A Crimea scenario: Kyiv concerned that Putin will invade Karabakh

The Russian Federation, together with Armenia, is about to invade the Karabakh region, currently under Azerbaijani control, Mykhailo Podolyak, advisor to the Ukrainian president, warned in an interview with television channel Moldova 1.

His alarm call comes against the backdrop of yet another bout of tension in the region.

Environmental activists from Azerbaijan are blocking the only road connecting Karabakh to Armenia over suspicions of illegal mining in the area.

According to Yerevan, it is a “road blockade backed by Baku” and Armenian authorities are calling for an intervention by Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in the region. Azerbaijan denies the allegations, pointing out that the protesters have “concerns about illegal Armenian mining activity”.

Tensions started a month ago, after Moscow appointed infamous Russian-Armenian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan, known for the Troika Dialog international money-laundering scandal, as leader of the unrecognised enclave in November. The territory of the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) has practically been under control from Moscow and Yerevan in recent months.

The deepening of the conflict is made obvious by the ever more confrontational and threatening statements of the two opposing sides. “120 000 people are facing a humanitarian catastrophe,” Vardanyan said on December 22 2022 in his address to the Spanish parliament on the subject of the road blockades. According to UN data, however, the people faced with that situation in Karabakh are about 40 000 in number, as over 90 000 Armenians moved to the Armenian Republic when hostilities erupted in the region.

On January 12, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev gathered media representatives in Baku and spoke sharply against Yerevan and the NKR, saying Armenians in Karabakh had to “either get Azerbaijani citizenship or leave the country by themselves or on the trucks of the peacekeepers”.

According to Podolyak, Moscow’s numbers for the ethnic Armenians in Karabakh are three times higher than what they actually are. This brings tension to the negotiating table between Yerevan and Baku, who are trying to reach a peace agreement two years after the start of the 2020 war for control over the region.

‘Moscow is trying to pressure Azerbaijan and Turkey’

Podolyak believes that Russian president Vladimir Putin is trying to divert the attention of the international public and the media from what is happening in Ukraine and redirect it to other conflicts.

“The idea is to water down the media agenda in Europe, where the war in Ukraine is on the front pages,” Zelenskyy’s adviser thinks.

He emphasises that the war effort requires key resources and other kinds of aid from the European community: “The emergence of another hotspot on another country’s territory can distract the attention.”

In his view, Russia is trying to resort to that solution by reviving the Karabakh crisis.

Putin’s political goals, according to Podolyak, include resuming the dominant position within the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO): “Demonstrating that Russia can act as intermediary in solving conflicts of this type, including along the Armenia-Azerbaijan axis.”

According to Zelenskyy’s adviser, Moscow will try to use its support for military action on behalf of Yerevan in order to put “some pressure” on Baku and Ankara in an attempt to make them “a little more pro-Russian in their function as intermediaries”.

Podolyak is referring to Turkish president Erdogan’s diplomatic role in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, as a head of state who is on good terms with both Putin and Zelenskyy.

The Ukrainian politician thinks the Kremlin will try to follow the Crimea scenario – i.e. say there is such a large Armenian population in Karabakh, an intervention needs to be made there, and then announce everything is being held under control.

The author of this article reached out to Mykhailo Podolyak for comment on his statement that Moscow is preparing to open a second front in Europe in the Karabakh region, and to discuss Kyiv’s cooperation with Sofia, where parliament and the defence ministry are finally preparing to send military aid to Ukraine.

By the time this article was ready for publication, no comment had been received. According to a staff member at Podolyak’s office, the questions would be forwarded but he was “extremely busy” lately, the politician’s aide explained.

Hybrid war and the ‘saving-our-countrymen’ demographic

“Russian security services are considering scenarios for globalising the conflict by creating new hotspots,” Ukrainian MP Igor Popov, who is also president of the Politika think tank, wrote in an article for the Kyiv publication Telegraph.com.ua.

“The synchronised claims about the number of Armenians, repeated by the Moscow-appointed NKR leader as well as by Russian representatives, follows the matrix used by Putin in the invasion of Crimea, Donbas, the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions,” Popov writes.

In his view, in all Russian campaigns in those regions Putin used the same trick.

On March 18 2018, for example, talking about the annexation of the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea, he said there were “millions of Russian people” living there, oblivious to the fact that Crimea is mainly populated by Ukrainians, Tatars, Greeks and even Bulgarians.

On February 24 2022, the Russian president spoke about recognising separatist enclaves DPR and LPR (i.e. the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics) on the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine.

“That nightmare had to be stopped immediately – the genocide against the millions of people living there.”

On September 30 2022 he tried to explain why the territories in Eastern Ukraine controlled by his army were being recognised as “subjects of the Russian Federation”.

“There is nothing stronger than the determination of those millions of people who consider themselves part of Russia,” Putin said at the time.

In the same fashion, on December 20 2022 Konstantin Zatulin, the deputy chairman of the Duma committee on the CIS, Eurasian integration and compatriot issues said on Russia’s state Channel 1 that “There are 120 000 Armenians remaining in Karabakh.”

However, according to statistics by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 91 000 Armenians abandoned the region for the Republic of Armenia when the war broke out in the autumn of 2020.

According to Russia’s defence ministry data from February 26 2021, 57,712 persons returned after the end of the Karabakh hostilities – a number more than twice as high as that in Azerbaijan’s statistics and the estimates of international organisations.

In comparison, data from the Vatican’s Catholic foundation Aiuto alla Chiesa che soffre (ACS) collected in October 2021 in Karabakh indicates that even before the war the Armenian population in the enclave already numbered just 103,000 people and not 120,000

When the war ended on November 10 2020, around 25 000 of the 91 000 evacuees returned. That means that the actual number of Armenians in Karabakh shrank from 103 000 to less than 40 000 (i.e. 103 000 – 91 000 + 25 000).

Moscow and Yerevan’s claims about the numbers of Armenians in Karabakh are therefore at least twice or three times as high as they are in reality.

According to Popov, Yerevan and Moscow are inflating the numbers of Karabakh Armenians in an attempt to cover up the hidden migration flow toward Russia, where people have been moving in search for jobs.

To “compensate” for the mass exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh before the war, in 2015 the authorities accommodated Armenians fleeing from Syria in the region, reports by Deutsche Welle and RFERL say.

Another reason for inflating the demographic data is, according to Ukrainian analyst Popov, the attempt to justify the claims to 20% of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory, which was occupied by Armenia with support from the Russian armed forces in the interval 1991-1993.

According to a number of former USSR experts, juggling with the demographic data for the Karabakh population seeks to rekindle the conflict between Yerevan and Baku.

“Under the guise of protecting the local population the ground is being prepared for bringing in extra numbers of Russian troupes to the region, in order to ultimately annex the territory on behalf of Russia’s satellites,” Popov writes.

There is an obvious parallel with Putin’s steps, touted as “help for the Russian-speaking population”, on his way to annexing territories in Crimea, Donbas and Eastern Ukraine.

Lyudmila Marchenko, Ukrainian MP for Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, compared Azerbaijan’s position with that of Ukraine in an interview with TV Rada. She said the countries had been forced to fight “a war on their own territory” and to face “genocide on the local population”.

“I have been there, I’ve seen it with my own eyes – a very similar scenario for the annihilation of people, political pressure and the plundering of Karabakh and Azerbaijan’s resources,” the MP said.

What are Moscow, Yerevan and Stepanakert saying?

Based on a 2020 ceasefire agreement, Moscow dislocated a peacekeeping contingent in the region. Azerbaijan in turn agreed to ensure free movement along the Lachin corridor linking Armenia to Karabakh. Yerevan claims that Baku is not adhering to the agreement and demands that Russian forces do more to remove protesters. The Kremlin is trying to project a picture of concern, criticising not only Baku, but also Yerevan, over the lack of dialogue.

It is well known that Armenian authorities called off the peace treaty negotiations with Azerbaijan because of the border crisis caused by the blockade of the road to Karabakh. The talks were scheduled to take place in December 2022 in Moscow, mediated by Russian authorities. Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan raised the question of the inaction of Russian peacekeepers – that could mean it was time to consider replacing them with international ones.

“The Lachin corridor – the road that has been blocked – was supposed to be under the control of Russian peacekeepers, and the Republic of Azerbaijan was supposed to ensure the free passage of people and goods along that road, Pashinyan said on 27 December 2022 at his meeting with Putin in Saint Petersburg, quoted by AFP and TASS.

Tensions have been growing since then and in January Pashinyan cancelled the participation of Armenian troupes in CSTO military exercises. “We are not criticising the work of Russian peacekeepers, we are just expressing our concern,” Pashinyan said on 10 January.

The decision angered the authorities in Moscow. “It is difficult to assess Yerevan’s position, when their official statements differ so widely,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, quoted by Bulgarian news agency BTA.

In her words, Pashinyan’s decision to leave the negotiating table was the hindrance to the peace agreement between the two countries in the conflict.

“If our Armenian partners are indeed interested in solving these issues, they should continue to work with us instead of engaging in scholastics,” Zakharova said.

Opposition in Yerevan is also irked by the fact that despite Armenia’s membership in the CSTO, their formal ally Moscow is not helping to clear the road blocks maintained by Azerbaijani citizens.

At the same time, authorities in Stepanakert – the capital of the so-called NKR – have been voicing a separatist rhetoric over the last few years, urging Moscow to annex Karabakh through a referendum. The same rhetoric was heard from Yerevan last year, when a former head of the Armenian delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly called for a referendum in Karabakh, “like it was done in Crimea in 2014”.

Moldova and Ukraine’s concerns

Ukrainian media are warning that claims of an alleged over 100,000 Armenians “isolated” in Karabakh could lead to the next step in Moscow’s game in the region. That would involve a demonstration of sympathy on Putin’s behalf for his allies in Yerevan and an intervention by Russian peacekeeping forces monitoring the situation in Karabakh into the conflict. The undertaking would likely be presented as a ‘humanitarian mission’.

It remains to be seen if the Council of Europe, the UN and the European Union will intervene to prevent a second war in the Caucasus in the span of just three years, which would present an additional threat to the continent’s security. But it is certain that by not interfering they are definitely allowing Putin’s and Erdogan’s regimes to control security in the region through their defence industries working in support of Yerevan and Baku, as well through their crisis diplomacy and mediation.

In any case the leading regional organisation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992 was the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), comprised of 12 former Soviet republics. But after Putin’s 5 days of war on Georgia in 2008 and the invasion of Crimea and Donbas in 2014 the CIS has in effect broken up. The countries that were faced with separatist conflicts influenced by Moscow on their territories have practically splintered off, creating their own regional organisation for collective defence and duty-free trade – GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova). That is the explanation for the strong reactions to the Karabakh situation in Ukraine and Moldova, where Russian troupes have been illegally present for years on the countries’ sovereign territory.

Diplomacy in Sofia should also have its own position on the issue, since Bulgaria has sizeable Turkish and Armenian minorities among its population. At the same time Bulgarians from the Bessarabia and Tavria regions are living in several countries in Eastern Europe: in Moldova, in Transnistria, as well as regions such as Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine, parts of which have been annexed by Moscow and where Bulgarian lessons at the local schools have been banned.

(Photo: A restored Armenian T-72, knocked out of commission while attacking Azeri positions in Askeran District, serves as a war memorial on the outskirts of Stepanakert. KennyOMG)

  • Partnership Bulgaria-Ukraine. This article originally appeared in Bulgarian in Dnevnik)

Nikolay Marchenko

Niklay Marchenko is deputy editor-in-chief of Bivol.bg and a contributor to Kapital. He is also the author of the Russian-language online versions of the international publications The Insider and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, OCCRP. He formerly was the correspondent for Russia's Kommersant in Bulgaria, and has worked for Sega, among other publications, in Bulgaria, Moldova and Russia.