Russian Expansionism Continues in Recent Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

July 12 marked a turning point in the long-standing Armenia-Azerbaijani conflict.  At odds over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan have only grown since the conflict began in 1988. Although internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory, the proper claim to Nagorno-Karabakh has been contested by Armenia following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. 33 years later, Armenia has illegally occupied over 20 percent of Azerbaijani land. As a result of the ongoing conflict, Azerbaijan has the largest number of refugees and Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) throughout Europe. 

Over the past ten years, however, the conflict has partially stalled. While Armenia continues to illegally occupy Azerbaijani territory, both nations have achieved relative peace. Despite this, the April 2016 Four-Day War was a reminder to the international community of persistent tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, even though its broad outcomes did not produce results for either country. However, last month’s brief assault at the Tovuz border, perpetrated by Armenia, is quite unusual: for years, conflicts between both nations have only taken place in regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. An attack at Tovuz, which is nowhere near the disputed territory, implies a more direct attack on the country at large, essentially serving as a deliberate means to provoke Azerbaijan. At the time of writing, the flare-up at the Tovuz border has resulted in 12 deaths. Armenia has additionally gone on to violate ceasefire negotiations over 35 times. 

Map depicting the location of the July Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes. The red box points to a location where a confrontation between both countries has been officially confirmed. The blue box indicates a clash which was confirmed by Azerbaijan, but not by Armenia. This image is in the public domain.

With both countries experiencing economic stagnation amidst a global pandemic, significant questions arise as to why Armenia would attack Azerbaijan during such a precarious and uncertain time. In particular, President Armen Sarkissian of Armenia has failed to deliver an appropriate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, defending Armenia’s high case count as the product of its use of  “different” methods. This fact alone puts the country in a compromising position. With limited resources, what is the reason for stirring up conflict with Azerbaijan? 

In considering the strong sense of national pride cultivated by many Armenian politicians, the recent attack against Azerbaijan could be perceived as an attempt to revive nationalist sentiment across the country. Not to mention, for many years, the international community has failed to react to the territorial occupation of Azerbaijan. The brazenness of Armenia’s actions in recent months may serve to command attention back to their interests. 

Unsurprisingly, Azerbaijan’s most stringent support in the current Tovuz conflict is Turkey. Under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership, Azerbaijan has received both economic and military support from the country. A necessary factor in examining Turkey’s support of Azerbaijan lies in Azerbaijan’s complex relationship with the Russian Federation. Russia, who for a long time has supported Armenia, now must find a solution to keep peace in the region while still advocating for Armenian interests. Additionally, as some of Turkey’s allies, most notably Libya, head towards resolution with the United States, the “anti-West” narrative Russia needs Turkey to uphold has begun to crumble. 

The role of the Russian Federation in the current Armenia-Azerbaijani conflict cannot be denied. While the Kremlin’s interests have always been aligned with Armenia, its recent announcement that it will help provide a “mediary role” in the current conflict reeks of political opportunism. This decision can be calculated in two facets: primarily, the Russian Federation wishes to prop up and support Armenia as it always has, while simultaneously instigating a silent proxy war with Turkey. What is more critical to examine, however, is the fact that Russia, despite supporting Armenia, wishes to promote a peaceful narrative between the two countries. These actions only point to the desire of the Russian Federation to re-establish further control over the Caucasus. 

Historically, Russian interest in the Caucasus region has been predicated on the goal of expansion and territorial domination. Various pieces of Russian literature and political theory point to this fact: infamous Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, for example, implied in his novel, A Hero of Our Time, how the Caucasus needed to become “civilized.” In this light, it has always been Russia’s will to maintain control over the region. This time around, the interest of the Russian Federation to meddle in the Armenia-Azerbaijani dispute is specifically with the intention to control what occurs between both countries. For the Russian Federation, involvement in the current conflict would further the country’s geopolitical interest in drawing its former republics back into its sphere of influence. 

Mountain image from Dagestan, Russia, located in the North Caucasus. This image is in the public domain.

At the core, one must understand that Russia is an expansionary state. While its influence may not be explicit, the country has a long-standing history of employing a mixture of social and economic pressures to achieve regional hegemony. In the current international political climate, the Russian Federation operates primarily on soft power. Realistically speaking, it can be said that the Russian Federation is not strong enough to overturn the global Western order it so deeply aspires to rise above. However, of increasing concern are the relationships it builds with other vulnerable countries, who in turn, act to maintain support from Russia and dare not act against its overarching mission. In fact, the handful of these “vulnerable” countries who have not aligned with Russia’s views have been subject to strong punitive measures.

Russian neo-imperialism operates in a way that can be subtle and seemingly benign at first. This is why one must now pay closer attention to the fact that the country wishes to help resolve the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world has watched the Russian Federation storm into its orbiting countries and imposes strict political, military, and ideological control over them. The 2014 Ukrainian Euromaidan movement, in which Ukraine fought for European integration, prompted Russia to invade the Crimean Republic later that year. During this time, many drew parallels to the 2003 Russo-Georgian War, in which the Russian Federation invaded Georgia following the country’s Rose Revolution. On August 9, 2020, mass protests broke out in Belarus, following a rigged election in support of Alexander Lukashenko, a close political ally of Vladimir Putin. In what appears to be Belarus’ own “Maidan” moment, protestors are being relentlessly suppressed by their Russian-backed government.

Image demonstrating the August 2020 protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The protest sign states: “Fair elections. Tribunal. Freedom for political prisoners.” This image by Homoatrox is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The aforementioned events plainly highlight the neo-imperialist agenda of the Russian Federation. In the Armenian-Azerbaijani context, Russian control over the Caucasus region can only be maintained through continued involvement and support of Armenia. In losing control of Georgia, as the situation currently stands, Armenia is truly the only political ally the Kremlin holds in the region. From the perspective of the Russian Federation, therefore, the country must continue to support this relationship if it ever wishes to monopolize the Caucasus. In observing the neo-imperialist attitude of the Russian Federation in countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus, among others, there is a strong possibility that Russia might exercise its hard power in the current Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The international community must be on the watch for what the Russian Federation will do next. 

The feature image is licensed under CC BY 4.0 and can be found on the website of the President of the Russian Federation.

Edited by Clariza-Isabel Castro