MOSCOW—After several weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested mountain region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians have all but stopped hoping for any help from their ally Russia.
Under a mutual defense pact known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—the Russian equivalent to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—Moscow has pledged to send troops to defend member states like Armenia if they are under attack. But Armenians aren’t holding their breath, even as the death toll mounts and Azerbaijan gains ground in the contested region thanks to their superior drone power.
“Every Armenian all across the world feels an existential threat to our nation,” an Armenian politician, Arthur Paronyan, told The Daily Beast. “But nobody expects the CSTO to help. It is a dead organization.”
Rather than sending troops, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to broker a ceasefire in Moscow in early October. But the peace agreement quickly fell apart, and Putin acknowledged in a recent speech that the war in Nagorno-Karabakh has become more deadly than either side is admitting. Putin said the fighting has killed 5,000 people on both sides. “We have a conflict in its worst form,” he said.
Putin has not, though, acknowledged any Russian obligation to intervene despite the mutual defense pact with Armenia. The agreement covers risks to the territory of the Russian ally, and while most of the fighting is in the Nagorno-Karabakh region—which is internationally recognized as belonging to Azerbaijan—some artillery strikes have in fact hit mainland Armenia. Russia’s cautious stance signals that the credibility of the Russian defense pact is becoming another casualty of the war.
Paronyan said Russia might still intervene secretly, as it has in Ukraine with soldiers out of uniform, known as “green men,” though this would not formally meet the treaty obligations. “There are hopes that Russia has other ways of helping, like sending green men,” he said. “We are not picky.” So far, Russia has not deployed soldiers to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh but there are Russian boots in Armenia. Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan said earlier this week that there are Russian border guards on the Armenian border with Nagorno-Karabakh.
If 5,000 people have indeed been killed in a month of fighting, the war would clearly be the most deadly now in the former Soviet Union, an area where Russia has presented itself as a protector of stability. This casualty figure is about a third of the deaths reported by the United Nations over six years of fighting in eastern Ukraine. This week, the countries kept fighting through another ceasefire, this one negotiated and announced by the Trump administration. Azerbaijan said Armenia had fired rockets at a civilian target, while Armenia’s defense ministry said rockets hit a city in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The countries have been clashing over the territory in the mountains, the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, for three decades since a brutal war in the ’90s that killed 30,000 and displaced one million—but the escalation that began in September is the worst since a previous ceasefire in 1994. Armenia is a member of the CSTO, the military alliance of seven out of 15 former Soviet republics, where Russia plays the key role. Azerbaijan quit its membership in 1999.
Fuad Akhundov, head of the Public and Political Affairs department at Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration, told The Daily Beast the CSTO treaty should not apply to the current conflict. “This is a war on the territory of Azerbaijan—we are pushing Armenian military away from Azerbaijan’s territory,” he said. “Nobody has attacked CSTO; on the contrary, as a member of this organization, Armenia is breaking a United Nations resolution which is recognized by CSTO,” Akhundov said, referring to a 2008 U.N. resolution that declared Nagorno-Karabakh to be Azerbaijan’s territory and demanded “the withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories.”
Russia’s position—it has sold weapons to both sides, even as it attempts to mediate the conflict—risks alienating not only Armenians close to home, but also members of the large Armenian diaspora, who are watching the conflict closely. “Together, we continue to pray during this difficult time for the many men, women and children who have been impacted by the war. We are one global Armenian nation,” Kim Kardashian, who is Armenian American, wrote in one of her recent social media posts.
The war in the South Caucasus is not the only hotspot for the Kremlin among CSTO member states. Political and security crises have erupted in one after another this year. Russia’s key ally, Belarus, has been gripped by civil unrest after an election widely seen as rigged. In its capital, Minsk, police fired rubber bullets and threw stun grenades at protesters on Sunday. “We are disarmed! We are disarmed!” peaceful protesters yelled to riot police during the “People’s Ultimatum” march, which demanded the resignation of the country’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. Hundreds of thousands have been joining rallies all across Belarus since early August. Human rights organizations report that police are beating and torturing hundreds of Belarusian opposition activists.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov also dryly noted what he called “a mess and chaos” in Kyrgyzstan, a post-Soviet country in Central Asia, and also a member of the CSTO, which is undergoing its third revolution since the fall of USSR.
“The entire system of security that Putin has been trying to build for the last two decades is crumbling, cracking and demonstrating failures,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, told The Daily Beast. “The Putin dream to rebuild authority and loyalty of post-Soviet countries would work only if Russia could afford to be constantly paying, donating aid to its partners. But clearly, even money cannot buy Russia’s authority back.”
Earlier this year, residents of Russia’s neighboring countries criticized the Russian president for his clumsy calls to reintegrate Soviet states for their own benefit. On a show called “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin,” which was broadcast on Russia’s Channel One, Putin— speaking in his manner of a teacher lecturing students—urged the post-Soviet countries to “overcome some phobias of the past, overcome fears about the revival of the Soviet Union and the Soviet empire.” He added: “Joining efforts is for the benefit of all, [and] makes this way inevitable.”
But Putin’s comments about the “advantages” of reuniting former Soviet states wasn’t welcomed by all. After the broadcast, a Baku-based analytical center, the Institute for Strategic Analysis, reminded the Russian president of the Soviet Union’s “decades of shameless colonial robbery, repression, including against national intelligentsia, mass deportations, ‘hunger genocide,’ redrawing the borders.”
Moscow’s newest alternative for uniting former Soviet countries, the Eurasian Economic Union, emerged a few years ago. Russia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Kazakhstan signed a treaty with Russia in 2014-15, at the beginning of the regional economic crises, shortly before the Kremlin annexed Crimea and faced economic sanctions both from the European Union and the United States. But even Russian public opinion about the new alliance seems confused: 28 percent of Russians believe that this is a new version of the USSR, while 39 percent of people would like to see a completely new union, different from the original Soviet model.
With Kyrgyzstan in “chaos,” Belarus in constant political unrest, and Armenia at war, the Eurasian Economic Union represents a rather unstable entity. According to a Moscow based analyst, Yuriy Krupnov, that is entirely the fault of Russia’s unwillingness to commit real economic resources to the project. “There is only one solution for solving the crucial issues in our allied states: to create one strong union state, not some mere form of a civilized divorce, otherwise the cost for consequences will be more dramatic than many imagine today,” Krupnov said.
For now, the former Soviet states may be on their own when it comes to war and peace. Tom Dewaal, author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, says that it is up to Baku and Yerevan to prevent a bigger and even a bloodier war without end. “I don’t think Russia wants to intervene and go to war with Azerbaijan. Inaction is the lesser of two evils for them,” Dewaal told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “They help discreetly.” Dewaal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, believes that if Russia ends up at war with Azerbaijan, it would be bad on many levels, including for Dagestan, Russia’s troubled region on Azerbaijan’s border.