On March 5, 2023, five people – three Armenian policemen and two Azeri soldiers – were killed in fighting between Azerbaijani troops and ethnic Armenian law enforcement in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan and Armenia each accused the other of being responsible for the incident.
Both sides were also critical of the Russian peace keeping contingent's ineffectiveness. When the second Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in November 2020, Russia's ability to introduce a peacekeeping contingent was viewed as a major success that somewhat compensated for Turkey's prominent role in Azerbaijan's victory during the war. Now this peacekeeping force is facing complaints from both sides. Additionally, Baku and Yerevan have indicated that they are willing to listen to suggestions from Brussels and Washington.
Two Western diplomats visited Baku and Yerevan almost simultaneously: EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Toivo Klaar and U.S. State Department Senior Adviser on Caucasus Negotiations Lewis Bono. Klaar sought to clarify that the EU was not seeking to dispute the significance of Russia's peace keeping mission. This was not a game for the EU, contrary to what the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova had declared. The EU wanted to help its neighbors in overcoming the legacy of the conflict and, in this case, Brussels had the same interest as Moscow and merely wanted to supplement its efforts.
Russian daily Kommersant's foreign affairs analyst Maxim Yusin, in an article titled "Moscow is Being Criticized from Both Sides Today," claims that what looked like a diplomatic triumph in 2020 has become an embarrassment for Russia. Yusin believes that Azerbaijan allows itself to toy with the Russian peacekeeping contingent secure in the knowledge that given Moscow's massive military involvement in Ukraine, it cannot engage in another confrontation. At the same time, Russia is too dependent on Azerbaijan's patron – Turkey. As a result, any move that Moscow makes will result in a further deterioration of its position.
Yusin's article follows below:
Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh (Source: Ria.ru)
The situation in and around Nagorno-Karabakh has once again escalated to the breaking point. This occurred after the death of five people (three Karabakh police officers and two Azerbaijani soldiers) during a battle on a backroad linking the region to Armenia.
As usual, the sides put forward directly opposite versions of events. The Armenians claim that the Azerbaijani military set an ambush into which the Nagorno-Karabakh Interior Ministry Passport and Visa officers fell. Three of them were killed, and one heavily wounded.
SUPPORT OUR WORK
The Azerbaijanis insist that they thwarted "an illegal attempt to smuggle military equipment, ammunition, and personnel" from Armenia into Karabakh. Judging by the video evidence that appeared, the Armenian version is closer to the truth – footage promptly provided by the Karabakh authorities depicts movements of Azerbaijani troops, which do resemble those of a commando group.
Whatever the case may be, one fact is beyond doubt: the battle occurred in the Russian peacekeeping contingent's zone of responsibility. This circumstance immediately sparked a wave of criticism of Moscow, both in Baku and in Yerevan.
Armenians reproach the peacekeepers their inability (or unwillingness) to end the blockade of Karabakh that was essentially imposed by the Azerbaijanis. It's precisely because of this blockade, and the checkpoints set up by the so-called 'environmentalists,' that the people of Karabakh find themselves in a desperate situation.
Baku is unhappy that the peacekeepers allow Armenian security forces to travel on backroads in their area of responsibility, which facilitates the possibility of unauthorized arms trafficking into the region. And in general, Azerbaijanis believe that the Russian command is working too closely with the separatists' security forces.
In this situation, both sides are trying to apply psychological pressure on Moscow, but each in its own way. Baku is skillfully taking advantage of the fact that Russia is mired in Ukraine and cannot allow itself to open another front. And it gradually destabilizes the border by taking forceful actions in the peacekeepers' area of responsibility in Karabakh and even outside of Karabakh, attacking positions in the territory of Armenia itself (which is an ally of Moscow, a member of the CSTO, and theoretically under the protection of this military bloc).
In reality, however, things are different: Moscow is clearly not in a position to defend its ally in the South Caucasus by complicating relations not only with Azerbaijan, but also with a currently much more important partner – Turkey. Baku is well aware of this, and therefore behaves so boldly and sometimes even brazenly, as evidenced by the very same blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yerevan is not happy with the situation and is also trying to influence Moscow, but in a different way, through geopolitics.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan's team at every opportunity demonstrates to the Kremlin that it can choose the West as its main mediator, protector, and sponsor. It is no coincidence that Yerevan has recently sharply intensified its contacts with European and American representatives, it is also much more eager to discuss the exit strategies from the conflict with Azerbaijan in Brussels rather than in Moscow.
Nikol Pashinyan (Source: Rbc.ru)
It is indicative that it is the media and Telegram channels associated with Nikol Pashinyan and his team that have been the harshest towards Russia since the escalation in Karabakh. However, it is not certain that this tactic will be successful. It cannot be ruled out that the Kremlin's reaction will be exactly the opposite, as blackmailing Russia with Armenia's possible rapprochement with the West will only cause further irritation towards the prime minister of the republic, whom many in Moscow already view with skepticism.
But for Russia, too, to use a chess analogy, the situation increasingly looks like a zugzwang, where every possible move only worsens one's position.