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.