In November, Russia gained a slice of someone else’s country. This did not happen through unidentified troops crossing the border, nor through hybrid warfare. Instead, he negotiated his capture in full view and without a single question asked by the United States or the rest of the world.
The fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia for Nagorno-Karabakh preceded annexation. The mountainous region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but since the 1994 ceasefire between the two nations it has been controlled by ethnic Armenians. The conflict broke out again in September. Two months later, a peace agreement was reached, with Russia as the winner: it brokered a ceasefire that put the Kremlin’s ostentatious peacekeeping boots on the ground. America watched idly as this happened.
As the traditional protector of Armenia, Russia had the only advantage to convince Armenia to sign this ceasefire. Upon signing, Yerevan gave up claiming the territories he had occupied within Azerbaijan since 1994 and won nothing – except a ceasefire instead of forced surrender. In exchange for ensuring slightly less humiliation for its ally, Moscow was given a gift and a presence.
In reality – unless the United States is prepared to fully engage in the peace process – Nagorno-Karabakh is now Russia’s indefinitely. The Kremlin ostensibly controls the territory for five years, with automatic scrolling for another five, if none of the three parties to the ceasefire oppose it six months before the end of the term.
Russia will certainly not do so. It is now the guardian of a central region for Europe’s energy diversification (reducing the role of Russian imports). If the region is strategically important to NATO, that makes it strategically important to the Kremlin.
Armenia, distrusting Azerbaijan, will want the peacekeepers to remain. The short but brutal conflict has conclusively proved that Armenia cannot win militarily and that, therefore, ethnic Armenians must accept the government of Azerbaijan or the protectorate of Russia. Weak and broken, Yerevan finds it less humiliating to accept Russian tutelage in Nagorno-Karabakh, if only to deny an archenemy complete victory. But this is a long-term disaster for Armenians. This means that they are effectively trapped in a Russian embrace. They cannot turn west and they cannot turn east – either diplomatically or for investments – because the Russians are now in charge.
Although traditionally considered by Moscow to be “on the other side”, Azerbaijan – due to the warm support of the United States and the EU in recent years – has continuously deepened diplomatic and economic relations with Russia, partly out of necessity and lack of alternatives. However, now, with Russian military boots on the territory of Azerbaijan for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow’s influence has also become an economic advantage: by militarily securing a transport corridor through Armenia – closed before the cease- fire – for Azerbaijan’s Nakhichevan enclave, Russia now controls Azerbaijan’s long-sought direct land route from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and Europe.
The West could certainly have predicted this. That’s how it always starts: a footrest soon turns into a footprint. Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, Abkhazia – the list of examples continues. The Russian presence becomes Russian control: the only logic of Putin’s neoczarist ambitions.
In fact, now, just a few weeks after the troops were deployed, the Kremlin is maneuvering: the lines on the maps have started to fold and flex. On the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense, a page shows a map outlining the area where Russian peacekeepers, according to the terms of the agreement, are to be stationed and will have jurisdiction to operate. On December 13, miraculously, the lands they controlled expanded. This was changed back to the original the following day, after diplomatic pressure from Azerbaijan. But this activity shows that Kremlin cartographers are getting creative – and too early in this intervention.
Now rumors about the Russian “passport” in Nagorno-Karabakh are mounting. The fabrication of new demographic realities on the ground, granting citizenship, has been used to maintain influence on the internal affairs of other post-Soviet nations. Since the Russians occupy the area, the Russian state is thanks to enter.
It is a classic in the Kremlin repertoire. It preceded the invasion of Crimea. It happened in two regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, again before the start of the wars, with Russia coming out as the main beneficiary. More recently, the passport has been aggressively implanted in eastern Ukraine, through an optimized and useful process. The Kremlin predicts that there will be more than a million Russian citizens carrying newly minted documents by the end of the year. In all of these situations, Russia’s control is secure.
The passport would mean that a negotiated agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh’s final status – which should be some form of autonomy within Azerbaijan, as in Soviet days – will never materialize. Instead, it will become a protectorate with a Russian passport, giving Russia the pretext – or in the Moscow lexicon, the legal right – to enter the region should any imaginary threat arise to its “citizens”.
Considering the US-led assistance now being poured into Ukraine after Russian destabilization, it is surprising that more precautionary measures are not being taken in the South Caucasus.
However, there is time for America to intervene: the ceasefire will give way to negotiations for a final peace agreement, with much still to be decided. The United States must oppose the passport completely and widely. American companies must invest in infrastructure and energy projects in the region, in order to limit Russia’s leeway. And US-led joint investment initiatives between Armenia and Azerbaijan would help to reduce their dependence on Russia.
It is time for the United States to intensify diplomatic and economic efforts and to reinsert itself in this process. Otherwise, Russia’s empire will continue to expand without control.