Moscow’s pivotal role, but also Russia’s limitations, have been exposed by the latest war in the Caucasus.
The latest Karabakh ceasefire negotiated over the weekend quickly broke down with each side accusing the other of violating the agreement – following the pattern of the breakdown of the previous ceasefire of 10 October. Moscow has now twice sought to broker a cessation in the fighting that has raged since 27 September, only to see its efforts fail within hours.
To date, Russia has largely stuck with its established playbook for managing the conflict. First, it pressures the sides to agree to a ceasefire, thereby minimising the risk of regional instability and re-emphasising Russia’s key role. This then places Moscow in a pivotal position to pursue a settlement that reflects its interests (notably the goal of institutionalising a security presence through Russian peacekeepers) or to manage the conflict until a peace deal it likes emerges. The rapid breakdown of the two ceasefire agreements demonstrates, however, that Russia’s Karabakh conflict management model is no longer functioning as it once did.
The New Geopolitics of the South Caucasus
Over the past decade, the power balances that have underpinned Russia’s position on the Karabakh conflict have shifted. US interest in the South Caucasus has diminished significantly, and the EU has failed to emerge as a strategic regional actor. At the same time, while Moscow has blocked NATO and EU enlargement, it has been unable to fold the South Caucasus into its own security and economic integration agendas. As a result, a power vacuum has emerged that Turkey has sought to fill.
While there has been considerable focus on Turkey’s role in deploying foreign fighters, notably from Syria, to the Karabakh conflict, Turkey appears to be playing a larger strategic role. As European and Eurasian integration has faltered, it has extended its influence via a regional agenda stretching from Libya and the East Mediterranean through Syria and now to the Black Sea and South Caucasus.
Turkish arms sales to Azerbaijan surged in 2020, particularly in the months leading up to the onset of fighting with the supply of many of the weapons systems, such as drones, that have proved critical on the battlefield. In addition to the provision of extensive military assistance, Turkey is reported to have provided intelligence to Azerbaijan ahead of the conflict, and even to have actively encouraged Baku to launch its military operation.
From the outset of the violence, Turkey has publicly supported Azerbaijan’s territorial claims and has been clear about its full backing for Baku’s military actions. Speaking ahead of the 10 October ceasefire, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin declared that the conflict could not be stopped unless Armenia withdraws from Karabakh. A Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement following the ceasefire indicated the agreement ‘is an important first step, but cannot replace a lasting solution’. At the same time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been highly critical of the OSCE Minsk Group for its failure to resolve the conflict.
While Turkish engagement in the conflict has been critical to disrupting Russia’s regional position, Azerbaijan has been carefully dismantling Moscow’s leverage on it. Alongside the increasing reliance on Turkish weapons, Baku has turned to Israel, which is reported to have moved ahead of Russia as an arms supplier to Azerbaijan. In the last year, over 60% of all arms supplied to Baku have come from Israel. At the same time as it has diversified its security ties, Azerbaijan has been careful not to present itself as an enemy of Moscow, nor to signal an ambition to join NATO.
While stressing their own special relationship (‘two states, one nation’), Azerbaijan and Turkey have sought to highlight Russia’s role as patron and protector of Armenia as a means to weaken Moscow’s claim to have a balanced approach to the conflict. Following clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia in July, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev openly criticised Russia’s arms sales to Armenia. During the current round of fighting, Turkey has sought to present Armenia as Russia’s client and has told Moscow to press Armenia to abide by the ceasefire agreements.
Russia Doubles Down on Its Traditional Regional Role
Faced by the failure of the 10 October ceasefire, Russia sought to modulate but not fundamentally alter its approach to the conflict. Maintaining the OSCE Minsk Group as the central pillar for managing the conflict, and this time coordinating efforts with France, as well as re-emphasising its mediator role through its bilateral diplomacy towards Azerbaijan and Armenia, Moscow cautiously began consulting on regional security with Turkey. It has also made clear its red lines and that Turkey is not an equal to Russia.
In an interview on 14 October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Turkey was a partner of Russia but not a strategic ally. Thus, while Russia recognised ‘legitimate’ Turkish interests in Syria, and Moscow is collaborating with Ankara in Libya, he expressed displeasure for Turkish support for Azerbaijan’s military action. Russia has also criticised the alleged use by Turkey of Syrian proxy fighters in the conflict, brought to the region to help Azerbaijan. The message was clear: the South Caucasus remains Russia’s near abroad.
Following this public signalling, after almost three weeks of fighting, the Turkish and Russian presidents consulted directly about the conflict on the same day as Lavrov’s interview. Vladimir Putin indicated that he was ready to discuss the conflict with his Turkish counterpart, and was prepared to recognise that Turkey could provide a ‘constructive contribution’ to a settlement, but that this should be on the basis of the OSCE Minsk process.
Against this background, Russia made a second effort to establish a ceasefire based on the centrality of the OSCE process, which resulted in the agreement of 17 October. Again, however, Turkey sought to outmanoeuvre Russia. Ankara maintained its support for Azerbaijan and on 16 October announced a military cooperation agreement with Ukraine, signalling Ankara’s intent to counterbalance Russia’s Black Sea dominance. Russia’s diminishing abilities to manage the Karabakh conflict were laid bare when the ceasefire was broken on 18 October within minutes of its start.
Russia Caught Between Regionalisation and Internationalisation of the Conflict
While the current ceasefire has faltered, the end of the present round of fighting may nevertheless be nearing. With winter approaching and with Azerbaijan having made enough territorial gains to claim battlefield success and to allow those displaced by the 1991–94 war to return to their former homes, Baku may be ready to call a halt to its offensive. Backed by Turkey and receiving arms from others, Azerbaijan retains the military advantage and appears able to resume military action in the future until it forces Armenia to make concessions through a salami-slicing approach to taking territory.
Beyond the conflict, regional geopolitics are in flux. Turkey’s new activism in Eurasia represents a particular problem for Russia. Having pursued a policy of disruptor and advocate of a multipolar world to counter the Western powers, Moscow is now facing the emergence of precisely these conditions in what it thought of as its backyard. Erdoğan is employing the same sort of low-cost and deniable methods pioneered by Putin to carve out his own zone of influence and spoil Moscow’s efforts to consolidate its position through multilateral approaches.
In this situation, Russia faces a difficult choice. Moscow can continue to pursue a mediator role, but this has already publicly failed. Russia’s carefully crafted balancing position increasingly rings hollow, especially in Azerbaijan. Further, this approach risks Turkey emerging as a regional kingmaker if Azerbaijan achieves its goals through military force. Alternatively, Russia can intervene militarily to deter or even counter Azerbaijan, but that would finally shatter Moscow’s position as a balancing power and lead to the regionalisation of the conflict, with Turkey and possibly Iran becoming more involved.
Unable to bring the fighting to an end through its own initiatives, Russia has for the moment promoted the internationalisation of conflict resolution to try to reinforce its mediator role. On 19 October, the UN Security Council convened at the request of the three OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs and called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to respect the latest ceasefire agreement. Following the meeting, the US invited the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan for talks, raising the prospects that Washington will also become more involved in the conflict.
While broader international engagement helps to improve the prospects of an effective ceasefire and of increasing pressure on Turkey to pull back from its support of Azerbaijan, for Moscow it also brings the risk of diluting its role. Critically, it raises the prospect of the Security Council or the OSCE leading on peacekeeping and ceasefire monitoring, an area that Russia has sought to monopolise in Eurasia.
As the Karabakh conflict enters a potentially significant diplomatic phase, Russia faces a major challenge. If Moscow is to reassert its leading regional role, it will now need to fashion a new pivotal position for itself between the rising activism of regional powers and the increased engagement of international actors.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Director, International Security Studies
International Security Studies