Russia’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh questioned after renewed tensions

Azerbaijan and Armenia have reached a deal after a brief offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh. What lies ahead?

After a sleepless night spent monitoring news from Nagorno-Karabakh and watching videos of shelled buildings and weeping women, Tigran says he knows who the main culprit is.

The ethnic Armenian man, who moved to Russia in 2001, blames President Vladimir Putin for “doing nothing” about the flare-up between Azerbaijan and the breakaway exclave that reportedly killed more than 20 people and injured 200.

Tensions had been rising for months but escalated when Azerbaijan launched a new offensive on Tuesday aimed at disarming Armenian separatists. Much of the international community decried Baku’s operation, accusing it of breaking a promise, while authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh claimed the Armenians were not armed nor had military stations in the region.

Tigran thinks that it was Putin’s refusal to provide military help to Armenia, the separatists’ main backer, that led to their defeat in the 2020 war, when Azerbaijan regained control of strategic swathes around and in Nagorno-Karabakh and blocked its main supply route to Armenia.

“Putin betrayed us, betrayed all Armenians in Karabakh,” the 47-year-old law enforcement officer told Al Jazeera. He withheld his last name and location, to protect his identity.

Analysts concluded that Azerbaijan triumphed in 2020 because it bought sophisticated weapons, including drones, and used the tactics battle-tested in the Middle East, while Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh relied on obsolete Russian-made arms and the stratagems they mastered in the 1990s.

Tigran also blames the Kremlin and the 2,000 Russian peacekeepers it deployed to the area for failing to prevent dire shortages of food, medical drugs and other bare necessities in Nagorno-Karabakh in recent months.

“Putin promised to help, but did nothing when my people began starving there,” he said in a telephone interview.

Less than an hour after Al Jazeera’s interview with Tigran, the Armenian separatists said they agreed to a Russia-proposed ceasefire.

What next?

After the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia will be worried about losing its own areas – especially the Zangezur corridor that links Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan, the birthplace of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s father and predecessor Heydar.

While Baku needs unimpeded access to Nakhichevan without Armenian checkpoints, Turkey wants to use it as a link to the Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia.

“Now, Armenia should think about how to keep itself without any exterritorial transport enclaves on its territory,” said Pavel Luzin, a defence analyst with The Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC.

The fate of ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh fully depends on Baku’s will to build a multiethnic nation, according to him.

“Because so far, things may boil down to the departure of 100,000 Armenians from Karabakh for good,” Luzin told Al Jazeera.

The deal may spell the end of three decades of de facto independence of the region Tigran considers his motherland.

His parents hail from Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital since the early 1990s, when the first war between two Armenia and Azerbaijan, claimed thousands of lives, displaced up to a million and became one of the former Soviet Union’s “frozen conflicts”. The city is known as Khankendi to Azerbaijan.

In Russia, Tigran got married and fathered two children – but still can speak the Nagorno-Karabakh dialect of Armenian. Just like almost every Armenian, he has relatives living in Karabakh, Armenia, France, Russia and Syria.

He is part of one of the largest diasporas – almost one million ethnic Armenians live in Russia, mostly in southwestern regions close to their homeland.

Many succeeded, including Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian billionaire who moved to Nagorno-Karabakh last year and headed the separatist government for three months.

He called this week’s hostilities a “typical ethnic cleansing operation”.

Azerbaijan accused the separatists of provoking the flare-up by planting a landmine in a tunnel that killed four Azeri police officers on Tuesday.

Another outspoken ethnic Armenian in Russia is Margarita Simonyan, one of the main Kremlin backers who heads RT, a media mammoth that disseminates pro-Moscow news reports in dozens of languages.

To her, Putin and Russia have been and will remain Armenia’s only protectors.

She prefers to lambast Armenian President Nikol Pashinyan, a liberal publicist who came to power in 2018 after a popular revolt against the “Karabakh clan” of politicians, lost the 2020 war and tried to improve ties with the West.

“An Armenian in power with anti-Russian slogans is a traitor by definition, [who] betrays Armenia’s interests, not Russia’s,” she said in a post on X, the social media platform once known as Twitter, on Tuesday.

“No Kim [Kardashian] will help, no NATO will ever lift a finger. Nobody ever helped Armenia but Russia. And no one ever will,” she said in another post referring to the reality television star’s appeal to US President Joe Biden to “stop another Armenian genocide”.

For centuries, czarist Russia warred with Ottoman Turkey – and backed ethnic Armenians and other Christian groups living there.

In 1946, Turkey hastily joined NATO to prevent Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin’s plans to annex its easternmost parts that once were dominated by ethnic Armenians.

Stalin also made Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians were a majority, an autonomy within Soviet Azerbaijan, surrounded by districts dominated by ethnic Azeris.

The exclave’s names reflect its turbulent past.

“Nagorno” means “mountainous” in Russian, while “Karabakh” is Azeri for “black garden”.

Armenians prefer to call the exclave Artsakh after an Armenian principality that existed there in the Middle Ages and left imposing churches, intricately ornamented stone crosses and richly illustrated parchment books.

Shortly before the 1991 Soviet collapse, Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum, voting to secede from Azerbaijan and become part of Armenia.

Moscow backed Armenia in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh but also sold sophisticated weaponry to Azerbaijan.

The Kremlin brokered a truce that ended the 2020 war and deployed some 2,000 peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas who were ordered not to meddle in sporadic conflicts.

“The role of Russia and its peacekeepers is currently neutral,” Emil Mustafayev, a political analyst based in the Azeri capital, Baku, told Al Jazeera. “Russia doesn’t need a conflict with Baku.”

He says that the flare-up stemmed from Armenia’s reluctance to pull out its forces and stop provoking Azerbaijan.

“We warned [the Armenian government in] Yerevan several times, demanded that they pull their forces out of the Karabakh region,” he said.

“But Baku ran out of patience when yesterday Armenian saboteurs mined a tunnel, and people died as a result,” he said referring to Tuesday’s explosion.

International observers think that Pashinyan’s government is largely responsible for the seemingly imminent capitulation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Armenian elites who replaced effective economic development and modernisation of the army with patriotic rhetoric and resting on their laurels, are 90 percent guilty,” Ukrainian analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

And Moscow failed to protect the exclave and its waning influence in Armenia because it overstretched its resources in too many areas in the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine.

“As to Russia, it got into a classic trap of imperialistic overstretching its perimeter, the way Ancient Rome had,” he said.

After the ceasefire was announced, protesters began thronging central Yerevan.

Their rally is similar to protests held earlier this week.

“It’s an unchanging rule in Yerevan – in any situation perilous for their nation they storm government buildings. Yet again, crowds of men of all ages are lining up not in front of conscription offices but under the walls of the cabinet of ministers with yet another ‘protest,’” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s University of Bremen told Al Jazeera.

“I was ready to wish luck to Armenia and Artsakh, but neither the government nor the people didn’t learn any lessons from the lost [2020] war,” he said.

“The usual tug-of-war instead of strong and collective will,” he said. “Instead of fighting, they look for someone else to blame.”

Source: Al Jazeera