“Our unit had an order to attack the Azerbaijanis’ positions; however, another order came from the top to change the target and attack the Armenians’ positions. These kind of contradictive orders were ordinary in this war,” says a Georgian former soldier who served in the Soviet/Russian army located on Armenian territory during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between 1988-1991. The theory says that a conflict between neighbouring states can emerge on the grounds of ethnic tensions, religious differences, border uncertainty, spilling-over of internal problems and other factors. Additionally, conflicts can also be instigated by a third party. These types of conflicts are the most complex to solve and the solution normally depends on political tradeoffs, big political games that are a matter of political logrolling or exchange.
For Russia, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus never lost its significant importance. As a former metropolis of the Soviet Union, Russia still retains its influence over the region. To understand Russia’s dualistic approach to its foreign policy and its Near Abroad in particular, we should glance through the history of tsarist Russia, continued in the same manner by the communists and finally Putin’s re-emerged informal doctrine of neo-imperialism.
The Russian Empire, which reached the peak of its magnificence in the first half of the 18th century, adopted a classical and common to all empires approach to its neighbours, lands, peoples and competing powers. Empires were always driven by the ambivalent stimulus of acting, rationally and irrationally. In the case of the Russian Empire, the examples of rational behaviour were to expand its influence over Azerbaijan as a bridge-head to Persia in the beginning of the 19th century, and later to do the same due to its energy rich territory. Controversially, the occupation of the Baltic states in the mid-20th century, and the bloody response to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 had a huge component of the Russian Empire’s irrational behaviour.
As today’s Russian Federation is a successor of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union itself is a successor of the Russian Empire, it is easy to understand that its foreign-policy behaviour is a rudiment of the old imperialistic approach which still remains in the brains of the Russian ruling elite of the old school KGB nomenclature.
Russian participation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was a fusion of the above-mentioned rational and irrational behaviour. By aggravating this conflict, Russia was able to accomplish a number of objectives: the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and Georgia’s neutral position in this situation makes the hypothetical integration of the South Caucasus region impossible, therefore undermining the possibility of turning it into a huge geopolitical centre with likely joint foreign aspirations.
The only way for Russia to retain its military presence in Gyumri, Armenia, is to be a guarantor of Armenian security and defence. Thus, due to the conflict, landlocked Armenia is forced to seek allies as it is surrounded by Turkey, with whom it has no diplomatic relations, Azerbaijan with whom it is in a state of war, Iran from the south and Georgia from the north that for certain reasons cannot be considered as reliable strategic partners. Therefore, Armenia’s pro-Russian orientation is determined by the geopolitical situation on the one hand, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the other.
The Russian political establishment also hopes that the existing conflict provides more advantages for Russia in its relations with Azerbaijan. The existing political configuration of the conflict allows for Russia’s prolongation of possession and operation of the Gabala Radar Station, which is extremely important for Russia to control 6,000 kilometres of Azerbaijan’s border. Azerbaijani politicians take into consideration that Armenia is in an alliance with Russia in the format of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which operates similar to NATO’s 5th article principle saying that an attack on one of the members of the alliance is considered an attack on all members. This particular circumstance makes Azerbaijan’s policy more accurate and in some cases loyal to Russia.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has been somewhat of a guarantee for Russia that the two countries would not express any NATO aspirations, which is a very sensitive issue for Russia. Russia can have a full control over the situation if one of the conflict sides shows any interest to NATO. Russia has great leverage to stop NATO enlargement to the East and particularly in the South Caucasus by retaining the status quo of the existing conflict. Russia uses the same leverage with regards to the EU enlargement policy.
At the beginning of September 2013, during a visit to Moscow, the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, announced Armenia's readiness to join the Russian-led Customs Union: “I confirmed Armenia’s decision to join the Customs Union and participate in the processes of formation of the Eurasian economic union,” said Sargsyan, which proves that the Armenians greatly depend on Russia, especially with regard to their foreign policy aspirations.
Russia also hopes that by controlling the situation in the South Caucasus it can manipulate the energy policy and in particular hinder further development of alternative energy channels to Europe. Central Asian and Caspian energy resources are considered one of the ways of ensuring European energy security that would result in Russia’s losing its monopoly position in the European energy market.
These and some other vested interests that are driven by Russia’s policy in the South Caucasus could be considered rational. However, there are irrational incentives that make Russian policy obscure and difficult to understand because of its emotional origins. These emotions are remnants of Russian imperialism which seriously restrain its development and transformation into Western culture. The expansion of Russian borders as far as is possible, washing the Russian sapog (boot) in the Indian Ocean, expanding its influence in Europe and making the whole world scared of Russia, are all the neo-imperialistic dreams of the Russian political elites.
Until the new generation of Russian policymakers realise that this kind of political romanticism should be replaced by the real politics, rational behaviour and respect towards common international rules, Russia will not reach the level of stable development and prosperity.
Nika Sikharulidze is the Chief Advisor with the Office of the National Security Council of Georgia.