Armenia and Azerbaijan: Contrasting Approaches to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
Azerbaijan and Armenia have very different approaches when it comes to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Over both the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan have found themselves in very different camps. Armenia is a founding member of two Russia-centric blocks, the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In contrast, Azerbaijan joined neither structure. While Armenia has Russian military bases and Russian border guards, post-independence Azerbaijan refused Russian bases. Only after the 2020 ceasefire has there been a Russian military presence in Azerbaijan, and it is under strictly limited conditions.
Armenia has pursued a pro-Russian foreign and security policy that strongly aligns with the Kremlin since 1991. Azerbaijan has pursued a contrastingly multi-vector foreign policy as a member of the non-aligned movement, not seeking to join NATO or the EU while also avoiding Russian-led groupings.
Since 2014, Armenia has consistently voted with Russia against UN resolutions condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Azerbaijan has either voted for such resolutions or abstained. As well as supporting Yerevan’s existing pro-Russian position, it’s easy to see Armenia’s stance as supporting a conscious parallel between the alleged “self-determination” of Crimea and what they see as “Nagorno-Karabakh” having the same right.
Meanwhile, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the West’s inconsistency in its approach to the region. Canada is to supply 40 Wescam surveillance cameras, produced by L3Harris, for Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB2 armed drones. However, in April 2021, under pressure from a vocal Armenian lobby, these same cameras had been banned by Canada for export to Turkey because they were installed in the same drones used by Azerbaijan in the 2020 Karabakh War.
Turkish drones have been used to defend the territorial integrity of both Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
Turkish drones have been used to defend the territorial integrity of both Azerbaijan and Ukraine. In 2020, Azerbaijan liberated its own territory from three decades of Armenian occupation condemned by the UN on countless occasions. Armenian forces have not yet fully withdrawn from Karabakh as stipulated under the 2020 ceasefire agreement. In 2022, Ukraine is defending its territorial integrity from a Russian invasion condemned by the UN and other international organizations.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have forced Armenia to back off from its hitherto full-throttle pro-Russian positions. Russia’s invasion was only supported by Belarus within the CSTO and EEU while other members – including Armenia – abstained. Television and social media footage of massive destruction and murder of civilians, the wholesale destructions of cities such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, and numerous reports of war crimes may be a red line even for CSTO and EEU members, other than Belarus.
Nevertheless, Armenia remains in a quandary because of its deep ties to the Kremlin and reliance on Russia. The Kremlin already distrusts Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan because he came to power in a colour revolution. The influx of Russians, some linked to the opposition, fleeing to Armenia will increase this distrust of Armenian leaders.
Troops from Russian military forces based in Armenia are being sent to Ukraine to participate in the invasion. Faced with high casualties and a growing number of Russians called up in Russia refusing to be sent to Ukraine, the Kremlin is forced to deploy troops from the 6,000 it has at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia.
In addition to drawing on Russian troops already based in Armenia, the Kremlin is reportedly hiring an unknown number of mercenaries from the Karabakh Defense Army with military experience from the 2020 Second Karabakh War, along with pro-Russian Serbian nationalists, and the Syrian regime’s paramilitaries. Taken together, Russian troops from Armenia and foreign mercenaries are unlikely to tip the balance of the war in Ukraine in the Kremlin’s favour. After all, Serbian nationalists have been fighting for Russia since 2014 in the Donbas.
Nonetheless, the call up of such soldiers has a knock-on effect in society. For example, the children of these soldiers at Russian schools in Armenia are promoting the “Z” insignia associated with the extreme nationalism underpinning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The military of a supposedly great power is being seriously challenged in Ukraine. Its casualties are reportedly already higher than those suffered by the US over eight years in Iraq and 20 years in Afghanistan and are fast approaching the level of Soviet losses in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
The heavy resistance put up by Ukrainians, and extensive economic, trade, and financial sanctions are impacting how Russia is viewed in its Eurasian neighbourhood, by China, and internationally. The Russian bear is wounded. Moldova has found the courage to demand Russian forces withdraw from Transdniestr, a breakaway region whose self-declared independence has been maintained through Russian military support for three decades.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is increasing tensions in the South Caucasus as well. Armed clashes appear to be growing between Armenia and Azerbaijan both inside the Karabakh region and along the countries’ shared border. Azerbaijan has repeatedly complained of Russia taking Armenia’s side, as in recent clashes on their non-demarcated border.
Russia has been pulling out some of its peacekeeping forces to replace the Russian troops transferred to Ukraine from bases in Armenia.
Russia has been pulling out some of its peacekeeping forces to replace the Russian troops transferred to Ukraine from bases in Armenia. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is increasing its criticism of the failure of this force to implement the ceasefire agreement, notably complaining that Russian peacekeepers have allowed the Lachin Corridor to be misused. For example, by Armenia sending fresh troops and equipment to the area, an area legally inside Azerbaijan's borders.
Until recently, it would have been unthinkable for Azerbaijan to raise these questions. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, Azerbaijani media and officials are pointing out the inadequacy of Russian “peacekeeping” forces, claiming that they are pro-Armenian and accusing the head of this force, Major-General Andrey Volkov, of involvement in corruption.
Azerbaijan is providing Ukraine with humanitarian aid, and fuel for Ukrainian ambulances has been provided by the state oil company SOCAR. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken thanked Azerbaijan for such solidarity in a 15 March tweet.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced a global crisis and is already having ramifications in the South Caucasus. Countries such as Armenia, closely aligned with Russia, are unsure how to respond to an invasion condemned by most of the world. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has taken a more nuanced position but has grasped the moment to criticize the Kremlin on a range of points, many linked to Russia’s apparent unwillingness to help find a final resolution of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Taras Kuzio is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and the author of the just-published Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War