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Armenians See Russia As 'Savior' Not 'Scapegoat' In Nagorno-Karabakh War

A Russian peacekeeper patrols at the checkpoint outside Askeran.
A Russian peacekeeper patrols at the checkpoint outside Askeran.

As war raged this autumn over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, some Armenians expressed a sense of betrayal that long-standing ally Russia wasn't providing more support to ethnic Armenian fighters in the conflict.

But any ill will in Yerevan toward the Kremlin appears to have subsided since Moscow brokered a truce that brought an end to the fighting on November 10 and cleared the way for the deployment of nearly 2,000 Russian peacekeepers in the conflict zone.

Political analyst Richard Giragosian told RFE/RL that many Armenians now viewed Russia as a "savior" rather than a "scapegoat" to be blamed for the territorial losses of the Armenian forces.

"It's an interesting paradox because during the 45-day war itself, there was a degree of resentment and frustration within Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh that Russia was uncharacteristically passive and pensive," said Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center.

"Russia did not immediately come to the aid and provide or fulfill the security expectations of many Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh," he said. "Much of the population in Armenia was expecting a more robust Russian response."

"Having said that, Russia did make it clear that its security obligations [to Armenia] stop at the Armenian border itself," Giragosian said. "Russia is bound to defend, protect, and assist the Republic of Armenia proper, and not Nagorno-Karabakh per se."

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Arman Grigorian, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, said he also heard the complaints of Armenians who expressed "frustration that Russia didn't do as much as many thought it should have during the war."

"But you can also hear the views of different segments of the population saying that had it not been for Russia, the situation would have been completely doomed for ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh," Grigorian told RFE/RL.

"They argue that Nagorno-Karabakh would be completely overrun, if not Armenia itself being attacked" by Azerbaijan, he said.

"How these opinions are distributed is impossible to say because nobody has done public-opinion polling on these questions to find out the exact distribution of these views," Grigorian added.

"Ultimately, it was the efforts of Russia that stopped the war," he said. "Had it not been for Russia's efforts it's fair to say that the outcome of the war probably would have been worse for Armenians."

Grigorian also said that those who accuse Russia of failing the Armenian fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh "should ask themselves which other country came to the aid of the Armenians or did more than the Russians did to stop this war."

Besides a failed truce deal on October 26 that was arranged by Washington and some "sympathetic statements" by France and the United States, "I haven't seen any effort [from them] or any other country to extend military aid to Armenia or to threaten Azerbaijan with sanctions or with anything else in order to stop that war," Grigorian said.

'Almost Pleading'

Analysts are making conclusions about the changing dynamics toward Russia on the basis of Yerevan's official government statements and an analysis of the Armenian media.

Giragosian noted that Pashinian made a "flurry of near-panicked phone calls to the Kremlin" on five separate occasions after fighting broke out on September 27 that were "almost pleading”" for Russian assistance.

Armenia's government also sought clarification from Russia about what support it might provide during the conflict under their treaty of mutual support and cooperation.

Now, with the war over and Russian troops ensuring the cease-fire conditions, Pashinian has been lavishing praise on the Kremlin.

On November 21-22, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Yerevan to discuss implementing the truce, Pashinian stressed that Russia had been a reliable ally.

Pashinian said that with the "military-political situation" in the South Caucasus altered by the war, he was now "confident" that the "strategic alliance, friendship, and brotherhood between Armenia and Russia will be enhanced in the near and strategic future."

Speaking to Shoigu on November 21, Pashinian said: "I would like to note that all the way through the war we felt the support provided by the Russian Federation, by President Vladimir Putin, by the prime minister of Russia, and by your personal support."

"We experienced hard times before the war, but now we are facing a more difficult period," Pashinian said. "We hope that we will be able to deepen the ongoing cooperation with Russia, including in the field of security and military-technical cooperation."

For his part, Lavrov said after his talks in Yerevan with Pashinian that "the Armenian leadership has confirmed the course toward developing and deepening allied relations" with Russia.

Lavrov also said he expected trade and economic ties between Moscow and Yerevan to "build positive dynamics."

That's an important change of tone from Pashinian, who was initially seen as a pro-Western leader seeking greater ties with the European Union when he came to power through a popular uprising in 2018 against his pro-Russian predecessors.

Giragosian said he now thinks Armenia "will be evermore within a Russian orbit" as a result of the war.

Truce Broker, Peacekeeper

The Russian-brokered truce calls for all remaining Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh that are occupied by Armenian forces to be returned to Azerbaijan by December 1.

Russian peacekeepers have already overseen the first part of that handover -- the evacuation of ethnic Armenians from the occupied district of Agdam east of Nagorno-Karabakh and the return of that district to Baku on November 21.

The mountainous district of Kalbacar (Karvachar in Armenian) west of Nagorno-Karabakh is due to be handed over to Azerbaijani forces by November 25.

Territory still under Armenian control in the district of Lachin is to be returned to Azerbaijan by December 1 -- with the exception of a 5-kilometer-wide transit route through southwestern Azerbaijan known as the Lachin Corridor.

Security in that vital corridor -- the only postwar overland route linking Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh -- is also the responsibility of Russian forces.

In exchange for the promised territorial handovers, Azerbaijan halted its advance on Nagorno-Karabakh's largest city -- known to Armenians as Stepanakert and to Azerbaijanis as Xankendi.

Putin says the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh has not been resolved and will be discussed in talks held by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – which is co-chaired by Russia, France, and the United States.

"What happens next will be decided eventually by the future leaders and the future participants in this process," Putin told journalists in Moscow last week.

Thomas de Waal, a Carnegie Europe expert on the South Caucasus, says Putin's remarks could serve as a future argument to maintain Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh beyond an initial five-year period spelled out in the truce.

"Putin might see reasons to push for a full peace agreement that restores relations between two important neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan," de Waal said in a recent analysis published by Carnegie Europe.

"Then again, he might not," de Waal said. "If the two sides are in a state of suspended hostilities, that is a good reason for the Russian peacekeepers to stay. Russia's agenda is probably more about projecting its own power and about trade routes than about long-term peace in the South Caucasus."

Meanwhile, de Waal said Putin had tied himself "in knots" trying to explain "why Russia chose to back some separatists in sovereignty disputes" -- such as Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or in Ukraine's Russian-occupied region of Crimea -- but not in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"His answer basically is that Russia acted as it did in these places to protect its own," de Waal concluded.

Change Of Heart

Giragosian said one reason behind the change of heart toward Russia for many Armenians was "the sudden rapid deployment of Russian peacekeepers."

"This helped Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to secure and salvage what was left of the territory they control after the war and after the Azerbaijani territorial gains," Giragosian said.

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"But the real driver for this belated welcoming of Russia's role in the postwar situation is a second factor -- Turkey's direct engagement in the war," Giragosian concluded. "That, in many ways, has changed the dynamic and has led many Armenians to overcome resentment of Russia and turn toward a much warmer embrace."

"Realistically, the perception on the ground is that Russia is a savior in terms of saving lives and protecting not only the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh but also defending and securing the lifeline of the Lachin Corridor," Giragosian told RFE/RL.

"In many ways, the future and the security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh now depends on less than 2,000 Russian peacekeepers," Giragosian said. "That raises additional concerns, but it is the current daily reality."

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