On February 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics and agreements with these two entities on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance. On February 22, President Putin stated that Russia recognized these states within territories envisaged by their constitutions, which cover entire territories of former Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts of Ukraine, while the de facto Republics control only 30 percent of the oblasts' territories. On early morning February 24, President Putin declared the launch of special military operation in Ukraine. He stated that Russian goal is the demilitarization of Ukraine and added that Russia has no intention to occupy Ukrainian territories. He called Ukrainian soldiers not to resist and warned against any foreign interference in Russian actions.
Russia's decision opens a new chapter in the history of the Post-Soviet space and, at least in the short and medium run, will ruin Russia – US and Russia – EU relations. The Western reaction is anticipated, new sanctions, including Germany's decision to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline certification, and potential cut of Russian financial system from SWIFT. In a broader sense, these developments are part of the shifts in global security architecture amidst the transformation of the world order from a unipolar moment to a multipolar system. It is not about Ukraine, in the same way that the cold war was not about the fate of West Berlin.
Meanwhile, this week and with much less world attention, Russia made another move to solidify its post-Soviet space position, particularly in the South Caucasus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a solid foothold in Armenia, but the Kremlin always sought influence across the entire region. The 2008 Russia – Georgia war made any Russia - Georgia rapprochement unlikely, but opened the way for unfettered Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while Azerbaijan appeared to be the only country outside the Russian sphere. Given the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict, the Russian task: pulling Azerbaijan closer into its orbit without alienating Armenia seemed almost impossible. The growing Azerbaijan-Turkey cooperation made this equilibrium even more complicated, as Russia also had to counter Ankara in Azerbaijan. The transformation of Russia - Turkey relations since 2016, and the 2020 Karabakh war changed the regional status quo. Russia deployed its troops in Nagorno Karabakh, which gave it substantial leverage in its relations with Baku. However, the Turkish military involvement in the recent Karabakh war significantly increased Turkey's influence over Azerbaijan, especially over the Azerbaijani armed forces. Meanwhile, as Russian troops are the sole guarantors of the security of Armenians living in Karabakh, and Russian troops now control parts of the Armenia – Azerbaijan border, the Armenian defeat in the 2020 Karabakh war did not result in a decrease of Russian influence in Armenia, on the contrary, Russia now enjoys more influence in Armenia than at any time since 1991.
However, the presence of Russian troops in Karabakh is not sufficient to secure long-term Russian influence in Azerbaijan and counterweigh the Turkish position especially after the signature of the June 2021 Azerbaijan – Turkey declaration on an alliance. The position of Azerbaijan's leadership in this situation is not straightforward. President Aliyev took steps to deepen his country’s relations with Turkey. However, he understands that despite expressions of brotherly solidarity Ankara is wary of Aliyev’s Russian connection. Thus, Baku is interested in keeping a balance between Russia and Turkey, while Russia is interested to counter Turkey and increasing its role in Azerbaijan. On February 22, 2022, after more than 4 hours of negotiations in Moscow, President Putin and Aliyev signed a declaration on allied cooperation. It will elevate bilateral relations to higher level and satisfy Azerbaijan and Russia. Azerbaijan gets leverage to prevent its overdependence on Turkey, simultaneously diluting Russian support for Armenia, while Russia makes another move to solidify its positions in the South Caucasus.
In nearby Armenia, the question is being asked as to how these developments impact the country’s position? Armenia may face strong economic difficulties as Russian economy suffers from new Western sanctions; however, economic collapse in Armenia is less likely. Some experts believe that Russia may convince or force Armenia to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk People's republics. However, this will make sense only if Armenia first recognizes Nagorno Karabakh's independence. Otherwise, it will be very strange if the current Armenian government, which is very vague on the Nagorno Karabakh status, makes decisive steps on Donbas.
Meanwhile, as Russia – West relations are ruined, Russia may convince Armenia to restrict its modest cooperation with the Euro-Atlantic community. Steps may include the decision not to sign any new Individual Partnership Action Plans with NATO, to cancel the Armenia – US strategic dialogue launched in May 2019, and reduce Armenia’s involvement in the EU Eastern Partnership initiative, though Armenia’s full withdrawal from the project is unlikely.
The situation is vaguer regarding the elevation of Russia - Azerbaijan relations to allied partnership levels. The signature of the declaration does not mean total control of Russia over Azerbaijan but shows that Russia is serious about including Azerbaijan within its orbit. If the Kremlin succeeds in its competition with Turkey for Azerbaijan, then Armenia and Azerbaijan will be under Russian influence, and the status of Nagorno Karabakh will be ultimately decided in Kremlin. It will somehow resemble the situation of 1921 when the Caucasian Bureau of the Bolshevik party decided to include Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan. However, there are also significant differences. The Caucasian Bureau was not a state body but representative of a political party, and as in 1921 Soviet Union has not been established yet, locals played a role there. While this time, the decision will be made not by a Russia-based political party but by the Russian state, more resembling the situation of the early 19th century, when Russia invaded the current territories of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Karabakh, then all part of the Persian empire and made unilateral decisions on their future.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: Russian troops on the move (picture courtesy of al Jazeera
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