As hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh continue, Azerbaijan’s military push towards the decisive strategic objective – the corridor connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. It is likely, that Azerbaijan will continue to capture by force the five provinces mentioned in the “Madrid Principles” of settlement agreed in 2009. This fundamentally reshapes the regional policy.
The Kremlin cares little for Armenia or for the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. Neither is it concerned by Azerbaijan per se and even less so – by its territorial integrity. Moscow’s key interest is to maintain and, if possible, increase its grip on South Caucasus by controlling the neuralgic flashpoints with Nagorno-Karabakh being crucial among them.
Dominant hypothesis: pax-Russica reloaded
Despite the current challenge from Ankara, Russia dominates the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. To maintain its leverage, Russia will aim to counteract the attempts of Azerbaijan to cut Armenia off from Nagorno-Karabakh. The closer the Azerbaijani troops will get to Lachin and/or Kelbajar corridor, the more active – and perhaps more muscular – Russia’s response will be. But Moscow does not seem inclined to prevent Azerbaijan from gaining control over the five provinces that the “Madrid Principles” marked to be transferred to its jurisdiction.
If the Kremlin manages to re-freeze the conflict with this new reality on the ground, it will regain some of its lost footing in the region and will tie both Azerbaijan and Armenia closer to its orbit. Moreover, it would emerge as the key actor in the new – most likely complex and protracted – international diplomatic process over the future of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Such an outcome will be to Moscow’s advantage in several ways. For one, it will shore up its leverage over Armenia. It was weakened when Nicol Pashinyan emerged as Armenia’s leader on the wave of a popular, pro-democratic process – the type that President Putin loathes, but was forced to live with.
By letting Azerbaijan take by force something that it was promised diplomatically – in 1999, in 2007, and finally in 2009, when the updated Madrid Principles were agreed upon – the Kremlin can both lay claim on Baku’s gratitude and take Prime Minister Pashinyan down a peg. This will serve as a stark warning to others on Russia’s periphery, who might consider toying with democracy.
In brief, Russia will keep substantive leverage over both Baku and Yerevan, updated for the new balance of power.
As a side-effect, Russia will also play the role of the most effective regional power working – for once – in favor of multilateral international order. Moscow would argue, that it is not imposing democracy but is allowing the actors to establish order, based on their capabilities and preferences – something that Russian diplomats have been referring to as the “Theory of Russia-led stability” in private. The western powers are unlikely to protest. Firstly, because they have more serious and pressing problems closer to home. And secondly, since the new reality would essentially reflect the solution negotiated in 2009.
Reverse possibility: Kremlin loses control
There is nothing pre-determined in international affairs, especially in times of transition and conflict. So, we must entertain an opposite scenario: Russia proves incapable of preventing Azerbaijan from cutting Nagorno-Karabakh off from Armenia and chooses not to engage in a military confrontation. If that happens, Russia starts to play a losing hand.
Whatever the impact of that dramatic development is in Yerevan, Russia will lose the hearts and minds of Armenians. Just like it lost the hearts and minds of Georgians, drop by drop, while inciting and supporting separatist forces in 1992-94, in 2004, 2007 and, finally by invading directly in 2008.
Being allied to the Kremlin will become the political anathema in Armenia, as it now is in Georgia. This is especially true since the West is likely to extend the helping humanitarian and economic hand to the Armenians to continue democratic development and reforms. A brief instability triggered by nationalist backlash is possible, but in the long run, the Armenians are likely to build the future that they want, not the future they had to bear in exchange for Russian security guarantees.
Moreover, even though the diplomatic efforts would continue, the Kremlin would have lost its credibility and leverage also with Azerbaijan, Turkey, and beyond, in the wider neighborhood, by failing to shore up an ally.
It is inconceivable for Russia to willingly entertain such a scenario. A potential realignment in Syria agreed with Turkey, which some analysts suggest could be the token of exchange on the regional chessboard between Ankara and Moscow, is not worth losing strategic footing in the immediate neighborhood.
If Russia allowed Azerbaijan to cut Nagorno-Karabakh off Armenia, it would mean that Sergey Lavrov’s Foreign Ministry has lost the grip and that Russia’s foreign policy in favor of the oligarchic and business interests linked to the oil industry.
What shall Georgia do?
If either of the discussed scenarios were to pass, Georgia has two pressing national security concerns.
First, it needs to step up and implement a much more forward-leaning, active civic integration policy targeting ethnic minorities – especially its ethnic Armenian and Azeri citizens – to ensure civic peace in its changing regional security environment.
Secondly, given the nature of the ongoing military confrontation, all of Georgia’s diplomatic efforts shall be directed at acquiring an effective air defense shield. That won’t be easy: not only because such systems are expensive, but also because the deployment of a comprehensive air-defense umbrella, akin to Israel’s “Iron Dome,” has strategic implications, even while being defensive in nature.
There are two other important considerations for Georgia. For one, it seems that in today’s fluid international order it is not in Georgia’s interest to link its security exclusively to any single regional player.
Seeking security self-reliance is the most appropriate response while strengthening cooperation and integration with the NATO and the European Union, as well as being closely aligned to strategic dialogue with the United States and the UK. The western-leaning policy must remain Georgia’s priority to counter the shifts in the regional balance of power.
Secondly, nothing can be done without proactive and professional foreign policy. Passive neutrality and “magical thinking” won’t work. The regional security infrastructure is undergoing dramatic stress. These problems are real and are here to stay. So, Georgia’s diplomatic and strategic community must work together, work around the clock to push Georgia’s interests through – inch by inch, at every international and bilateral forum, sometimes in fields that seem unrelated to security.
This is not the time to lower the morale of civil service – as witnessed lately by the unfounded arrest of civil servants in the “Cartographers’ case”. Weakening Georgia’s institutional resilience – that is the objective of the hybrid warfare that Russia has been pursuing for years. It shall not be allowed to succeed.