Dr. Andreas UMLAND on escalation of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and Russia's role

20.07.2020 Dr. Andreas UMLAND is Senior Expert at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv, Nonresident Fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm.  Speaking to Caucasus Watch, he shared his expert views on the escalation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and Russia's role in the territorial disputes of the Caucasus.

First of all, the obvious question, why is the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalating right now and why on the undisputed international border instead of the area of the actual territorial dispute?

Dr. Andreas UMLAND: This is indeed surprising since the official border between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not being questioned by either side. The actual territorial dispute has been only about Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas. Murad Muradov and Rusif Huseynov of the Topchubashov Center at Baku have published an article on the influential Ukrainian website Ukrainska Pravda where they speculate about reasons for the escalation. They argue that only Armenia can be assumed to be responsible for the escalation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border because of the high risks the conflict contains for Azerbaijan, in view of Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Armenia and the official Armenian territory are protected by the CSTO – and especially so by Russia. Therefore, Muradov and Huseynov believe that this provocation originated in Armenia, and they outline some possible scenarios. Among others, Muradov and Huseynov argue that the escalation could have been driven by the current government in Armenia. However, they also do not exclude the possibility that the clash could have been initiated by some old elites in Armenia, particularly by the former pro-Russian presidents Kocharyan and Sarkisyan, who may be trying to cause trouble for the current government.

Muradov’s and Huseynov's argument seems to be fundamentally sound, because indeed the tense situation could drag Azerbaijan into a military conflict not only with Armenia, but possibly with the entire CSTO. That cannot be in Baku's interest. Therefore, the assumption that the escalation has to do possibly with internal developments in Armenia and that it can be understood as a kind of diversion or provocation for domestic purposes is apt. The conflict may not even be directly related to the territorial dispute between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabakh.

As an expert on Russian foreign policy in the post-Soviet space, how do you think the CSTO will position itself in this conflict from here on?

AU: It is true that Azerbaijan is, in some sense, a revisionist power that wants to change the current status quo by returning Nagorno-Karabakh to Baku's control. Therefore, Azerbaijan would be the usual suspect regarding violent escalation. However, a military confrontation to change the status-quo would have been then logical in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas. Moreover, the CSTO would not be directly responsible as the disputed area is not an internationally recognized territory of Armenia and as the pseudo-state of Nagorno-Karabakh is not a member of the CSTO. Accordingly, there would be no direct obligation to participate in a conflict within Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas for the CSTO – at least, as long as this is not desired by Moscow. The CSTO has no contractual obligation to protect Armenia's interests in a territory that, according to international law, belongs to Azerbaijan. As a defense alliance, the CSTO is formally set up to secure the internationally recognized territory of its member states. The CSTO members – that is to say, the Russian military - would have to interfere, if there were a major escalation at the border, and especially if Azerbaijani armed forces would advance into Armenian territory.

Regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia basically sides with Armenia while Belarus and Kazakhstan are ambivalent about the conflict and have been lukewarm in their support for Armenia. It thus comes down to the question of how Russia would act. However, Russian behavior is difficult to predict because the decision-making process in the Kremlin is limited to a very small circle of people. This circle can always – with or without a plausible pretext – arrive at the conclusion that an escalation in the South Caucasus is, at a given moment, beneficial for Moscow. For example, the Kremlin could – and this is pure speculation – start a proxy war against Turkey, as Ankara is closely tied to Azerbaijan. The Kremlin could try to punish Ankara for Turkish policies in Syria or Libya. Moscow could try to show Turkey that Russia is able to create serious trouble for a Turkish ally in the Russian sphere of influence.

Moreover, foreign policy adventures can be driven by domestic political calculations. For example, Russia’s grab of Crimea took place against the backdrop of the protests in Moscow in 2011/12. The Crimean annexation in 2014 served, among others, to split the Russian liberal opposition. The consequence of this was that a number of otherwise pro-Western intellectuals sided with Putin as they were in favor of the annexation though they were dissatisfied with the regime itself. Others rejected the annexation which led to a split and weakening of the liberal opposition. This was intended and beneficial for Putin’s regime, at least, in 2014.

Of course, the example of Crimea’s annexation is, as such, not applicable to the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. But it is often due to such idiosyncratic and not easily identifiable domestic political considerations in aggressor countries that escalations of international conflicts happen.

Are there currently factors within Russia’s domestic politics that would make an escalation advantageous for Moscow? Could the current economic pressure lead to the mobilization of nationalist moods in order to distract from socio-economic problems?

AU: It is not easy to imagine what the Russian interest in escalating the situation in the South Caucasus at the moment could be – especially since the region is of little importance to most Russians. The region holds a different status on the mental map of the Russian people than Crimea, the Donbass or the North Caucasus within the Russian Federation. The conflicts in these regions are of greater importance to the Russian population, while the vast majority of Russians may not be interested in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. If there are indeed domestic political drivers at play here, they are more likely to be found in Armenia.

The Russian researcher Maria Snegovaya has recently published two important papers on the influence of Russia’s socio-economic situation on geopolitical moods in the country. In her studies, she examined both the rhetoric of Russian presidents and the attitude of ordinary Russians towards foreign adventures. She found that Russia is adopting a more aggressively foreign stance in times of relatively good socio-economic circumstances rather than under poor socio-economic conditions. These conditions, in turn, can be linked to the world oil price, since it determines to significant degree Russia’s economic situation. If the price of oil is low, the president's foreign policy-related rhetoric and public attitudes towards external engagement have been more moderate.

Snegovaya’s research results suggest that Russia may tend to hold back in times of difficult socio-economic development and falling energy prices. Because of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the Kremlin will be forced to focus primarily on domestic issues, and might thus refrain from additional foreign policy adventures. However, this mechanism may not necessarily be true with regard to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, since there are other dynamics at play too. Unfortunately, we cannot with certainty predict Russian moderation in that case. In other countries, and in relation to the South Caucasus, Russia may, however, not be interested in further escalation.

What are the risks and dangers to the region? Could there also be an impact on other territorial conflicts in the post-Soviet space, particularly with regard to Georgia?

AU: There are currently many factors in flux. Russia’s engagements in Georgia and its creation of pseudo-states in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as its support for Armenia in the conflict with Azerbaijan are policies that Russia was able to afford, until recently, due to a relatively good socio-economic situation at home. If that changes in the future, if the Russian economy continues to decline - and there are indications that large corporations such as Gazprom and Rosneft are confronted with considerable difficulties due to the falling demand for energy resources – then many things might change. A destabilization of Russia could lead to a geopolitical overhaul of the entire Caucasus region. This could perhaps even affect the North Caucasus, as Chechnya and other North Caucasian entities of the Russian Federation are heavily subsidized. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are also heavily dependent on Russian subsidies. If the oil and gas prices and demands do not bounce back within the next few years, it could happen that there will be simply no money left, at some point. Then the question about the future of the subsidized pseudo-states would arise.

It is more difficult to make an assessment with regard to Nagorno-Karabakh, since there is no direct connection to Moscow. In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however, one wonders whether these political structures would be able to survive and whether the people there will still be interested in retaining their entities’ current political status. This would be especially so, if the Georgian economy would be in a comparatively good state. One could imagine that countries like Georgia and Ukraine will come out of this current crisis better than Russia because they are not as dependent on the sale of energy resources. If energy prices do not start to rise again, it could well be that these countries will become more attractive compared to Russia. Then things will probably change in the disputed territories. For socio-economic reasons, the local populations could become interested in returning to Georgia or Ukraine, instead of being tied to a Russian patron that will be not as financially supportive as it has been in the past.

Interviewed by Philip Röhrs-Weist, Caucasus Watch.

Published by Caucasian Journal upon content exchange agreement with Caucasus Watch

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