Prospects of an Armenian Lead, Russian Private Military Company in Karabakh
The Wagner Group is the private military company of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In recent years it has been playing an increasingly visible role in conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and now in Ukraine. Despite their formal state-run status, forces led by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov also carry many features of a private army. Will Russia expand the practice of attaching private labels to its operations? This is a pressing question for the area of Karabakh, Azerbaijan, where Russia’s military presence is under strict time pressure for withdrawal by 2025.
The issue is all the more timely in the wake of events at last week’s CSTO meeting in Yerevan, which gave hints that the idea of a private army is already influencing the long-standing alliance between Russia and Armenia.
Yerevan CSTO Summit
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a Russia-dominated military alliance on the eastern flank of NATO, including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. The group held a high-level summit on November 23, 2022, which, outwardly at least, will be remembered for two key moments, apparently indicating a growing distance between Armenia and Russia. First, the refusal of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to sign its concluding declaration starkly countered the historically established practice of demonstrating unity among CSTO members. But also, less formally, the group photo moments (see video from 14:35 to 15:00) where Pashinyan was caught on camera looking to stand as far away from Putin as possible.
However, from an Azerbaijani perspective, the most significant event happened right after the Summit when Pashinyan refused to accept the sole mediation of President of the European Council Charles Michel at the December 7 meeting with Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev, insisting that French President Emmanuel Macron also attend as co-mediator as in previous rounds. For Azerbaijan, this is considered untenable after media comments by Macron that were interpreted by Aliyev as ‘insults’ that implied to Baku that the French president could not be considered a neutral agent.
Baku sees Pashinyan’s insistence on Macron’s attendance as derailing the peace process. In that context, Azerbaijani commentators question the optics of the Yerevan Summit. Behind the very public distancing of Pashinyan and Putin, had there been something more significant? What we do know is that Putin met Pashinyan at the airport on his arrival to Yerevan and gave his host a ride to the city. What they discussed, confined in the presidential limousine car beyond the reach of the press or any Armenian official, is unclear. But it could be more important than the rest of the Summit.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the CSTO has essentially lost its unity. Member states did not support Russia in its military action. They complied with international sanctions against Russia to the extent that Russia’s MIR electronic payment system was banned practically everywhere. Even Belarus, the closest of Moscow’s allies, has been seeking ways to avoid confrontation with Ukraine. It’s a fine balance.
The CSTO has also lost its significance as an instrument for potential Russian interference with the domestic affairs of member states. Shortly before the Ukraine war, the CSTO was used to re-format the domestic politics of Kazakhstan as the transition from one president to another hit public dissent. However, now cornered, Russia needs neither the bloc’s unity nor an organizational format to interfere in anybody’s affairs anymore. The Ukraine war has demonstrated that Moscow can find a pretext for intrusion into, for example, Kazakhstan, regardless of the fact that the latter has just assumed a 3-year chairmanship role in the CSTO. Russian officials have been on long record claiming violation of the rights of numerous ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan.
As the CSTO’s cohesion wanes, Russia has been returning to bilateral arrangements with member states. Some of those may harm the CSTO public profile, but who cares if the organization is dead anyway?
As explained above, from Baku’s perspective, the primary outcome of the Pashinyan-Putin meeting was the cancellation of the December 7 talks in Brussels rather than the dubious show of distancing Yerevan from Moscow. Just a few hours after the meeting, the Armenian side contacted Baku to communicate that Charles Michel alone was not enough to mediate the talks and that French President Emmanuel Macron should be present. Given the two anti-Azerbaijani resolutions adopted by the Senate and National Assembly of France on November 15 and 30, 2022, respectively, it seems apparent from an Azerbaijani perspective that Armenia wanted Macron in Brussels not as a mediator, but as an advocate.
Yet this move by Pashinyan serves the Kremlin’s interests in the South Caucasus much better than all the commentary on the non-signing of the CSTO Declaration in Yerevan damaging the vanishing unity of the alliance. The slower the pace of peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the easier it becomes for Moscow to argue for the prolongation of its military presence in Azerbaijan beyond 2025.
My question is, what could drive Pashinyan into the embrace of Putin if he was not there from the very beginning?
Russian Private Military
Let’s return to the idea of Russia’s ‘private armies.’ According to the Ukrainian government , Russian officials may be attempting to counterbalance the political influence of the Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin through the promotion of other such private military companies. This official Kyiv source asserts that Armenian-Russian businessman Armen Sarkisyan, the new administrator of prisons in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, together with another Armenian-Russian businessman Samvel Karapetyan, long-time subcontractor of Gazprom, are co-sponsoring one of such projects.
Russia has been reluctant to use its official military forces for the needs of Armenia. Not only would that directly spoil Moscow’s relations with Baku, but there are Russian parochial nationalists to consider. Russian public opinion would question the advantage of Russian boys dying all over again in Armenia’s ethnic wars while so many Armenians live prosperously and safely in Russia. With Ukraine still unsettled, another not-so-popular war is not what the Kremlin needs.
The prospect of a powerful private military company emerging in Russia under Armenian command could have persuaded Pashinyan that Russian forces may de facto stay in Karabakh beyond the approaching 2025 deadline – but unofficially, as a private military company. This would help his government bolster itself at a time of intense pressure from the openly pro-Russian opposition. It would obviously be entirely against the interests of Azerbaijan.
On November 17, 2022, President Aliyev publicly criticized as unacceptable the attempts to install another Russian oligarch – Ruben Vardanyan – as a representative of the Armenian population of Azerbaijan. He said Vardanyan was “sent by Moscow” with a “clear agenda” and “billions stolen from Russian people.” Baku will view the Armenian-led Russian private military company as part of the same plan.
In the meantime, the very assertion that Charles Michel, whose job is to bring together 27 heads of EU member states, is not a good enough mediator for Armenia smells so much of the Kremlin that now French president Macron is caught in an awkward situation. If he silently agrees with Pashinyan and does not call on him to trust Brussels, then fears circulating in Baku that Paris and Moscow have been acting in concert to undermine peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia will gain more serious ground.
Aybaniz Ismayilova is the Director for Government and Public Affairs at GL Ltd. and a former Head of the Fundraising and Communications Department of the Karabakh Revival Fund. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.