Losing in Ukraine, Putin destabilises Karabakh

Moscow is rocking the boat in Karabakh and other separatist regions such as Transnistria and Abkhazia to distract the world’s attention from the war in Ukraine, in which it is losing all initiative, according to Volodymyr Kreidenko, co-chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament’s group for inter-parliamentary relations with Azerbaijan.

The emerging tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia comes after, in November 2022, Moscow sent Russian-Armenian billionaire and media mogul Ruben Vardanyan, infamous for the international “Troika Dialogue” affair, to head the “ Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” (MKR), the unrecognised enclave in practice controlled by Moscow and Yerevan.

The formal occasion is the protests by Azerbaijani environmental conservations who resent the fact that the separatists in Karabakh and the authorities of Armenia are engaged in illegal mining of minerals and inert materials in the troubled region. This is why they regularly block the road between Karabakh and Armenia, to prevent lorries with fossil fuels from leaving the region.

For this reason, negotiations on a bilateral peace treaty, which have been ongoing since the 44-day war between the two countries in November 2020, have been suspended.

Negotiations, however, were suspended in December 2022 because of the refusal of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to meet with Aliyev in St. Petersburg under the mediation of the Russian Federation, which, according to him, did not engage its peacekeepers against the “blockade” of Baku.

The MP from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party is another politician in Kyiv to raise the alarm about the irresponsible behavior of the Kremlin, which is supporting the authorities in Yerevan and Stepanakert in the ever-increasing escalation of the conflict with Baku.

Recently, Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser in the Office of the President of Ukraine spoke about Moscow’s attempts to destabilise the region in order to possibly create a second front in Europe, adding that Russia and its satellites are trying to undermine the situation in other regions occupied by the Kremlin and its allies.

No blockade, but tension is growing

Stepanakert and Yerevan continue to claim that there is a “blockade” on Karabakh. Ruben Vardanyan does not stop sounding the alarm about “restrictions” on the passage of vehicles with peacekeeping and humanitarian functions on the Lachin-Khankendi road.

“We get nothing but what the Red Cross and Russian peacekeepers manage to supply…The Red Cross only has two lorries and 15 cars. The amount of food and medicine that the Russian peacekeepers bring is also limited,” Vardanyan told the BBC.

In spite of such statements by Pashinyan and Vardanyan, there are no data on the real “blockade” of the road between Karabakh and Armenia by Azerbaijan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan regularly reports on the number of motor vehicles that passed on the Lachin-Khankendi road, including those of Russian peacekeeping forces and international humanitarian organisations.

The situation in the so-called Lachine Corridor is, however, so complicated that the intervention of world powers was necessary. Washington and Paris clearly do not want the Armenians and Azerbaijanis to exchange fire on the outskirts of Europe again while the war in Ukraine engages Nato forces in an unprecedented way.

Not surprisingly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Ilham Aliyev on January 23 2022 to express concern over the faltering normalisation of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. “There was no blockade on the Lachin-Khankendi road,” Blinken assured Aliyev.

He gave statistics according to which, since December 12, 2022, the passage of about 980 vehicles has been ensured on this road, 850 of which belong to the Russian peacekeepers and 120 – to the International Committee of the Red Cross. In addition, according to Aliyev, the International Red Cross has transported about 90 patients living in Karabakh for treatment in Armenia.

Aliyev is of the opinion that Yerevan initiated the crisis along the border with the development of mineral deposits in 2021. According to him, it is important to stop “the illegal exploitation of mineral deposits on the territories of Azerbaijan, where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily stationed “. For this purpose, he called for the provision of access for the purpose of “continuous monitoring” to the deposits in Karabakh for the authorities of Azerbaijan.

On January 26, 2023, the Azerbaijani president provided explanations about the situation in and to Paris, during a meeting with the ambassador of France in Baku Anne Bouillon. According to him, the passage of about 1000 vehicles in both directions is ensured at this moment.

Skewers and steaks. An experiment showed the absence of hunger in Karabakh

Not only is there no “blockade”, “humanitarian catastrophe”, but also no “famine” in the Karabakh region, no matter how much the propaganda of the pro-Kremlin regime in Stepanakert claims otherwise.

Ukrainian MP Volodymyr Kreidenko initiated a debunking of Russian propaganda regarding the “famine” in Karabakh due to the alleged “blockade” of Baku through a social experiment.

He took the initiative to personally demonstrate how the Kremlin’s propaganda cases work on the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. He arranged ordering of food online from restaurants in the city of Khankendi, the capital of Karabakh, which Armenians call Stepanakert, to demonstrate that there is no famine there.

Thus, orders were placed in 10 establishments, restaurants, pastry shops in Hankendi/Stepanakert and no deliveries were refused. Turns out there was no problem ordering dinner for seven people with any of the menu items. For example, an order for 14 portions of shashlik, seven portions of beef steak, Artsakh, Caesar and Tabbouleh salads, red wine and lemonades cost 140 000 Armenian drams or $355. Average pizza prices are 3.5 thousand drams (about $9) and grilled trout costs about 5.8 thousand drams or $15 per portion.

What did the experiment show? In the video about the experiment, it can be seen that the local catering establishments in Khankendi offer a wide range of dishes for every taste and operate without restrictions on time and number of visitors.

Thus, the experiment shows that the information that restrictions on the operation of public catering establishments have begun to be introduced in the region due to the alleged “lack of food products” and the need to “save energy” is absolutely false.

“We see a social experiment that is spreading on YouTube – activists manage to order food in Karabakh without any difficulties, which clearly shows that there is no humanitarian disaster,” Kreidenko said.

The full version of the reality check experiment can be found on Volodymyr Kreydenko’s Facebook page or in the his Telegram channel. This video refutes the fakes about the lack of food in Karabakh and the restrictions on the work of local restaurants, cafes or hotels.

Putin and his second front in Europe

The whole world can observe “the real humanitarian catastrophe organized by Russia itself” in the temporarily occupied territories in Ukraine, said the MP from Zelenskyy’s party.

“We see great amounts of deaths, we see a humanitarian catastrophe, we see broken houses, infrastructure – and all this is just the result of the control and occupation of the Russian Federation of the territory of an independent country,” Kreidenko said.

The Ukrainian MP believes that in order to prevent such a humanitarian catastrophe in Karabakh, Azerbaijan opposes any attempts by the Russian Federation to destabilise the situation in the region, including through the media.

According to the MP, Baku continues to support Ukraine “in the struggle for the democratic values of the free civilized world”. At the same time, in his interview with the BBC, Vardanyan refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, which is another proof of his loyalty to the regime in Moscow.

“Against the background of its full-scale war against Ukraine, Russia, through its satellite in the face of Armenia, does not allow attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of Azerbaijan,” Kreidenko said.

He said that the immediate crises that Moscow created, successively, in Transnistria (Moldova), Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), Crimea and Donbass was how Russia brought real “hunger and ruin” to the post-Soviet space.

What is the goal of the Kremlin’s game in the South Caucasus? Putin may, together with Armenia, invade Azerbaijan-controlled Karabakh, warned the advisor to the President of Ukraine, Mykhailo Podoliak, in an interview with Moldova 1 television, recently quoted by Dnevnik.

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.

Whether Putin will succeed in his new bloody adventure, however, depends on the international community – whether the UN, the Council of Europe, the EU and Nato allow the Moscow-instigated Stepanakert and Yerevan to escalate the conflict over the blocked road in Karabakh, or whether they will continue to restrain the countries that started on the way to negotiating a final peace treaty.

Experts: Putin’s protégé is derailing the peace process along the Yerevan-Baku axis

Moscow and its ally, the oligarch Ruben Vardanyan, who is close to Vladimir Putin, are trying to undermine peace in the region. Maurizio Geri, a former analyst for the Nato Joint Command and the Italian General Staff, said in an article for Politico Europe.

His article is entitled “New Russian engagement in the Caucasus”. In it, he recalls that Azerbaijan and Armenia were very close to a peace agreement at their meeting in Prague in autumn 2022.

Under EU mediation, Armenian Prime Minister Nicholas Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev confirmed that they would “mutually recognise each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” and accept the 1991 Agreement as a basis for resolving border disputes on a par with the UN’s Almaty Declaration.

But suddenly Ruben Vardanyan appeared out of nowhere and declared himself the Prime Minister of Karabakh, writes Geri. “To legitimise the separation of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, the Vardanyan administration published falsified data on the composition of its population – such a tactic was used by Moscow to justify the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories,” Geri recalled.

According to Geri, the war in Ukraine requires a lot of diplomatic, military and political efforts, therefore “the suspension of peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan would give Moscow the opportunity to push everyone out of the way and intervene in the conflict when it can impose its own terms.”

“In this way, it will be able to maintain its position as an international arbiter in the South Caucasus.”

He called on the international community to organize peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia as soon as possible.

Senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation and author of Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, Janusz Bugajski, who analysed the conflict between Yerevan and Baku in an article or US publication The Hill, agrees with Geri.

“The Kremlin’s protégé in Karabakh inflates figures for the population of the enclave threefold, claiming that the number of Armenians there exceeds 120 000, although according to all recent estimates they are around 40 000,” Bugajski said.

Bugajski said that Vardanyan himself had admitted that “the worse our situation becomes, the better our demands and our voice are heard in the world.”

Bugajski recalls that the ethnic war is not something new for Russia: “The Kremlin is fomenting separatist groups in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and using them to strengthen Russian influence.”

After Moscow’s large-scale offensive in Ukraine in February 2022, according to Bugajski, Armenian nationalists in Nagorno-Karabakh, along with politicians in Yerevan, began calling “for an increase in Russian military presence in the region.”

“They want a referendum on joining the Russian Federation, following the example of the illegal referendums in Crimea and Donbas,” he said.

Bugajski also puts forward a more ominous insight: Putin’s control of Karabakh and his intentions to dominate the Armenian government could plunge the South Caucasus region into conflict involving Turkey, Nato, Russia and Iran.

To prevent total destabilisation, Washington and its Nato and EU allies must mobilise international support to replace Russian troops in Karabakh with an international peacekeeping mission.

“Thus, they will help to conclude a lasting peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, based on the territorial integrity of the two countries,” Bugajski concludes.

(Photo: kremlin.ru)

– Partnership Ukraine-Bulgaria

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.