Karabakh offensive brings wins to Erdogan, Putin
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Karabakh offensive brings wins to Erdogan, Putin

Police officers detain a protester during an anti-government rally in downtown Yerevan on Friday, following Azerbaijani military operations against Armenian separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Photo: AFP)
Police officers detain a protester during an anti-government rally in downtown Yerevan on Friday, following Azerbaijani military operations against Armenian separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Photo: AFP)

As Armenia called on Russian peacekeepers in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region to step in to stop an offensive by Azerbaijan this week, pro-Kremlin pundits in Moscow took to social media to mock Armenia's leaders for their recent efforts to build relations with the West.

On Wednesday, Azerbaijan announced a ceasefire they said had been brokered by Russian peacekeepers that would disarm Armenian-speaking separatists who had controlled much of the region since the 1990s.

It appeared to represent a significant failure for Western diplomacy. Both US and EU officials had worked hard to restrain the Azerbaijani government from launching a renewed attack this year, while Armenia held joint training drills with US forces earlier this month in what was intended to showcase greater ties between the former Soviet republic and the West.

Armenia has also been considering joining the International Criminal Court, which would infuriate the Kremlin given the current ICC arrest warrant against Russian leader Vladimir Putin for Kremlin actions in Ukraine.

Relations in that immediate region, have ever, are far more complex than a simple binary confrontation between Russia and the West.

While US and Russian officials called for a ceasefire on Tuesday at the UN General Assembly in New York, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the only major leader to endorse the Azerbaijani offensive. He called on Nagorno-Karabakh -- which remains widely internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan -- to be thoroughly reintegrated into that country under the government in Baku.

In 2020, Azerbaijani forces fought a 44-day war with Armenia but saw them seize control of roughly a third of Nagorno-Karabakh.

That conflict demonstrated the effectiveness of Azerbaijan's Turkish-equipped military, including the widespread use of combat drones to destroy Armenian tanks -- while, again, Russia appeared to largely sit back and watch events before helping secure a ceasefire.

Turkish media covered this week's "new Azerbaijan victory" extensively, with the pro-government Sabah newspaper saying Azerbaijan had shown its "fist to Armenian militants who overstepped the mark". Another pro-government newspaper, Turkiye, said the offensive came in "response to spoiled Armenia, which placed its trust in the West and Iran".

Those comments all point to the mounting complexities of not just the immediate Armenia-Azerbaijan dynamic but also the broader Caucasus, Central Asia and entire post-Soviet space, in which multiple local governments are scrambling both for their own ends and to take advantage of larger powers keen to retain and grow their influence.

Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine -- as well as a much smaller military intervention in Kazakhstan a few weeks earlier -- were intended to demonstrate the Kremlin's ability to dominate nearby regions it once ruled directly.

Instead, Russia's struggles in Ukraine have shown the limits of its power -- but also prompted new efforts to retain its influence elsewhere.

Those have so far been of mixed success. The Kremlin has been somewhat effective in persuading the once pro-Western Georgia to chart a more neutral or pro-Moscow path.

In central Asian nations such as Kazakhstan, Russia must now contend with simultaneously growing influence from China, India, Turkey and Iran, all extremely complex partnerships for Mr Putin.


Unlike Azerbaijan, Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) alongside several other post-Soviet states. But Armenian calls for Russian military support, first in 2020 and then this week, appear to have fallen largely on deaf ears.

That may be because the country is already seen as having gone too far in embracing the West, but also potentially because the Kremlin does not wish to further complicate the already complex relations that it has with Mr Erdogan and Turkey.

In the run-up to this week's attack by Azerbaijan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Russia's preoccupation with Ukraine meant he could no longer act as the "protector" to the region. But he said it would be some considerable time before Western actors, particularly the US and European Union, were able to offer significant protection.

In reality, Western commitments to Armenia have been relatively light, although a visit by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi in September 2022 was seen by many in the region as a sign of wider US support.

The joint US-Armenian "Eagle Partner" drills that began on Sept 11 are also extremely small, involving 85 US personnel and 175 Armenians practising peacekeeping operations.

A US military spokesperson said the drills were unaffected by the outbreak of fighting this week and would continue as planned before concluding later in the month.


Azerbaijan said it gave Russia advance notice of its military operation, but Armenian officials say this warning was not passed on by Moscow. In the run-up to the attack, however, pro-Kremlin voices were increasingly vociferous in suggesting that Armenia faced being imminently humbled for its embrace of the West.

Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov described the Armenian leadership as having "long ago betrayed Russia".

Earlier this week, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev -- now chairman of Russia's Security Council -- wrote cryptically that someone from a "brotherly country" who had flirted with Nato faced an uncertain fate.

Margarita Simonyan, editor of Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT, compared Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan to Judas, while Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov said the joint drills with the US went against the "spirit" of the CSTO partnership.

What will happen now to Nagorno-Karabakh remains not entirely clear. Since the 2020 war, the only route from the separatist region into Armenian territory -- the so-called "Lachin corridor" -- has been controlled by Russian troops, although there have been reports of Azerbaijani checkpoints being set up along the route to effectively blockade supplies reaching Nagorno-Karabakh itself.

Russian officials said they had facilitated the "evacuation" of at least 2,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh overnight along that route, prompting Armenian claims that an outright ethnic cleansing of the separatist region might now be underway.

Should that take place, it would doubtless be accompanied by expressions of Western anger, perhaps even limited sanctions -- although it is doubtful there is much appetite for a confrontation with Mr Erdogan, particularly given the ongoing need for Turkish agreement to bring Sweden into Nato.

For now, it appears that Azerbaijan has won, Turkey has deepened its influence in the region, and Russia has a powerful anecdote to demonstrate the limits of Western support to countries in the region.

For Mr Putin, unable to visit the UN General Assembly this week due to the ICC warrant against him, that likely feels like a productive week. Reuters

Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.

Peter Apps

Reuters global affairs columnist

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist.

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