As Karabakh War Rages, Armenian Leader Treads Delicately In Relations With Kremlin

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https://www.rferl.org -By Ron Synovitz

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian attends a meeting with army commanders in Nagorno-Karabakh on October 6.

The difficult position Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian faces in relations with the Kremlin is highlighted by the fighting that broke out on September 27 between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces over Baku’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Pashinian told the BBC on October 6 that President Vladimir Putin has vowed in telephone conversations that if Azerbaijani forces attack Armenia, Russia will “uphold certain security commitments” and aid Yerevan as a military ally in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Putin concurred a day later, saying in an interview on Russian state television that Russia will continue to fulfill its CSTO obligations toward Armenia.

Putin added he is in constant contact with Pashinian about the conflict and that Armenia has not indicated it is unhappy with the Kremlin’s actions on the matter.

The Russian president also said a cease-fire must be agreed upon “quickly,” even if a resolution to the decades-old conflict takes longer.

But the lack of any real action or tough statements from the Kremlin has definitely disappointed many Armenians.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told Russian state television on October 7 that Baku would return to talks with Armenia when the current fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer raging.

The Kremlin said Aliyev and Putin had spoken for the first time about the situation the same day.

Russian Objectives

Experts on the South Caucasus say Russia wants to maintain a neutral position as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan in order to gain more regional influence.

William Hill, a global fellow of the Kennan Institute, notes that Russia has had close relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan — exemplified by its weapons sales and energy-sector deals with the countries.

“Recently, Moscow’s relationship has been much closer to Yerevan, as reflected in Armenia’s membership in the [CSTO] and frequent participation in Russian military exercises in the region,” Hill said.

“As a CSTO member, Armenia in theory has the right to call on Russia for support should the current conflict threaten its security — which could force Moscow to choose between its role as ally or mediator,” Hill concluded.

Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center (RSC), told RFE/RL that “the passivity of Russia in terms of failing to adequately counter Turkish support for Azerbaijan or a failure to more vocally support Armenia” has led to “some speculation” about the opportunities Putin sees “to maximize Russian power and influence over Armenia in the long term by withholding crucial support at a critical time.”

“In this context, despite the risk for Russia, this may be an opportunity for garnering even greater power and influence over Armenia and over Azerbaijan regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” Giragosian said. “That’s because Russia is the top arms provider to all sides in this conflict. But more specifically, Russia may be able to capitalize on the vulnerability of the Armenian government today.”

Now into this wartime leadership, Pashinian is emerging Churchillian-style in terms of leadership that is rewarded with even higher levels of popularity…”
— Analyst Richard Giragosian

Matthew Bryza was the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2010-12 and served as U.S. co-chair of the OSCE’s Minsk Group for Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations. He told RFE/RL that he thinks a key Kremlin objective is to get Russian troops deployed in the area as “peacekeepers.”

“In my book, Russia has no interest in getting involved militarily in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It wants to be seen as an impartial mediator,” said Bryza, who is based in Istanbul and is on the board of a Turkish oil company affiliated with Azerbaijan’s state-oil firm SOCAR.

“At the end of all this, I think what Moscow really wants is to have Azerbaijan agree to peacekeepers — Russian peacekeepers — which will give Russia a chance in the years and decades to come to exert much more influence in the entire region,” he said.

‘Moscow-Orchestrated Uprising’

Bryza also said “Moscow doesn’t want Pashinian around” at all and would like to see him out of power.

He argues that the potential loss of territory under the control of Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian, de facto government since a shaky 1994 cease-fire would anger Armenian nationalists and could create an opening for Pashinian’s rivals to move against him.

“I would not be overly surprised to see some sort of an uprising against him, perhaps orchestrated by Moscow, out of all of this,” Bryza said. “In other words, I think Moscow is playing an even harder version of hard ball than suggested.”

Giragosian disagrees, saying that “despite the underlying tension and division” between Putin and Pashinian, “there is little likelihood of any Russian-inspired change of government in Armenia.”

“There are two significant aspects to Russian objectives in the current situation in the South Caucasus,” Giragosian explained. “First of all, it’s an old game of maintaining and, at times, maximizing Russian power and position — especially over Armenia and Azerbaijan at the same time.

“The second element is something new,” Giragosian said. “It’s a Russian response and defensive reaction to Turkey’s attempt at pushing out Russia from the region.”

“One of the driving motivations for the government of President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan of Turkey in its military backing of Azerbaijan has been a desire for Turkey to regain its lost role as the primary military patron for Azerbaijan,” he said.

“Turkey in many ways is frustrated, having lost the primary role as military partner for Azerbaijan to both Russia, through arms sales, and to Israel — which is especially aggravating to President Erdogan,” Giragosian added. “Russia, therefore, is reacting and responding to this Turkish attempt and will fight even harder diplomatically to push back against Turkish encroachment in the region.”

Pashinian’s Popular Support

Giragosian rejects the idea of an uprising against Pashinian if Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenia forces lose territory as a result of the ongoing fighting.

He argues that Pashinian’s popularity has soared in Armenia since fighting against Azerbaijan’s military broke out around Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27.

“Even prior to this military offensive, Pashinian had overwhelming popular support,” he said. “The absence of any viable, credible political alternative and the marginal opposition that is largely discredited has led to overwhelming displays and demonstrations of popularity.

“Now into this wartime leadership, Pashinian is emerging Churchillian-style in terms of leadership that is rewarded with even higher levels of popularity, based on national unity and the fact that the Armenian government has been especially prudent and cautious,” said Giragosian.

“They are not fully engaged in the fighting,” he said. “The fighting in combat operations is largely limited to Nagorno-Karabakh forces against Azerbaijani attackers. What this means is, whatever happens on the battlefield, it will be mainly to the credit — or the responsibility of — the Nagorno-Karabakh forces where Armenia proper is not directly engaged.”

[Pashinian] had people in the streets demanding democracy and rooting for him, but he didn’t have a political machine. And so, that old political machine is reactive. It’s squeezing him now. They’re still there. And Pashinian is weak.”
— Matthew Bryza, former U.S. ambassador to Baku

In fact, the Armenia public has so far been firmly behind Pashinian since his government came to power in May 2018 after mass demonstrations forced the resignation of Prime Minster Serzh Sarkisian.

Sarkisian had previously led Armenia as a close Russian ally in the post-Soviet era while serving two terms as president.

The rapid turn of events in Armenia shook up Russian interests in the region — with Pashinian seen in Moscow as being more pro-Western than his predecessors.

Nevertheless, Pashinian’s government has continued to cooperate with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and as a member of the CSTO. Under Pashinian’s leadership, Yerevan also has continued to allow the Russian Army to operate its 102 Military Base in Armenia’s second-largest city, Gyumri.

Giragosian said Pashinian has shown “a careful geopolitical prudence” as prime minister and been “careful to recognize the limits” with Russia in terms of his foreign policy orientation.

But Bryza argued that Pashinian has done so “because he is weak,” saying he has “never really consolidated his political strength” since taking over from the previous pro-Russian leadership.

“He had people in the streets demanding democracy and rooting for him, but he didn’t have a political machine,” Bryza said. “And so, that old political machine is reactive. It’s squeezing him now. They’re still there. And Pashinian is weak.”

“They’ve forced him out of his more conciliatory and pro-Western approach toward a more pro-Russian line — but also to a hard line with Azerbaijan,” Bryza continued. “This is also driven by Armenian nationalists who don’t want a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.

“They want a conflict, and then, to eventually recapture lands that are now in Turkey to re-create a ‘greater Armenia.'”

Other analysts say Pashinian also tried to break with a tradition of previous Armenian leaders of doing whatever Russia wants.

Instead, they say he sought to be more of an equal partner with Moscow — using his support from the Armenian people to protect his policy on Russia and calling for relations with the Kremlin to be “more strategic, much more cooperative, and much more brotherly.”

“In many ways, the emergence of Pashinian as the leader of a more democratic Armenia stands in the face of the Kremlin’s preference,” Giragosian said. “Armenia’s nonviolent victory of people power is an inherent threat to what Russia prefers in the near abroad or its sphere of influence.”

“This is manifested to a consistent and well-established demonstrable series of moves by Russia to pressure the Armenian government,” he said. “There is a natural division and divide between Moscow and Yerevan because of the nature of a democratic, more pro-Western Armenia.”

Bryza agrees on that point.

“If you are Vladimir Putin, Pashinian is everything that you hate or fear — meaning, he’s from outside the system,” Bryza said. “He came to power in a popular uprising, peaceful street protests, and he’s his own person.

“These are all Putin’s greatest fears about his own political survivability in Russia. His great fear is that [Russian opposition leader Aleksei] Navalny and everybody else will launch street protests that could lead to some sort of a revolution. So Pashinian, a priori, is somebody that Putin is never going to trust, or like, or want around.”

Ron Synovitz is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.

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