A Russian peacekeeper mans a checkpoint in Lachin this month. (Russian Defense Ministry)
As conflict again erupted in the Caucasus, and Armenia reports that Azerbaijani troops again crossed their international border, a familiar question is again being asked: Where is Russia?
Following hours of heavy fighting on November 16, resulting the largest casualty totals since last year’s war, Russia managed to broker a ceasefire late in the day. November 17 passed without any violent incidents reported.
Armenian officials said that much of the fighting took place inside its territory, but did not specify a precise area. Many Armenian media reported that it was near the lake Sev Lich in the Syunik region, where Azerbaijani soldiers crossed the border in May and have reportedly remained since then.
The renewal of the border incursion prompted Armenia to seek help from its treaty ally, Russia. The chair of Armenia’s National Security Council, Armen Grigoryan, said on November 16 that the country was appealing to Russia on the basis of a 1997 mutual defense treaty. The next day, Russian newspaper Kommersant followed up with him and asked what sort of assistance Yerevan was seeking. “We are in favor of the problem being solved diplomatically,” he answered. “But if it can’t be solved diplomatically, then it will have to be resolved militarily.” He added a warning of a sort: that while Armenia was relying on Russia, “if a resolution isn’t found, then we will have to look at other possibilities.”
Russia’s public response has been understated. On November 17, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov said that President Vladimir Putin had undertaken “active efforts” to stop the fighting, including speaking with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan (but not, apparently, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev). “Thanks to these mediating efforts the Russian side was able yesterday to restrain the conflicting sides,” Peskov told a press conference.
But the repeated incursions across Armenia’s border would seem to call for a stronger Russian response. Russia has security guarantees, both bilaterally and via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), that oblige it to come to Armenia’s defense in case of attack.
At a meeting of the National Security Council on the evening of November 16, Pashinyan said that Azerbaijani forces controlled about 41 square kilometers of Armenia and blamed the fighting on the “silence from our international partners.” (The figure of 41 kilometers has been used since May, following the incursion into Sev Lich and also in another region, near Vardenis. That would suggest that no new land was occupied in this newest round of fighting, but the Armenian Defense Ministry also reported that it had lost two military positions in the fighting.)
While Pashinyan was careful not to name names among “international partners,” others were more specific.
“Why do the CSTO and Russia ignore their alliance commitments to Yerevan when Azerbaijan is regularly and openly conducting incursions into the sovereign territory of Armenia,” wrote journalist Tatul Hakobyan. “What are the red lines, if any, beyond which Russia will no longer remain silent?”
Hakobyan also reported, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, that during their phone conversation, Putin had dissuaded Pashinyan from formally appealing for assistance from Moscow.
Russia’s inaction also was the source of much speculation during last year’s war. But that war was conducted in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, on territory that had been controlled by Armenian forces since the 1990s but internationally recognized as Azerbaijani and so not subject to the mutual defense pacts. These recent incursions into Armenian territory proper are different.
(Technically there is no border between the two countries in the absence of a bilateral agreement, and they are currently negotiating on a formal demarcation of their shared border. But the two sides have already come to a de facto agreement based on Soviet maps, most visible on the road through southern Armenia that passes through some slices of Azerbaijani territory. According to those maps however, Sev Lich lies firmly in Armenian territory.)
Russian troops guard some sections of Armenia’s border, and during last year’s war made a show of force, albeit a quiet one, by setting up new guard posts along the Azerbaijani border. They have continued to expand that presence since the war, including one new post along the northern section of the border next to the Azerbaijani exclave of Askipara (which Armenians call Voskepar). It is not clear, however, whether the Russians have set up such a post around Sev Lich, which is in a difficult-to-access area.
While Azerbaijan has claimed that this new round of fighting was set off by Armenian “provocations” along the border, it is a pretext that few take seriously. Azerbaijani analysts suggest that it was instigated by Baku in order to force Yerevan to sign new agreements, on border demarcation and new cross-border transportation routes, in support of last year’s ceasefire agreement.
But if that is the case, it is a direct challenge to Russia, which not only has mutual defense treaties with Armenia but also is the cosigner and guarantor of the ceasefire agreement.
Russia may, though, not have many options to respond.
“Russia has no room to maneuver here,” wrote Sergey Markedonov, an analyst of the Caucasus at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, on Facebook. “This is Armenian territory, not disputed Karabakh. Turkey’s influence is many times greater than it was a year ago, so sharp movements would be problematic as it could put [Russia] at odds both with the West and Ankara.”
While it appeared that Azerbaijan was most likely “using force as pressure on the negotiations,” Markedonov added, “silence is dangerous and the information space now is not in Moscow’s favor. […] Simply staying quiet and putting out optimistic statements is not a solution!”
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.