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The Week In Russia: The End Of Something In The South Caucasus


Russian military vehicles sent to monitor the truce in Nagorno-Karabakh are parked on the airfield in Yerevan on November 12.

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Russia may have a day or more in the sun, after getting troops into Azerbaijan and attaining other goals with a deal to end the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, but the long-term forecast is cloudier. Meanwhile, a death in Minsk is not good news for Moscow, and the Kremlin holds back on congratulating U.S. President-elect Joe Biden.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Spectacular'

As images of residents fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh appeared on the Internet, it seemed on November 9 like Azerbaijani forces might take control over the entire breakaway territory within days.

Dire humanitarian consequences aside, that would have been a bad outcome for Russia: The abject failure of successive cease-fire agreements brokered by Moscow after the fighting erupted in late September; a total victory for a country supported by Turkey in a war against Moscow's closest partner in the South Caucasus; and the potential end of a "frozen conflict" that the Kremlin has used to maintain influence in the region.

Instead, late that night, Moscow oversaw the signing of a new deal that handed it several things it wanted, or at least the chance to attain them.

Those include the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone, something Moscow wanted but did not get when it brokered the cease-fire that ended the 1991-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh -- a region within Azerbaijan that has been under de facto Armenian control since that truce more than 25 years ago.

They also may include increased influence over Armenia, where a prime minister Moscow is wary about because he came to power through peaceful protests is under heavy pressure over the humiliating deal, and the prospect of a new status quo that could cement Moscow's influence for years to come.

Weakening Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (right) may well suit Russian and Vladimir Putin.
Weakening Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (right) may well suit Russian and Vladimir Putin.

Crucially, as well, it sidelines the West. For more than a quarter-century, unsuccessful international efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had been led by France, Russia, and the United States, the co-chairs of the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The deal to end the fighting was brokered by Moscow alone, giving Washington and Paris no say in the makeup of peacekeeping forces or other matters.

Still, there are plenty of pitfalls for Russia, and its leading role is the source of at least one potential downside: Responsibility, at least in the eyes of others, for any problems going forward.

"Russia has played a spectacular diplomatic move, but has also taken on great responsibility and will be blamed by both sides if things start to go wrong," Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank and an expert on the Caucasus, wrote in a November 11 commentary.

If the deal begins to unravel, that could reverse one of Russia's achievements and put it in a position of seeking help from the West.

Under certain circumstances, "Moscow may soon decide that it cannot implement this plan by itself. In that case it is likely to remember its multilateral role and call for the support of the other Minsk Group co-chairs and the OSCE as a whole," de Waal wrote.

'Wild Card'

Another potential concern for Moscow is the role of Turkey, whose stepped-up support for Baku in the fighting that began in late September helped Azerbaijan make the territorial gains that led to the Moscow-brokered deal. Those gains -- including the key town of Shushi (Susa in Azeri) -- went far beyond the more modest ones that observers said Russia would have preferred to leave in place as part of a cease-fire deal.

As presented by the Kremlin, the deal includes only a small part for Turkey: representation at a peacekeeping monitoring center. But comments from both Azerbaijan and Ankara contradict this, and analysts said that even if Russia opposes having Turkish forces on the ground, Azerbaijan could invite them in to be deployed on its territory.

More broadly, Turkey's heightened backing for Baku during the weeks-long conflict has increased its visibility in the South Caucasus and led to the perception that it is gaining influence in the region at the expense of Russia -- even if Moscow managed to bolster its own clout by brokering a deal that got its troops into Azerbaijani territory in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This was clear from reports in Russian media outlets that are not Kremlin-controlled and from social-media posts and other commentary.

Reports about Turkey's role and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's remarks on the deal convey the impression that "Erdogan is Putin's senior partner and Russia is a Turkish satellite," Russian commentator Nikolai Podosokorsky wrote on Facebook.

'New Regional Order'

"Putin's acquiescence to Azerbaijan's military gains lets him pull out with some dignity from an ugly regional impasse. But his solution to the crisis is imperfect," Leonid Bershidsky wrote in a Bloomberg Opinion column. "It undermines his claim to mastery over the USSR's legacy of frozen conflicts, and holds negative consequences for Russia's future geopolitical role in the region."

The outcome of the "second Karabakh war" -- the fighting that ended with the Russian-brokered deal -- has "ushered in a new regional order," Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in an article published on November 12.

People wave the Turkish (center) national flag and the Azerbaijani flag as they celebrate victory in the streets of Baku on November 10.
People wave the Turkish (center) national flag and the Azerbaijani flag as they celebrate victory in the streets of Baku on November 10.

Russia negotiated a truce and "expanded its military presence in the Caucasus by becoming the sole peacekeeper between Armenia and Azerbaijan," he wrote." However, the war has not only highlighted Turkey's role in the region as a very close ally of victorious Azerbaijan. Moscow has had to legitimize that role by accepting Ankara's participation, alongside Russia, in the monitoring mechanism for Karabakh."

The bolstered Turkish position in Baku is another headache for Putin's Kremlin in the South Caucasus, where Moscow has closer ties with Armenia than with Azerbaijan and Georgia -- still deeply wary of the intentions of Russia, which fought a five-day war against it in 2008 and maintains large contingents of troops in two breakaway regions it formally considers independent.

"With U.S. influence in a commanding position in Tbilisi, and Turkish influence and prestige standing very high in Baku, Russia faces an uncertain political future in Armenia, its defeated nominal ally," Trenin wrote.

Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and hosts a Russian military base. But while Russia was not obliged to intervene militarily on behalf of its CSTO partner because Armenia itself was not attacked -- the fighting occurred in Nagorno-Karabakh and nearby areas, some of which had also been under ethnic Armenian control since the 1994 cease-fire -- there may be a sense that Moscow betrayed its nominal ally.

Analysts have said that the Kremlin's calculations about Nagorno-Karabakh in the past two years have included a desire to undermine Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian. He is not popular with Moscow because he came to power in a peaceful uprising in 2018 -- the kind of change that seems to frighten Putin -- and has pursued a less Russian-oriented foreign policy than the government he ousted.

However, it is unclear what Moscow could expect from a different government. Anger and dismay over the outcome of the conflict could cast a shadow over any expectation that further political change in Yerevan would align the country more closely with Russia.

Ribbons And Risks

Putin's Russia is also maneuvering to maintain or increase its influence in Belarus, where Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government has cracked down hard on large protests that have persisted since he was formally handed a new term in an election that many voters in the nation of 9.5 million say was stolen.

Russia has backed Lukashenka so far, steering clear of criticizing the state violence, and analysts say that it risks turning Belarusians against it -- despite long-standing desire for good relations with Russia -- and undermining its chances of playing a crucial role in a post-Lukashenka period, whenever that may come.

In the latest example of alleged brutality by agents of the state, 31-year-old Raman Bandarenka died in a hospital after reportedly being beaten by security forces.

Witnesses said men in plain clothes abducted Bandarenka on November 11 after a scuffle in a square where they came to remove red-and-white ribbons that represent the protest movement against Lukashenka, who has been in power since 1994.

Vladimir Putin may not want to be seen as too closely tied to Alyaksandr Lukashenka down the road.
Vladimir Putin may not want to be seen as too closely tied to Alyaksandr Lukashenka down the road.

Meanwhile, in what may have been a signal to Lukashenka, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations said that he spoke to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya at a UN-organized meeting.

"We're ready to talk to anyone," the envoy, Vasily Nebenzya, said in comments carried by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. Analysts say Moscow is not wedded to Lukashenka and wants to have a strong hand in a transition away from his rule.

Also this week, Putin held back as many world leaders congratulated Joe Biden after the U.S. presidential election was called in his favor on November 7, when state ballot counts showed he would secure at least the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House.

China congratulated Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, on November 13, leaving Brazil, Russia, and Mexico as the most populous countries to refrain from doing so.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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