Azerbaijan’s victory hurts a Putin critic, but pushes Armenia toward Western allies

A woman watches the address of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in downtown Yerevan on September 20, 2023, as separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan's authorities announced they would cease hostilities
Nikol Pashinyan gave an address after separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh announced they would cease hostilities with Azerbaijan - Karen Minasyan/AFP

Azerbaijan’s defeat of ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh may have dealt a blow to a Kremlin critic but it will also push Yerevan towards the West.

After a 24-hour Azerbaijani attack, ethnic Armenian forces surrendered. This completes a major military success for Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, who celebrated reuniting all of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Azerbaijan restored its sovereignty,” Mr Aliyev said.

Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s prime minister, has been badly damaged by the loss of the disputed region and protests could threaten his government.

“Yerevan is already gripped by the anti-government protests,” said Alex Melikishvili, a principal research analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Ilham Aliyev
Ilham Aliyev spoke of Azerbaijan's sovereignty being 'restored' by the attack - ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

And Azerbaijan’s victory may also please Vladimir Putin, who analysts say will view protests in Yerevan as both retribution for the indignity of being criticised by Mr Pashinyan and also a warning to other leaders of ex-Soviet states who are drifting away from his sphere of influence.

Mr Pashinyan has become an outspoken critic of Russia and has tried to reorient Armenia’s diplomacy towards the West. He said that the war in Ukraine had weakened the Kremlin and that Moscow had failed to protect Armenia’s sovereignty.

For Putin, an arch-colonialist who believes in the divine right of Moscow to rule over its neighbours, this may have been too much.

Stephen Hall, assistant professor of Russian politics at Bath University, said that the Kremlin may have encouraged Mr Aliyev to attack ethnic Armenian forces.

“[The Kremlin] could have said to him: ‘Why not finish the job? We are not going to do anything about it,” Mr Hall said.

The Kremlin imposed a peace deal after a five-week war in 2020 that left Azerbaijan with most of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also left ethnic Armenians in control of Stepanakert, the region’s largest town.

Protesters sit in front of law enforcement officers near the government building during a rally to support ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh following Azerbaijani armed forces' offensive operation
Protesters n Yerevan are unhappy with the government's handling of the Nagorno-Karabakh and the fate of ethnic Armenians - REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

There is also evidence to suggest that the Kremlin may have known that Azerbaijan was planning an attack.

Russian peacekeepers failed to intervene to stop the attack, just as they had failed to stop Azerbaijan’s military from building a blockade across the only road that connected Nagorno-Karabakh with the Armenian mainland, and one of the main sources of information on the attack was a Telegram channel known to be linked to the Russian security service.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, also said that Azerbaijan was acting within its “de jure” territory in retaking parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that it didn’t already control.

More cryptically, perhaps, Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president, also left a sardonic message on his Telegram channel aimed at Mr Pashinyan shortly after the start of the Azerbaijani attack. He referenced the leader of a once “fraternal country” who had turned away from Russia to court Nato, only to be defeated in a war.

“Guess what fate awaits him…” he said.

‘Armenia can look for other allies’

But Stephan Rindlisbacher, a research associate at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt, said that although the Kremlin may now be enjoying Mr Pashinyan’s headaches, Azerbaijan’s victory also posed problems to its own authority.

“With Nagorno-Karabakh gone for good, Armenia can look for other allies,” he said.

Yerevan is currently hosting a military exercise with the US and has encouraged closer links with Nato, but former Soviet states in central Asia and the South Caucasus, which have also increased contact with the West, may now see a Kremlin realpolitik trap that left Armenia hanging.

“The EU doesn’t want to alienate Azerbaijan and its energy resources,” said Rasmus Nilsson, a lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London. “The US has neither time nor energy to spend on any kind of military assistance to Armenia.”

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