistently refused to accept that the protests in Donbass which led to the current war were expressions of popular will. They do not accept that the people of Donbass people are ‘capable of protesting … of their own free will.’ By contrast, most Russians do accept this, and thus it isn’t true that they cannot imagine such a thing. Whether people believe that protests are spontaneous or the product of outside forces depends very much on whether they support the protests in question.

Thus, the Russian government and its supporters regard the Maidan protests in Kiev which led to the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich as having been directed by American puppet-masters, whereas they view protests in Donbass as having been spontaneous in nature. The current Ukrainian government sees it the other way around: spontaneous protest at Maidan, and Russian puppet-masters in Donbass.

Both sides are wrong. It is obvious that foreign forces gave encouragement to both sets of protests, but it is naïve to imagine that the diplomats or intelligence services of any country can simply push a few buttons and incite rebellion wherever they wish. Local initiative, pushing from below, is essential in all cases, and is the primary driver of events.

Yet, while refusing to give too much credit to outside agencies, one should also avoid overstating the degree of popular support which underlies such protests. The people who occupied Maidan did not represent Ukraine as a whole; had they done so, there would not now be civil war there. Similarly, the initial demonstrations in Donbass in spring 2014 attracted no more than a few thousand people. Street protests provide a mechanism through which radicals can bypass normal legal procedures. Even if tens of thousands of people participate, they are not democratic in nature.

Overall, therefore, the conspiratorial model which describes mass demonstrations primarily in terms of external intervention is inaccurate, but one should be careful not to idealize such demonstrations as the true voice of the people either.