Russia Is Worried About Challenges in the Caucasus

The Nagorno-Karabakh war’s aftermath is still impacting Moscow’s plans.

By , a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute.
A military training course in Armenia.
A military training course in Armenia.
Volunteers and reservists take part in a military training course in Yerevan, Armenia, on Oct. 22, 2020. Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images

The first two weeks of 2022 have been eventful and consequential ones for Russia and its neighbors. Last week, Russia sent troops into Kazakhstan via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in response to widespread unrest, while this week Russian officials have been engaged in a series of high-stakes talks with U.S. and NATO officials over Ukraine. However, there is another region that has been overlooked but that may prove to be just as dynamic in the coming weeks and months: the Caucasus.

Already, there has been an uptick in military hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan along their shared border in recent days, more than a year after large-scale fighting between the two ceased, just as envoys from Armenia and Turkey held their first round of talks on political normalization in Moscow on Jan. 14. Both of these developments can be seen as ripple effects from the brief war that broke out over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in late 2020, a conflict that led to the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces to the region and to a recalibration of the political and security landscape of the area. In turn, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has served as both a strategic backdrop to, and important precursor of, the events currently unfolding in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Russian military deployments in the post-Soviet space may have various causes and motivations, but each has at its root a fairly straightforward objective for Moscow: to entrench its influence as the dominant external power in the region and to prevent or limit the influence of other external powers. For example, in the case of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014, it was to limit the influence of the West, including the European Union and especially NATO, following a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv. The same was the case for Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008, coming just months after Georgian and Ukrainian membership aspirations were recognized by the bloc at the Bucharest summit.

The first two weeks of 2022 have been eventful and consequential ones for Russia and its neighbors. Last week, Russia sent troops into Kazakhstan via the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in response to widespread unrest, while this week Russian officials have been engaged in a series of high-stakes talks with U.S. and NATO officials over Ukraine. However, there is another region that has been overlooked but that may prove to be just as dynamic in the coming weeks and months: the Caucasus.

Already, there has been an uptick in military hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan along their shared border in recent days, more than a year after large-scale fighting between the two ceased, just as envoys from Armenia and Turkey held their first round of talks on political normalization in Moscow on Jan. 14. Both of these developments can be seen as ripple effects from the brief war that broke out over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in late 2020, a conflict that led to the deployment of Russian peacekeeping forces to the region and to a recalibration of the political and security landscape of the area. In turn, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has served as both a strategic backdrop to, and important precursor of, the events currently unfolding in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Russian military deployments in the post-Soviet space may have various causes and motivations, but each has at its root a fairly straightforward objective for Moscow: to entrench its influence as the dominant external power in the region and to prevent or limit the influence of other external powers. For example, in the case of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014, it was to limit the influence of the West, including the European Union and especially NATO, following a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv. The same was the case for Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008, coming just months after Georgian and Ukrainian membership aspirations were recognized by the bloc at the Bucharest summit.

Moscow’s intervention in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020 was intended to stem the tide of territorial losses by Russia’s ally and fellow CSTO member Armenia at the hands of Azerbaijan, which was more independent and not an institutional ally. But the manner and timing of Russia’s intervention also had elements of self-interest, enabling Moscow to maintain ties with both Baku and Yerevan.

Stepping in was meant also to limit the influence of Turkey, whose security support for Azerbaijan via weaponry including TB2 drones proved pivotal in helping the country’s forces break through Armenian defenses. Thus, Russia intervened as a mediator to oversee a cease-fire and transfer of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia to Azerbaijan, which was painful to accept for Yerevan but at the same time was much less than what Armenian forces would have otherwise likely lost on the battlefield. Armenia and Azerbaijan both agreed to the Moscow-brokered armistice, with its implementation consisting of the deployment of 2,000 Russian peacekeepers in November 2020.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict highlighted Russia’s regional power status and Moscow’s continued ability to shape events, but it also revealed that Moscow’s influence has limitations. After all, Russia’s preferred outcome would have been the prewar status quo, but Azerbaijan, along with its own ally in Turkey, was able to forcefully challenge this status quo. This challenge substantially raised the profile of Ankara in the region, with Moscow agreeing to a joint Russian-Turkish monitoring center to oversee the cease-fire implementation and Russia having no choice but to acknowledge the important regional power role played by Turkey.

The year since has also revealed key constraints to Russia’s influence in the region. Despite the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh, both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces have violated the cease-fire on a periodic and sometimes deadly basis. And Turkey has been able to leverage its increased influence for its own political and economic gains, most notably in its support for Azerbaijan’s regional transport and infrastructure initiatives and its diplomatic outreach to Armenia to resume trade and flights, and to revive the long-dormant process of political normalization.

To be sure, Russia has played an important part in all of these discussions, but Moscow is no longer the only major actor in shaping the geopolitics of the Caucasus. While Russia’s military presence in the region mitigated the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it has not been enough to prevent eruptions of violence or to bring about a sustainable peace. In the meantime, Turkey has proved its willingness and ability to directly challenge Russia in the region, even as the two countries cooperate in other spheres such as energy and weapons sales. The world is becoming more multipolar, which can serve as both a benefit and a challenge to entrenched powers—including Moscow.

This brings us back to the unfolding events in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In the Ukrainian case, Russia is still trying to push back against the political, economic, and security influence of the West, while seeking guarantees against the prospects of NATO enlargement it has fought to avoid. In Kazakhstan, Russia is less worried about the West, but it could see its position as the dominant external power giving way to others, including China and perhaps even Turkey. While Russia has established a pragmatic division of labor of sorts with China in Central Asia, Moscow cannot be sure this working arrangement will last forever. And Russia can be even less sure of Turkey’s intentions, considering that the two have been on opposing sides of conflicts in such areas as Syria and Libya, and that Turkish TB2 drones are now being sold to the likes of Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Thus, there is a broader connection between what is happening in the Caucasus and the events that are unfolding in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Kremlin finds its dominant power status in the former Soviet periphery being challenged from numerous directions, and Russia’s CSTO deployment in Kazakhstan and its military maneuvers along the Ukrainian border are intended to show that Moscow is both able and willing to use military force to maintain its position as the dominant regional power in the post-Soviet space.

However, such military actions may only take Russia so far, and they have their own risk of blowback. For example, Russia has to consider that its CSTO deployment to Kazakhstan may set a dangerous precedent, as other member states like Armenia are no strangers to mass protests and unrest. For example, if violent demonstrations were to erupt in Armenia in the future, would Russia have to intervene again? And if so, could it be certain such an intervention will succeed? Such questions could become increasingly relevant as Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to stare each other down and Turkey and others look to expand their position in the region. The Caucasus may soon prove to be no less dynamic and consequential than Eastern Europe or Central Asia, both for Russia and the powers with which it contends.

Eugene Chausovsky is a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as senior Eurasia analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

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