Since the April 2016 four-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia has been especially cautious in balancing its security reliance on Russia with its own recognition of the limits of a strategic “partnership” with Russia. That brief April war started with a massive offensive by Azerbaijan and ended with the capture of territory by Azerbaijan was particularly significant, for several reasons.
First, it represented the most serious escalation of fighting in over two decades, as the formerly “frozen” conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh quickly erupted into open warfare.
And a second key factor was the fact that Azerbaijan’s military offensive was based on a new strategy aimed at seizing and securing control of territory. This new strategy was also bolstered by a serious improvement in Azerbaijan’s military capabilities. But without the element of surprise, such a military victory will not be as easy for Azerbaijan next time.
But more strategically, a third factor is that the fighting also presented Russia with a fresh opportunity to further consolidate its power and influence in the region. And in this context, recent developments have caused concern. The fighting also highlighted the absence of any real deterrence to prevent or at least pressure any side from launching military operations. Although there are no real strategic advantages for the Armenian and Karabakh sides from offensive operations, the lack of restraint and deterrence on Azerbaijan are only exacerbated by the limited leverage over Azerbaijan held by the West and by the Russian position as Azerbaijan’s main source of modern weapon systems.
Beyond Russia, however, the outbreak of warfare has also altered the calculus of Azerbaijani-Turkish relations. More specifically, over the past several months, Azerbaijan weathered a precarious position of being forced to navigate the larger crisis between Turkey and Russia. Yet with the onset of combat operations, Baku was able to regain both the initiative and the upper hand, retaking control of Ankara’s regional agenda and forcing Turkey to support Azerbaijan, leaving Ankara with little choice.
Beyond the confines of that offensive, however, the broader ramifications are more significant. More specifically, the April fighting posed new risks to the delicate state of regional security and stability, with Georgia very much caught in between.
From the perspective of regional security and stability, the broader implications are serious. For example, since the 2008 war with Russia, Georgia has monitored the Armenian-Russian security relationship with careful concern. For its part, Armenia has consistently reassured Georgia that it would never allow the Armenian security partnership with Russia to threaten Georgian security.
But more recently, there is new concern for both Georgian and regional security because of the Russian announcement to form a new “joint” Armenian-Russian military command unit. After years of steadily mortgaging Armenia’s independence in exchange for the rather abstract benefits of Russian security guarantees, this move represents a new challenge to Armenian sovereignty and statehood.
Although the move in itself can be seen as fairly benign, and appears to be a logical component of both the Armenian-Russian security relationship and Armenia’s membership in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), this development poses a deeper danger and more serious risk.
The Russian plan for joint command poses a likely, yet potentially disastrous outcome, allowing Russia to leverage such a new direct role to both threaten Georgia and pressure Armenia. This possibility would consist of an attempt by Moscow to use this new “joint” command structure to not only interfere or intervene in Armenian defense reform and self-sufficiency, but also as an opportunity to utilize the unit as a vehicle for the later deployment of peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, with devastating effect on the security of both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the broader context, this move is a Russian response a deep and widening crisis in Armenian-Russian relations. For Yerevan, the crisis in relations with Moscow represents deepening dissatisfaction not with the relationship itself, but over the unequal terms of the “strategic partnership,” and the asymmetry and lack of parity inherent in the relationship.
Although Armenia remains hostage to a wider “region at risk,” the country has largely embarked on a new course aimed at overcoming the threat of isolation. In a strategic sense, Armenia is becoming more successful in maximizing its strategic options, and is now beginning to challenge the dangers of its over-reliance on Russia as its primary security patron and partner.
Moreover, as Armenia’s “strategic partnership” with Russia has become steadily one-sided, Yerevan has begun to finally see that although close relations with Russia are essential over the longer term, the imperative is now to maximize its options and garner dividends from a more concerted embrace of the West. Thus, although Armenia has yet to graduate from this “region at risk,” the deeper trends clearly suggest a more prudent policy aimed at finally overcoming Armenia’s isolation and building a new degree of stability and security.
Richard Giragosian is the Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), an independent “think tank” in Yerevan, Armenia.