Moscow has played a significant role in propelling the conflict between the two neighbours by creating autonomous regions in Azerbaijan and drawing controversial borders.
Behind the ongoing border conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there are growing signs of Russia’s old realpolitik, as Moscow openly backs Yerevan against Baku.
Since the early years of its formation, Russia, which is mainly based on a synthesis of Slavism and Orthodox Christianity, has always seen itself as the protector state of Slavic nations and Orthodox Christians.
“Russia has traditionally supported Armenia very much. Traditionally, it will. Historically, Armenia has looked at Russia as its protector. That goes back to the fact that those are primarily Orthodox Christian countries. It also goes back to all the 1915 events and also Nagorno-Karabakh [dispute],” said Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
The 1915 events refer to political and military circumstances in World War I, when Russia-backed Armenians aimed to create an independent state in the Eastern Anatolian territories of the Ottoman Empire. The clashes between the Ottoman and Armenian forces caused human losses of great magnitude on both sides.
For centuries, Moscow remained focused on the Balkans in Eastern Europe, and Caucasia, which is located between the Central Asia and Russian mainlands. The Russian Empire and its Tsarist regimes fought the Ottoman Empire and its allies in both regions for centuries. The Balkans and Caucasia have always had significant Slavic and Orthodox Christian populations.
At the same time, Moscow’s policy has required the statecraft to suppress Muslim and Turkic aspirations across those regions, while allying with friendly nations like Serbia and Armenia, using them to create spheres of influence across the Balkans and Caucasia.
“We can clearly say that Russia is on the side of Armenia against Azerbaijan. Armenia de facto looks like a region of Russia. Almost all of the Armenian economy has been controlled by Russia. Armenia’s defence is also at the hands of Russia,” said Bulent Aras, professor of international relations at Istanbul Policy Center-Sabanci University.
“Russia and Armenia have tight military and economic relations, which go beyond the borders of a normal alliance. This aspect can not be discardable,” Aras told TRT World.
Like Syria, Armenia also hosts a Russian military base in the east of the country across Turkey’s Kars province, which had previously been contended by Moscow as part of Russia. Ankara, which has a military base in Azerbaijan, has historically allied with Baku against Yerevan.
“Armenians feel Russian support as Azerbaijanis feel that Turkey is with them,” Aras says.
In 1945, in the wake of World War II, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin demanded to annex Kars and Ardahan from Turkey, making Ankara approach to the Western alliance. Eventually, Turkey joined NATO in the early years of the Cold War.
“Any neutral observer could easily see how much the legacy of pan-Slavism and pan-Orthodoxism affects Russian political psyche toward both the Balkans and Caucasia. Like Russia, Armenia is also an Orthodox Christian nation,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia political analyst, who has studied on Russian history and politics.
But Azerbaijanis are coming from a Turkic-origin, holding an Islamic faith. In addition to that, unlike Central Asian states, which are also mostly Muslim and Turkic, Azerbaijan has been allied with Western politics, developing close relations with Turkey, its neighbour.
Turkey and Armenia have no official relations due to severe political problems between the two countries, ranging from the 1915 incidents to Yerevan’s implicit relations to the PKK and other previous Armenian terror groups like Asala, which had assassinated many Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Strong relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey make hesitate Russia a lot because Moscow could still not get rid of its pan-Turkism schizophrenia,” Yalinkilicli told TRT World, referring to Slavic Russia’s historic fight with Turkic nations in Central Asia, parts of current Russia and the Crimean peninsula.
Russia’s old Turkic fears, which Armenians also partly share, could also explain the alliance between the two nations.
“In Armenia, there is also a paranoia about Turkic people and they look to Russia as a protector,” Bryza told TRT World.
There are also other factors for Russian support to Armenia.
The Armenian lobby is arguably the strongest one in Moscow as some prominent Armenian-origin journalists run Russian media outlets. Russia’s powerful and long standing Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also has an Armenian father.
“The biggest diaspora in Russia is the Armenian one,” says Yalinkilicli.
While Armenia is landlocked and source-scarce, Azerbaijan borders the Caspian Sea with vast gas and oil reserves, qualifying the country to hold the highest GDP across the region.
“The geopolitical and strategic importance of Azerbaijan pulls Russia’s attention to the country. In order to keep [its former republic] in its orbit, Russia appears to chasten Azerbaijan with Armenia,” says Yalinkilicli.
Russia’s Caucasia dilemma
It had taken a hundred years for the old Russian Tsardom to claim Caucasia, a region which has many resemblances of the Balkans in Eastern Europe with its various ethnicities, different faiths and a difficult geography characterised by steep mountains.
But even after claiming Caucasia, Moscow had needed to expend efforts to stabilise the political situation in the complicated region, making its historians question the merits of the invasion in the first place.
“Some Russian historians have argued that instead of putting a century-long effort to claim Caucasia, Moscow could claim the Balkans, a geopolitically more important region, with more ease and longevity. While they lamented that, they also said that after that much effort, we can not leave Caucasia,” said Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia political analyst.
Under the Soviet Union, a communist federative state, Moscow had developed an administrative philosophy of autonomous regions, embedding them inside its fifteen republics, which included Armenia and Azerbaijan.
But with the collapse of the Soviets, Moscow has faced a growing dilemma, particularly in ethnically diverse Caucasia, as independent states like Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan had emerged there.
While the new Russian Federation does not want to leave Caucasia, it has been difficult to stay there in a powerful sense as ethnic conflicts began exploding in the respective autonomous regions, forcing Moscow to ally with countries like Armenia to stay in the region.
But again Russia wants to use these ethnic conflicts, whose focus points are particularly related to respective autonomous regions like Nagorno Karabakh created by the Soviets.
“It’s Russia’s historical pattern to use interethnic conflicts in the South Caucasia to its own advantage. Its strategy is to prevent conflicts from exploding. But they want to keep them tense so that neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia feels strong enough to feel independent,” Bryza says.
By occasionally provoking and then meditating between the two Caucasian countries, Russia wants to keep them under its control, according to Bryza.
Yalinkilicli agrees with Bryza, but he also thinks that the loss of Georgia to the Western alliance following the Russia-Georgia War in 2008, which came after the success of the Rose Revolution in 2003, also forces Russia to rely upon Armenia more than ever in Caucasia.
“Russian access to Caucasia has been ensured through Armenia. If Armenia were not there, Russia would break away from Caucasia,” says Aras.
Last week, Russia began its military exercises with the participation of 150,000 soldiers. In September, Moscow will start another military exercise, which was named as Caucasia 2020, revealing Russia’s complicated love affair with the region.
Is Russia pushing Armenia to fight Azerbaijan
“Russia may be provoking this [recent clashes],” Bryza assesses recent escalations.
“For decades, Azerbaijanis have been forced to fight Armenians provoked by Russians,” says Yalinkilicli.
Experts also think that Russia might try to unbalance Ankara’s positioning in different conflicts against Moscow by recently pushing Armenians against Azerbaijanis.
“While Russia clearly wants to chasten Azerbaijan with Armenia [by provoking Yerevan against Baku], there is also an implicit Russian effort to limit Turkey’s geopolitical influence in Caucasia and across other regions, where Moscow and Ankara have recently been facing each other,” views Yalinkilicli.
Russia and Turkey have recently been at odds in several conflicts across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, from Libya to Syria, and now Azerbaijan, too.
“It appears that Russia wants to shift Turkey’s focus in Libya and Eastern Mediterranean [by provoking Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict] to Caucasia,” the Eurasia analyst says.
Russia and France, another country with a strong Armenian lobby and also at odds with Turkey in Libya, try to stall Ankara with the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict, according to Yalinkilicli.
Russia, France and the US, where the Armenian diaspora has also a powerful presence, are the three leading countries in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk group, which was established in 1992 to address the Caucasian conflict.
“Seemingly something similar to what’s been happening in both Syria and Libya is playing out with Russia, Turkey and different sides [regarding Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict],” Bryza analyses.