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Commentary: The Putin Paradigm -- What Next For Nagorno-Karabakh?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in Yerevan in December
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in Yerevan in December
It is now clear that the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has exceeded expectations. It is also now equally clear that the repercussions from such a resurgent Russia will be far and wide, with a pronounced impact on many other countries within the “near abroad.”

And for Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the most serious outcomes of his Crimean adventure was not that he exceeded expectations but that he exceeded any limits. But his blatant disregard and disdain for the costs of his actions also foretell a shift in Russian policy to one with little or no restraint.

Within that context, such a more assertive Russian posture directed toward its neighbors may also result in a sudden shift in Moscow’s policy toward Nagorno-Karabakh.

More specifically, there are three new factors that suggest a new “Putin paradigm” for Nagorno-Karabakh and, by extension, for the broader South Caucasus region.

First, in the wake of the erosion of restraint and the eradication of limits, Putin may now seek to only garner greater leverage in the South Caucasus, with Nagorno-Karabakh offering an attractive avenue toward a deeper consolidation of Russian power and influence.

Of course, even before the Ukraine crisis, it was clear that Russian influence in the South Caucasus was neither imperiled nor impartial. And Moscow’s power rested on several elements, ranging from a security partnership with Armenia, which also hosts the only Russian military presence in the region, to outright self-interest, as the leading arms provider to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

But Russian power and influence in the region have been static and in danger of atrophy in recent years. For example, prior efforts by Armenia to deepen ties to the West, and Azerbaijani moves to sidestep Russia in energy exports, were signs of weakness, not strength. In the case of Armenia, Moscow has already adopted a harder line, pushing and pressuring Armenia away from its Western embrace, even before the Ukrainian conflict. Moreover, Moscow has also been steadily acquiring even more of Armenia’s strategic assets and economic sectors, as Armenia’s overly compliant leader further mortgage their country’s national security.

Regarding Azerbaijan, however, Moscow has simply little leverage, and even less credibility. Instead, it has followed a policy favoring incentives and inducements, such as larger arms deals, over any direct interference of intervention.

In the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, Russian power and prestige were never as assured or secure as Moscow desired. Unlike Georgia’s “frozen” conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Russian-led CIS peacekeepers and Russian passports offered effective instruments for intervention, Moscow has long lost real leverage over Nagorno-Karabakh. With no military presence and even less military influence, Nagorno-Karabakh has long resisted ceding its position to any outsider, even to Russia.

A second factor suggesting a new Putin paradigm for Nagorno-Karabakh is the peace process. Russia has long held the advantage of proximity and presence over its fellow mediators, France and the United States, but past diplomatic cooperation and coordination may be sacrificed in the new post-Crimea climate. Moscow may seek to collude but no longer cooperate with Western interests in mediating the Karabakh conflict, and a new attempt by Moscow to push out Paris and Washington from equal footing in the mediation effort is more than likely, given the new anti-Western refrain from the Putin camp.

And a final factor suggesting a dangerous new round of insecurity and instability in the South Caucasus may emanate from a new Russian calculus on Nagorno-Karabakh. Adopting a refined cost-benefit analysis based on the absence of limits and the reckless disregard of restraint may lead Moscow to alter course, no longer content in benefiting from the conflict’s unresolved status quo as an instrument for power and influence. Rather, Russia may seek greater but riskier dividends from transforming the “frozen” Nagorno Karabakh conflict into a hot war, thereby attaining even greater leverage and latitude. Thus the real danger is that Crimea may be only the prelude to the onset of a much broader campaign of a resurgent Russia throughout the former Soviet space.

Richard Giragosian is the director of Yerevan based Regional Studies Center (RSC) and contributed this piece to RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani services. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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