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With Russia Bogged Down In Ukraine, Armenia Is Worried It's Being Abandoned By The Kremlin


Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian attend the 2022 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 7.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian attend the 2022 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 7.

YEREVAN -- Independence Day in Armenia is usually a festive affair. Street parties are thrown across towns and villages, while the capital, Yerevan, plays host to a military parade, fireworks, and laser displays in the night sky. Last week, however, Armenia's 31st independence day was a more muted event.

Following cross-border clashes this month, and with Azerbaijani shells hitting cities in southern Armenia, the Armenian government canceled public celebrations as a mark of respect for the lives lost.

The clashes on September 13-14 and then on September 28 reportedly claimed the lives of over 200 Armenian soldiers and 80 Azerbaijani troops, making it the most deadly outbreak of violence between the countries since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. With previous fighting almost exclusively focused on the area in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan's bombardment of Armenia proper -- hitting cities along the southern border, including Goris, Kapan, Sotk, Artanish, Vardenis, and Ishkhanasar and causing hundreds of civilians to flee -- has shocked many in Armenia.

"Before this, I didn't think it was that dangerous, but it turns out [Azerbaijan] isn't stopping with Nagorno-Karabakh," says Sara Khojoyan, a communications manager living in southern Yerevan with her family. "It brings a lot of uncertainty, and there's a feeling of hopelessness. I don't know whether I need to pack three bags for my three young kids with all necessary things in case they attack again and we need to find a basement to shelter in."

The targeting of Armenian cities has the country's political elite deeply worried. With Russia bogged down in Ukraine, there are concerns in Yerevan that Armenia can no longer rely on its traditional ally Russia for military and diplomatic help.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh for years. Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people. Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress over the years, and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russian-brokered cease-fire was agreed.


Under the 2020 cease-fire, parts of the breakaway region and seven adjacent districts were returned to Azerbaijani control. An estimated 2,000 Russian troops have been deployed to keep the peace. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- a Russia-led Eurasian military alliance loosely similar to NATO with its principle that an attack on one is an attack on all -- Armenia appealed after the September 13-14 clashes for military backup from the CSTO. None came.

Russia has historically been a key mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. However, with its considerable military and logistical support of Armenia in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s, Moscow was seen less as an impartial observer and more as Armenia's primary backer. Although Russia has sold arms to both Armenia and Azerbaijan over the years, it has offered them to Armenia for a discounted price.

The recalibration of geopolitical power in the Caucasus in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine is only just beginning to be felt, with some Armenian analysts viewing Azerbaijan's recent attacks as a test to see whether Russia would come to Armenia's aid. But with Russia militarily overextended in Ukraine, Azerbaijan's ability to launch attacks on Armenian territory with no international military pushback has showed both Caucasus nations just how vulnerable Armenia now is.

"The attacks weren't just a move against Armenia," says Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center think tank. "They're challenging and defying Russian interests."

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wipes away a tear as she visits the Armenian Genocide Memorial complex in Yerevan on September 18.
U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wipes away a tear as she visits the Armenian Genocide Memorial complex in Yerevan on September 18.

Last week, following a previously planned visit of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Armenia, both Azerbaijan and Armenia's foreign ministers flew to New York to discuss peace negotiations, meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Although Moscow again negotiated the most recent cease-fire, it is the United States and the European Union, in particular European Council President Charles Michel, who are now leading the way in shaping the dialogue between both countries and working toward a peace treaty. The Russian absence in Armenia's security has suddenly become a lot more palpable.

"With the war, no one came to help us," says Alexander Iskandarian, an analyst at the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute think tank.

"People say now, 'Why do we need Russia?' We increasingly have more communications with the United States. We have Western bodies here, and they are using political instruments," he says. "But it's not enough. We are stuck between [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan."

With Aliyev continuing to take a hard line, saying on September 21 that "the use of force to liberate lands should be a source of pride and that no one or nothing can stop us," and with a number of Western embassies advising against all but necessary travel to southern Armenia, many Armenians are concerned that Azerbaijan's recent targeting of its territory could be a precursor to a more widespread military escalation.

"It's a good moment for Azerbaijan. The U.S., U.K., and Iran are all busy now," says Iskandarian.

A view of the Armenian settlement of Sotk, which was reportedly hit by Azerbaijani shelling on September 14.
A view of the Armenian settlement of Sotk, which was reportedly hit by Azerbaijani shelling on September 14.

Against the backdrop of peace negotiations, Iskandarian says Azerbaijan's "coercive diplomacy" puts Armenia in a difficult position: Agree to our demands or face further attacks. Azerbaijan, for its part, has said that its attacks on Armenian territory were in response to "provocations" and that the Azerbaijani Army took retaliatory measures "only against firing points, which are legitimate military targets."

Both Russia and the EU are reportedly drafting peace agreements aimed at resolving the conflict, with the Russian agreement including the future status of Karabakh. With few bargaining chips and a depleted military and weapons supplies, it is hard to see how much leverage Armenia would have in negotiations. To accept Azerbaijani goals -- a peace treaty rather than the current cease-fire and the development of what Baku calls the "Zangezur corridor" that would connect Azerbaijan proper to its exclave of Naxcivan -- would likely be unwelcome at home.

"Right now, we feel small and alone and sandwiched between enemies," says Armenian journalist Tatev Hovhannisian. "We have closed borders with Turkey, and we are at war with Azerbaijan."

Within Armenia, there are widespread fears that Azerbaijan is gearing up to take the "Zangezur corridor" by force. In May 2021 and again in November 2021, Armenian officials say Azerbaijani forces captured around 40 square kilometers of territory in the south of Armenia, a claim Azerbaijan denies. Then, as now, Russia did not respond. Armenian officials say that the latest incursion has seen a further 10 square kilometers taken, although this has also been denied by Azerbaijan.

"The best-case corridor situation is that Armenia allows Azerbaijan to put checkpoints along the Lachin corridor [which connects Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh], or [has] Russia controlling it," says analyst Benyamin Poghosian, the founding director of the Yerevan-based Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies. "The worst-case corridor situation is that Azerbaijani forces open the corridor by force, cutting Armenia into two parts next week."

This image taken from YouTube footage released by the Armenian Defense Ministry on September 13 reportedly shows Azerbaijanian troops crossing the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and approaching Armenian positions.
This image taken from YouTube footage released by the Armenian Defense Ministry on September 13 reportedly shows Azerbaijanian troops crossing the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and approaching Armenian positions.

Despite widespread disappointment with the CSTO's inaction following Armenia's request for military aid, it is unlikely that Armenia will formally withdraw from the military alliance. To leave the CSTO "would be considered a hostile act by Russia," says Poghosian. "Also, Iran would see it as a pro-Western gesture, which would then isolate Armenia's only friendly neighbor."

The CSTO's refusal to supply Armenia with military backup was only more galling for Armenians following the alliance's decision to send in soldiers to aid Kazakhstan's government in January, when mass protests swept the country. All CSTO members, which include Armenia but not Azerbaijan, sent troops to Kazakhstan to prevent the possibility of what Putin described as another "color revolution" in he region. But with the CSTO only obliged to provide military support in the event of a foreign attack on sovereign territory, the decision was seen by many as a thinly veiled move to stamp out Kazakhstan's internal dissent.

Another possible reason why Russia has been so unresponsive to Armenia's calls for military support is perhaps due to its increased reliance on Azerbaijan and Turkey in the face of Western sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine. Even before the invasion, the Russian and Azerbaijani presidents signed a wide-ranging agreement that deepened diplomatic and military cooperation.

"The West gets it wrong," says Armenian political analyst Tigran Grigorian. "Azerbaijan has much closer connections to Russia. Azerbaijan understands Russia's dependency on it. Russia doesn't want a confrontation with Azerbaijan or Turkey. Both are instrumental. Russia is neither capable nor willing to deter Azerbaijan."

In the future, that nonconfrontational approach could also apply to the EU. With an energy crisis in Europe due to interrupted Russian gas supplies, the EU is frantically looking for new suppliers of natural gas. Azerbaijan has already promised to increase its gas exports to Europe by 30 percent this year and to double them by 2027.

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    Nadia Beard

    Nadia Beard is a journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.

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