Why is the West not sanctioning Putin’s key allies in the Caucasus?

While the European Union and the United States are striving for peace in the Caucasus and aspiring to reach a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding Karabakh, a few days ago Russian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan, who represents the interests of the Kremlin, called  on his fellow men to take up arms.

Basically, a similar rhetoric corresponds to the geopolitical mindset of the Putin administration on the consolidation of its military presence in the Caspian region. But why are no sanctions being imposed against this warmonger of the Caucasus and adversary of Ukraine?

“We will fight until the end. The last line has been crossed: either you stand up for Artsakh [the Armenian name for Karabakh], or against all the Armenian people,” the Russian billionaire said on his Telegram channel on May 29.

Ukrainian online portal Cenzor earlier reported that Russia“has a stake in freezing the Karabakh conflict for the sake of keeping its influence in the South Caucasus and its military bases in Armenia”.

Canadian analytical periodical Geopolitical Monitor said that “the Kremlin sent Vardanyan to Karabakh because of the fear that the EU would succeed in signing the peace treaty”.

A native of Armenia, Vardanyan was running the so-called government of the Karabakh, a territory which was de jure part of Azerbaijan, but partly occupied by pro-Armenian and pro-Russian separatists supported by the Kremlin, in the period from November 2022 till February 2023. Yet, even after stepping down from his position, Vardanyan continues hindering the achievement of peace in Karabakh.

Russia acts by a sole principle whether it is a matter of Ukraine or the Caucasus or other regions – divide and conquer.

As befits a Moscow protégé, who Ukraine imposed sanctions against  in October of 2022, Vardanyan openly propagates the pro-Russian position. For example, his announcement made in March this year is evidence of that:“ [Russian] peacekeepers are the power supporting Artsakh…”.

“There is much work to be done on our part so as to make them stay for longer and in larger numbers,” Vardanyan said recently.

Speaking at a rally on May 9 in Khankendi, he pointed out the necessity of the Russian military presence, which the Wall Street Journal calls an instrument for maintaining Putin’s influence in the South Caucasus.

International media on Vardanyan’s special role

The European and international media explain why the Russian billionaire Ruben Vardanyan had been appointed to lead Karabakh, why he can be regarded as the Kremlin protégé, as well as why it is him who is tasked with disrupting the negotiation process between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the settlement of the dispute around Karabakh.

“Vardanyan … was and still is an extension of Moscow’s foreign policy,” US magazine Townhall reports.

“Vardanyan’s strategy is aimed not only at inciting ethnic hatred and restoring Russian control over Armenia, but also at disruption of energy supplies from the Caspian basin into Europe”, The Washington Timessays.

According toThe Hill “Vardanyan seeks to delegitimize the return of  Nagorno-Karabakh  to Azerbaijan and fuels conflicts between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in order to preserve Russia’s role as of the main ‘intermediary’”.

According to Politico“Vardanyan takes advantage of his influence so as to turn public opinion of the Armenian community of Karabakh against the world”.

“There should be no doubt that Vardanyan is the Kremlin’s man,” Politico said.

According to Al Jazeera “…Vardanyan’s appearance [in Karabakh] is presented as a part of the Russian plot arranged to sabotage the negotiations on Armenia-Azerbaijan peace agreement…Vardanyan has done very little to ward off the suspicion, especially taking into account his continuous protection of Russian peacemakers in Karabakh”.

Under the EU sanctions

Vardanyan is notorious due to investigation by the Consortium of Investigative Journalists with the OCCRP of his company «Troika Dialog» and its role in the creation of offshore networks.

“Vardanyan, one of the richest people in Russia, is close to Putin…he is accused of money laundering through offshore companies and transfer of funds to Putin’s influential buddies,” The Washington Times said. According to the newspaper, he also has ties with Tehran, which provides support to Moscow in regular shelling of Ukraine: “His ties with Iran can be traced through the Gorchakov Fund, which organizes events in different countries, Armenia among them, with the participation of speakers from Tehran approved by the government”.

Vardanyan’s role in the war against Ukraine

Vardanyan is complicit in the aggression against Ukraine. Back in January 2023 this was unequivocally stated by British Conservative Party MP Bob Blackman:“Ruben Vardanyan, the Russian oligarch of Armenian descent had been deployed to Karabakh, apparently, by Russia.We should bear in mind that he is under sanctions due to Russia’s military invasion in Ukraine. His  companies were successfully used and were involved in the process of military expansion in Ukraine and Karabakh.

In all his speeches Vardanyan prefers to silence Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, thus acting as accomplice of his Kremlin host’s crimes. 

His interview on BBC HARDtalk in January 2023 is a good case in point. That was the time when he was still serving as head of Karabakh. Then he pointedly refused to condemn the military aggression against Ukraine. Moreover, already in May 2023 in an interview with the Youtube channel @RussiansAreOkay he stated that the discussion of the genocide of the Ukrainian nation was “pointless”. 

Putin’s accomplice must bear the punishment he deserves

To put it mildly, the short-sightedness of international public institutions fighting against Kremlin loyalists and those involved in the war against Ukraine, is surprising. For instance, Vardanyan still hasn’t been included in the base of accomplices of the Russian Aggression «Myrotvorets».

And despite the fact that he can be considered Putin’s servant and conduit of his interests in the Caucasus, Vardanyan can also be called one of the sponsors of murders of Ukrainians.

Even though the government of Ukraine put the ex-head of Karabakh on the sanction list in October 2022, Kyiv’s Western allies have not yet followed the lead. Furthermore, before the full-scale Russian military aggression against Ukraine, back in 2019 the initiative to impose sanctions against Vardanyan as one of Kremlin’s associates was put forward by 22 members of the European Parliament. As early as 2022, 46 members of the US Congress called for imposing personal sanctions against him.

It is to be hoped that against the background of Ruben Vardanyan’s current efforts to keep Putin’s positions in the south of Caucasus the merits of this Kremlin’s henchman will finally be appreciated at their true value not only in Kyiv but also in Brussels and in Washington.

(Photo: kremlin.ru)

Igor Chalenko

Igor Chalenko is an Ukrainian political scientist who heads the Centre for Analysis and Strategies, Ukraine.