Russian-Sponsored Security Organizations and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Threat or Misconception?

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(PONARS Eurasia Commentary) While Azerbaijani government officials and observers have alleged a strategy by Armenia to involve Russian-sponsored security organizations in recent escalations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, these claims are more reflective of a misconception than reality. Conventional wisdom fails to recognize these structures as representing alternative security perceptions and forms of engagement by Russia and other participating states rather than traditional NATO-style military alliances.

In the wake of the return to “hot war” and major territorial advances beginning in summer 2020, public figures and South Caucasus regional experts in Baku have referred ominously to intentions by Yerevan to directly involve Russian-sponsored security organizations in the fray.

During the week of the July 12 clashes in the Tavush/Tovuz border region, Azerbaijani presidential foreign policy adviser Hikmet Hajiyev and Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov as well as government-affiliated analysts alleged that offensive actions by the Armenian Armed Forces beyond the line of contact (LoC) in Karabakh and the seven previously occupied districts of Azerbaijan demonstrate that Armenia seeks military intervention from fellow member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In addition to the Russian Federation and Armenia, these presently include Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, while Serbia and Afghanistan were granted observer status in 2013.

According to this view, relocating combat operations to the internationally recognized border would place them within the CSTO area of responsibility, thus activating Article 4 of the 1992 Treaty and its supposed facsimile of collective defense doctrine as enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO Charter (“If one of the Member States undergoes aggression…[it] will be considered by the Member States as aggression…[to] all…”). While on July 13, Yerevan appealed to the CSTO Secretariat chaired by Belorussian general Stanislav Zas to convene an emergency meeting of the Permanent Council to address the hostilities, it was later announced that it had been postponed indefinitely “due to consultations between the parties, as well as the need to clarify the format of discussions.”

On the one hand, this interpretation of events may simply reflect recent diplomatic tensions between Baku and Moscow regarding reported Russian arms shipments to Armenia via an IL-76 transport plane through Iranian airspace immediately preceding and following July 12. This is an otherwise routine aspect of the bilateral Russian-Armenian military alliance concluded in 1997 (and extended in 2010) in response to which Azerbaijan, itself a former CSTO member, withdrew from the Treaty in 1999. Additionally, it may stem from popular suspicions that Russia seeks to expand its military involvements and geopolitical influence in the Eurasian space, as has become a common discourse since its annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of separatist republics in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Ideology may also play a role. While Armenian analysts who are advocates for Euro-Atlantic integration characterize the CSTO as neither a competitor nor counterpart to NATO, but solely a vehicle for Russia to maintain its influence over the member states, some Azeri thinks tank analysts tends to view it as a Russian-led equivalent to NATO, and therefore a potential danger to neighboring states resistant to Moscow.

Yet, unlike the NATO Charter signed in 1949, Article 4 of the Treaty was not drafted in response to a perceived comprehensive threat from any opposing state or bloc. The legal framework laid during the first phase of its evolution in tandem with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was heavily oriented toward the UN Security Council and modeled on the concept of “cooperative security” of the former Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and its principles of peaceful coexistence between divergent political systems and non-interference in domestic affairs.

It was only in 2002 that the CSTO was established as a military institution with the signature of the Charter formalizing defense cooperation, peacekeeping operations, and joint exercises between national armed services, followed by the introduction of the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (CRRF) in 2009. These structural reforms were largely in response to changes in the international security environment fostered by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. launching of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001.

Secondly, rather than requesting direct military assistance, Armenian governments have for several years petitioned the CSTO to take a principled position on the Karabakh issue, in a challenge to its traditional policy of non-intervention in what it regards as an internal affair of current and former member states (or, an unrecognized Armenian-populated de facto state within the territory of Azerbaijan). In particular, this has been motivated by contradictions between security assistance policies at the multilateral and bilateral levels. Azerbaijan currently purchases the majority of its arms from Russia, the dominant military power in CSTO, while Belarus has also emerged as a major arms supplier to Baku despite Armenia being a fellow member, due to a downturn in relations between Minsk and Yerevan over the past decade.

Similar speculations of “third party” involvement appeared in the information space during Russian Armed Forces snap command and staff drills held in July in preparation for the multinational Kavkaz-2020 exercises to be staged in the Southern Military District in September, which was denied by defense ministry representatives. In addition to a projected 80,000-115,000 Russian ground, armored, air, and naval troops, up to 1,000 personnel were invited from eighteen states, including Armenia, Belarus, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Syria, Turkey, and all five Central Asian republics, as well as India and Azerbaijan before their withdrawal for official and unofficial reasons (COVID-19 restrictions and border confrontations with China), although Baku agreed to send observers to the proceedings.

A major distinction of these exercises, aside from their broadly cross-regional (in particular Asian) character, is joint participation by several states that have historically had hostile relations or are involved in enduring rivalries. The ability of Russian-led military structures to attract interest far beyond their area of operations shares similarities with the pursuit of new partnerships between Asian and Middle Eastern countries and the Eurasian Economic Union and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which security is defined as mutual assistance against common threats to sustainable national development, rather than a NATO-style alliance against external aggression.

Thus, recent allegations of an Armenian strategy to involve Russian-sponsored organizations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are based more upon popular misconceptions about their purpose rather than a genuine threat of third party intervention. Instead, structures such as CSTO and Kavkaz-2020 would be better understood as representing alternative approaches to military cooperation and engagement that, for better or worse, accommodate opposing positions toward regional rivalries among participating states.

Dr. Jason E. Strakes is Director of research and publications at the Center for Foreign Policy and Security Studies (CFPSS) and Coordinator at the Caucasus-Asia Center.

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