Despite Turkey’s growing presence in the Caucasus, Russia preserved its role of regional arbiter. On January 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to discuss the implementation of the peace deal that ended the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2020. What are the crucial segments of the new agreement that the three leaders signed in Moscow?
According to the document, the measures involve the restoration and construction of new transport infrastructure facilities necessary for the organization, implementation and security of international transportation through the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Republic of Armenia. In other words, as the Azeri leader pointed out, Armenia will have a railway connection with Russia through Azerbaijan, while Yerevan undertakes to ensure a stable rail connection between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan through Armenian territory.
The very implementation of this deal would de facto limit Yerevan’s sovereignty over significant section of southern Armenia where the Russian security services would be escorting Azerbaijani military convoys from mainland Azerbaijan on their way to Nakhchivan. This is one of the reasons why many Armenians strongly oppose the Moscow-brokered truce agreement that Pashinyan signed with Aliyev on November 9, 2020. From the Armenian perspective, the realization of the Nakhchivan corridor is a continuity of their defeat. Once the road is completed, Yerevan will lose the last trump card it had vis-à-vis Azerbaijan.
The trilateral agreement, signed on January 11, has another critical problem — a potential withdrawal of at least one party from the deal implementation means the termination of the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers who were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh in November. The Russians are formally located on Azerbaijani territory, which means that, in the event of the collapse of the agreement, they will be forced to leave the zone.
At the same time, Turkey remains an ally of Azerbaijan, and Baku perfectly understands that without direct Turkish assistance, victory in the war would be, to put it mildly, very problematic. That is why Ankara remains above the fight and above the game, but at the same time it is a full-fledged participant in the process. According to some reports, the Turkish military is already in Azerbaijan, and their status is outside the framework of the trilateral agreement. Although Baku denies that Ankara plans to establish military bases in Azerbaijan, such a scenario is more than likely. The Turkish goal is an explicit military presence in the energy rich region, where Ankara was previously represented only implicitly. Therefore, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdodan did not have to travel to Moscow to meet with leaders or Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. He was represented there by Aliyev.
Pashinyan, on the other hand, is the leader of a defeated country, which means that he had to sign any document that was presented to him. The main question, however, is why is Putin twisting Pashinyan’s arm and making him sign humiliating capitulation deals. The Kremlin propagandists, traditionally, blame Pashinyan claiming that he is “an agent of the US billionaire George Soros”, and that he is responsible for the Armenian defeat. Still, it remains unclear why Moscow did not prevent “Soros’s agent” from coming to power in May 2018, nor why it refused to get involved in the conflict and protect its ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Officially, Azerbaijan was not at war with Armenia, but was fighting Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh forces, which means that Armenia, as CSTO member-state, has not been attacked. However, there were several reports of Azerbaijan shelling Armenian territory, and even destroying Armenia’s air defense systems. Still, such actions never resulted in Russia’s direct intervention.
It is also worth noting that, on November 9, Azerbaijan’s Armed Forces downed a Russian military helicopter over Armenia. Russia never responded. Such a passive Russian position was a clear message to Yerevan that it cannot count on Russia’s support against Baku. At the same time, it was another demonstration of Russian weakness. Given that Moscow left its ally in the lurch, and failed to punish Azerbaijan for downing a Russian Mi-24, the Kremlin will now look weak in the eyes of its numerous geopolitical opponents. In spite of that, Armenia remains heavily dependent on Russia, and such dependency will likely continue to grow. Pashinyan’s room for political maneuvers is very narrow which is why he had to make significant concessions to Putin, even if that means realization of the Nakhichevan corridor project.
Russia, on the other hand, used Armenia as a bargaining chip in its lucrative energy deals with Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. Long before the war, Russia’s energy giants Rosneft, Gazprom and Lukoil signed very important business deals with Baku, despite the Kremlin’s nominal alliance with Yerevan. Finally, the Caucasus region is of crucial importance for both, Moscow and Ankara, since it has significant natural gas and oil reserves. Thus, at least from the time being, Armenia’s position will remain overshadowed by the Kremlin’s business interests in the region.