Putin’s Tilt on Flashpoint Region Exposes Rift With Ally Armenia

A week before Azerbaijan began its lightning military campaign to force the surrender of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and take full control of the contested region, Vladimir Putin signaled Russia wouldn’t stand in the way.

(Bloomberg) — A week before Azerbaijan began its lightning military campaign to force the surrender of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and take full control of the contested region, Vladimir Putin signaled Russia wouldn’t stand in the way.

Since Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had recently recognized that Nagorno-Karabakh was part of Azerbaijan “what is there to discuss?” Putin said at his flagship Eastern Economic Forum in Russia’s Vladivostok on Sept. 12. “Armenia determined the status of Karabakh itself. That is all there is to it.”

His words may have amounted to a green light for Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to begin Tuesday’s attack despite the presence of some 2,000 Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh tasked with maintaining a truce that Putin himself brokered to stop a 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. When some of those peacekeepers were killed in the two-day assault, Russia made no threat of retaliation. Aliyev apologized in a phone call with Putin on Thursday, the Kremlin said.

Officials from Baku and Nagorno-Karabakh held their first meeting Thursday aimed at the “reintegration” of the region into Azerbaijan more than 30 years after its majority Armenian population declared independence during the Soviet Union’s collapse. Nagorno-Karabakh’s Defense Army will disarm and disband under the deal mediated by the Russian forces to end the fighting.

Thousands of angry protesters have taken to the streets in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, accusing Pashinyan of selling out their ethnic kin in Nagorno-Karabakh and blaming Russia for failing to come to the aid of its ally against Azerbaijan.

“Russia was essentially preparing its society and, to some extent, the Armenian society, for betrayal,” said Areg Kochinyan, president of the Security Policy Research Center in Yerevan. There’s a widespread view in Armenia now that Russia is “an adversary state and isn’t perceived as an ally in any way.”

Armenians are blaming Putin, though Pashinyan surrendered Nagorno-Karabakh by acknowledging that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity included the region, said a Kremlin official, asking not to be identified discussing sensitive issues. The Armenian leader is seeking to get closer to the US, the person said.

Pashinyan effectively accepted Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh following the 2020 war, though he was seeking an international mechanism to ensure the security of the region’s Armenian population before Aliyev began the assault. 

Putin and Pashinyan spoke by phone late Wednesday where the Russian leader “noted with satisfaction that it was possible to overcome the acute phase of the conflict,” according to a Kremlin readout. The Armenian readout said only that they discussed Nagorno-Karabakh and “touched upon” their bilateral relations.

The Tiny Region Azerbaijan and Armenia Fight Over: QuickTake

Aliyev spoke by phone Wednesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who’d backed Azerbaijan’s offensive that was condemned by the US, France, Germany and the European Union. The two leaders, who have a defense pact, also discussed “prospects for strategic allied relations,” according to a statement from Aliyev’s office.

While Russia and Armenia have a mutual-defense pact, too, there’ve been increasing strains in the relationship as Pashinyan’s outreach to the US and the European Union has angered the Kremlin. He told Italy’s La Repubblica in an interview published Sept. 3 that Armenia’s reliance on Russia for its security was a “strategic mistake” and questioned whether Moscow would stay in the region as the war in Ukraine saps its military capabilities.

Armenia skipped drills with the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in Belarus earlier this month after expressing anger at Moscow’s lack of support in the conflict with Azerbaijan. Days later, the Defense Ministry in Yerevan infuriated Russia by announcing joint military exercises with US forces to increase Armenian readiness for cooperation with NATO.

The day after Putin spoke at his economic forum, Pashinyan told Armenian lawmakers that his government will go ahead with full ratification of the Rome Statute to join the International Criminal Court. That would effectively bar the Kremlin leader from Armenia after the court issued an arrest warrant against Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine in March.

All of this prompted the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to summon Armenia’s ambassador and complain about “unfriendly steps,” including a decision to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukraine and to send Pashinyan’s wife to visit Kyiv. 

The United Nations Security Council is due to discuss the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday after France requested an emergency hearing. In a phone call with Aliyev on Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the need to guarantee the rights and security of people living in the region.

Thousands of Armenians displaced by the fighting have fled to Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital, Stepanakert, with many gathered near the airport, There are fears of an exodus from the region to Armenia by people unwilling to live under Azerbaijani rule after decades of enmity between the two sides. 

Aliyev said in a televised address late Wednesday that he hoped Armenians would stay and added that their rights would be provided for as citizens of Azerbaijan.

Thursday’s talks in the Azerbaijani city of Yevlakh ended after about three hours, local media reported. The discussions were held in a “constructive and positive atmosphere” and the two sides agreed to meet again soon, Ramin Mammadov, Aliyev’s special envoy for Karabakh negotiations, said, according to the Azartac state news service.

–With assistance from Gina Turner, Sara Khojoyan and Zulfugar Agayev.

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