The South Caucasus region, which connects Europe and Asia, has traditionally been considered a Russian sphere of influence. The Kremlin has never had serious competitors here, and has exploited the local inter-state tensions to its own advantage.
However, in the last couple of years, Russia's military-political influence has been weakening, and is now at risk of collapsing altogether. Thanks to Armenia's pro-Western positioning, the presence of the European Union, France and the United States is getting stronger.
Russia recently suffered a crushing defeat in the South Caucasus. From September 19 to 20, Azerbaijan carried out a military attack against Nagorno-Karabakh and ethnically cleansed this enclave inhabited by more than 100,000 Armenians.
In front of the eyes of the Russians, the armed forces of Azerbaijan killed and captured civilians. Armenians who had lived in Karabakh for thousands of years were displaced to Armenia despite being in a zone where they were meant to be protected Russian peacekeepers. By November 9, Stepanakert was completely empty.
This is Vladimir Putin's personal defeat. When the Second Karabakh-Azerbaijan war, which lasted from September 27 to November 9, 2020, ended with the defeat of the local Armenians, the Russian president promised them security, with the protection of Russian peacekeepers.
Armenians believed Putin's promise and returned to Nagorno- Karabakh after the fighting was over. However, after a short time, it turned out that Russia was refusing to fulfil its security obligations.
In December 2020, Azerbaijan occupied the villages of Khtsaberd and Hin Tagher belonging to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is under the control of Russian peacekeepers. In the last three years, Azerbaijan also occupied Pharukh village, Karaglukh and Martakert heights, killing civilians in front of Russian peacekeepers, closed the Lachin Corridor to Armenia and set up a checkpoint.
Russian impotence in Karabakh became more pronounced on September 19, 2023, when Azerbaijan started a full-scale war against Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended with Stepanakert’s capitulation and the dissolution of Karabakh’s state institutions and its army.
But why did this happen? The war waged by Azerbaijan against Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 was in reality the result of an agreement between Russia and Turkey. On February 24, 2022, two days before the start of the war against Ukraine, Putin signed a declaration with the Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev on a military-political alliance.
Putin's calculation was that by satisfying the interests of Turkey and Azerbaijan in the war against Karabakh, he would get their loyalty in the Ukrainian war. And indeed, Turkey, being a member state of Nato and a formal ally of the USA, refused to impose sanctions against Russia. Azerbaijan supports the Kremlin in arming itself by selling Russian gas to Europe through Azerbaijani pipelines.
Today it is obvious that Putin made a mistake by agreeing to the change of the status quo in the South Caucasus by the 2020 war. The weakening of Russia’s positions on the Ukrainian front has led to Russia's historic defeat in the South Caucasus as well.
Putin could not both wage war against Ukraine and maintain influence in Karabakh. Turkey and Azerbaijan were able to violate the agreement with Russia regarding the stay of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh until 2025. Turkey and Azerbaijan have now removed the Armenians from Karabakh, forcing Russia to consider leaving as well. Russia, weakened by the Ukrainian war, cannot resist.
Russia hoped that at least 1,000 to 5,000 Armenians would remain in Karabakh after the Azerbaijani attack on September 19, which would allow the peacekeeper’s troops to remain in the region until 2025. The massive departure of Armenians from Karabakh has made Russia's existence in Nagorno-Karabakh meaningless.
We have reliable information that at the moment Russia is trying to persuade the Armenians who moved from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia to return to Karabakh. However, Russia as a guarantor of security has been discredited because of the disgraceful peacekeeping mission it carried out in Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, Putin has an incredibly low rating among the Armenians of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
During the September 19-20 military attack, Azerbaijan also killed six Russian peacekeepers. Putin is ready to ignore the death of his servicemen in order to gain the favour of Baku to keep troops in Karabakh.
Russia has weakened so much that it handed over to Azerbaijan the pro-Russian leaders of Nagorno Karabakh: former presidents Arayik Harutyunyan, Bako Sahakyan, Arkady Ghukasyan and former state minister Ruben Vardanyan.
Today, only 10 to 50 Armenians remain in Nagorno-Karabakh. This means that the need for the 2,000 Russian peacekeeping personnel to stay has disappeared. It is highly probable that soon Russian peacekeepers will be withdrawn from Karabakh.
Earlier this month in Bishkek, Putin and Aliyev discussed the fate of the peacekeepers. I believe Putin asked Aliyev for time to convince the Armenians to return to Karabakh. However, Putin's hopes are unlikely to be justified. Armenians who were subjected to the military attack of Azerbaijan in the presence of Russian peacekeepers will not return to Karabakh after Putin's new promise.
The prime minister of Armenia has questioned the need for Russian troops in Armenia itself and announced that the Russians should leave Karabakh for Russia, not through the territory of Armenia, but through Azerbaijan. Russian peacekeepers continue to dismantle observation posts in Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to Putin, Armenia's recognition of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity in Prague in October 2022 fundamentally changed the status of Russian peacekeepers and they became observers. Putin is trying to blame Armenia for his strategic defeat in the South Caucasus, but this is an unfounded accusation.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has criticised the inactivity of the Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh from the podium of the European Parliament. Moscow responded to Pashinyan in a threatening manner, reminding him of the fate of Ukraine and Moldova.
When it became known that Russia is not the guarantor of the security of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, Pashinyan's government made its relations with the West even closer. Armenia is not only boycotting the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military exercises led by Russia, it has recalled its ambassador to the CSTO and will not appoint a new one.
Armenia has also started military cooperation with France. A contract on French military supplies has already been signed. In addition, Armenia conducted a peacekeeping exercise with the USA in its territory. At the invitation of Armenia, EU observers are stationed at the Armenian-Azerbaijani border.
No matter how much Russia tries to maintain its positions in the South Caucasus through Azerbaijan, it will never again be able to have a great influence in Armenia, which is considering a close alliance relationship with the USA and the EU.
Russia's final withdrawal from the South Caucasus will depend on the course of Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine. It is realistic to expect Armenia's strategic turn to the West and Russia's final withdrawal from the South Caucasus after the settlement of Armenian-Azerbaijani and Armenian-Turkish relations. When there will be no conflict, there will be no need for Russia.