An Oligarch Rising: for Armenia and Russia 

Duff Crerar
Ruben Vardanyan, who recently renounced his Russian citizenship to move to Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region, has assets of around 1 Billion and close ties to Russia’s leader. Image:

There is always trouble brewing along the Lachin Road, but no gunfire this time. Since December 12, a new form of confrontation has Azerbaijani demonstrators blocking the Lachin Road shouting ecological slogans and accusing Armenian secessionist inhabitants of environmental terrorism by pillaging precious mineral ore from Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russian peacekeepers initially tried, with difficulty, to isolate the protesters but now seem to have reached a kind of sullen acceptance of their presence. The spur for the protests was when an official delegation from Baku’s Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources was barred from making an inspection visit by the secessionist Armenian leaders, notably Ruben Vardanyan. Vardanyan is a Russian tycoon of Armenian descent who took Armenian nationality in 2021 and, as of 2022, announced that he had renounced his Russian citizenship and was moving to rump-NK. There, he was promptly appointed “Minister of State” by the area’s so-called “President” Arayik Harutyunyan. Vardanyan provocatively told Azerbaijani officials that Karabakh was “his zone.” 


In the meantime, Azerbaijanis have dubbed Vardanyan an agent of Moscow, seeing him as a man who has demanded independence for rump-NK and wants the mineral trove as the economic backbone of its self-sufficiency. In contrast, many separatists in Karabakh have hailed Vardanyan as their protector. As an oligarch and friend of Vladimir Putin, he is seen by some to be consolidating the Russian and local forces for a possible standoff with Azerbaijan. Many secessionists, and their allies in Armenia, perhaps, see him as a white knight placed strategically to “save” both Karabakh and, in the future, his adopted homeland, as someone who could reconcile a distracted and perhaps negligent Russia with a neglected Armenia. 


Vardanyan (and sympathetic Armenian press) presents himself as a sacrificial risk taker who will lead the “abandoned” Armenian people of Nagorno-Karabakh – population estimates have shot up mysteriously from 40,000 to 120,000, adding demographic weight to their "plight" - and with Vardanyan broadcasting emotional stories of starvation and deprivation in Karabakh from the Lachin blockade. Meanwhile, former Azerbaijani ambassador to Canada, Farid Shafiyev, has warned that while ore has been going out, military supplies, including land mines, and Iranian operatives, were on the trucks going back into the contested area. If true, any more militarization of the Karabakh is going to provoke a crisis, sooner or later. 


Vardanyan, former chief executive officer and shareholder of the Troika Dialog Russian investment bank (bought by Sberbank in 2011), has assets (according to Forbes in 2021) of $1 Billion. But what looks like another oligarch-ally of Vladimir Putin jumping ship and finding shelter in a safer place than Russia (and dodging sanctions) may not hold up under closer scrutiny. In fact, his arrival in Karabakh may be a brilliant and subtle move placing what seems to be a noble and philanthropic powerbroker in a position to maneuver himself eventually towards becoming Yerevan’s leader when Armenians need a “saviour,” and Russia needs Armenian backing. On 11 January 2023, Eureporter printed an article by the International Foundation for Better Governance, asking, “Is Moscow Scheming for Ruben Vardanyan to be President of Armenia?” proposing a Putin re-run of his making Denis Pushilin head of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Vardanyan’s positioning by allies as a philanthropist (the benefactor of several religious and educational causes) also has given him a purchase on the default sympathy for Armenia in the West. However, assuming he remains close to Putin, he has the potential to subtly take command and exert strategic control from Yerevan, after springboarding an ascent to power from Karabakh.  


There are problems with his self-proclaimed altruism: Vardanyan has, like many of Putin’s oligarchic circle, been under suspicion for money laundering from offshore companies, transferring funds to Sergei Roldugin and other Putin cronies. He was a close advisor to the President of the Russian Federation while running the Troika Dialog. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists linked him and other oligarchs with the notorious Panama Papers. Twenty members of the EU Parliament demanded an investigation of his activities in 2019, and he is also on the sanctions list of Ukraine and the United States. His post in Karabakh, seemingly backed by Moscow, and implicitly supported by Russian troops there, effectively crowned him the power behind the territory – a region considered as part of Azerbaijan by the UN and under international law. This makes him a security thorn in Baku’s side.  


Armenia’s nationalists have been grumbling about the conciliatory tone and peacebuilding efforts of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who has agreed with Azerbaijan to recognize the countries’ essential territorial integrities. Nevertheless, gold, molybdenum, and copper from Karabakh were flowing down the Lachin road. Vardanyan has called for more Russian troops, and Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, has blamed Yerevan for resisting his offer. Azerbaijan has called for Western sanctions against Vardanyan. From Baku’s perspective, Azerbaijan has behaved with restraint. In what may be a brilliant countermove, it stopped the flow not by force but with the headline-getting and sympathy-garnering cause of environmentalism. Vardanyan, from his post, can represent Kremlin disapproval (but not interference) in Azerbaijan’s influential oil exports to the West and Israel, and at the same time, offer himself as more sympathetic to the Armenians in rump-NK than Yerevan. 


In one theory Vardanyan could replace Pashinyan as a stronger Armenian leader (as suggested by the Versiya and Hraparak newspapers last September), mend fences with Russia, and facilitate even closer relations with Tehran, which has announced its sympathy for Armenian security. Given reports that Iranian missiles and drones have been seen in Iran Air Cargo flights from Yerevan to Moscow, this would indeed be a satisfying outcome for Putin, warns Eureporter, which only a group of Azerbaijani ecology activists and skeptical reporters seem to form a bulwark against.