Russia’s reluctance to secure an indecisive Armenia will weaken both

The volatile South Caucasus region has once again seized the world’s attention as a fresh wave of conflict erupted this week between Azerbaijan and the Armenian ‘separatists’ of Nagorno-Karabakh. Against the backdrop of a protracted nine-month Azerbaijani blockade of the Lachin Corridor — a lifeline that binds Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia—the region finds itself at a pivotal juncture, teetering yet again on the brink of uncertainty and unrest.

While the Lachin Corridor blockade precipitated a dire humanitarian crisis for Armenian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, it has also cast a shadow of doubt over Russia’s role as the sole peacekeeping force deployed to safeguard the region’s Armenian inhabitants.

Even Armenia’s beleaguered Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has begun to question Russia’s position in this geopolitical quagmire, which has incrementally led to a diplomatic schism between the two countries.

Can Armenia rely on Russia?

But in a surprising turn of events on 18 September, Moscow brokered a deal between Azerbaijan and Armenian authorities to temporarily unblock both the Lachin Corridor and the Aghdam route (the region’s connection to Azerbaijan) for humanitarian purposes.

This breakthrough initiative seemed to reinforce Russia’s image as the South Caucasus’ paramount mediator with influence over the conflicting parties — effectively sidelining other actors like Turkiye, Iran, and several western powers.

But just hours later, events took a swift turn when Baku launched a new, all-fronts offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh to disarm Armenian fighters and forcefully integrate the region into Azerbaijan. While Moscow took a “neutral” position on the ground, many Russian officials held the top Armenian authorities responsible for the unresolved situation in Nagarno-Karabakh.

The day after the Azerbaijani offensive, Armenian ‘separatist’ forces of the ‘Republic of Artsakh’ in the disputed territory surrendered and agreed to another Russian-brokered ceasefire. Yerevan is not a party to the latest ceasefire, which has raised fresh doubts about Moscow’s ability to act as an effective broker and security guarantor for Armenia.

Risks to Russia’s influence

Amid this turmoil, Pashinyan’s recent remarks hold significant implications for Armenia’s defense and foreign policy. Viewed from the Kremlin, his words can be seen as openly hostile — and even a signal to foreign, primarily western actors, inviting them into this vulnerable and volatile region.

In many respects, Armenia’s potential diversification of its strategic partners presents a challenge to Russia’s influence and strategic interests in the area. Pashinyan’s assertion that relying solely on Russia constitutes a “strategic mistake” also risks poisoning Russia’s relations with other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) members, particularly in Central Asia, and separatist states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

According to regional intelligence analyst Guiliano Bifolchi, “Pashinyan’s affirmation about Russia withdrawing from the region … may encourage other regional actors, such as Turkiye and Iran, to become more deeply involved in local dynamics.”

Lately, even Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has acknowledged Ankara’s increasing regional role during his recent meeting with Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan.

But you know that Moscow’s patience with Pashinyan has reached its limits when former Russian President Dimitri Medvedev issues a veiled warning to the Armenian leader – publicly, on Telegram:

“One day, one of my colleagues from a fraternal country told me: “Well, I’m a stranger to you, you won’t accept me.” I answered that I had to: “We will judge not by biography, but by actions.” Then he lost the war, but strangely kept his power. Then he decided to blame Russia for his mediocre defeat. Then he gave up part of the territory of his country. Then he decided to flirt with NATO, and his wife defiantly went to our enemies with cookies. Guess what fate awaits him…”

Medvedev, who often — these days — says “the hidden parts out loud” on his various social media platforms, could not have been more clear. The Russians no longer trust Pashinyan to make alliance-worthy decisions.

The view from Tehran

These developments underscore how Pashinyan’s previous declarations and actions have not only challenged Russia’s influence in the region but also indirectly endorsed an expanded role for Turkiye and its American NATO ally.

As Armenia considers diversifying its strategic partners, it must tread carefully, especially given the EU’s desire to reduce dependency on Russian natural gas and find alternative suppliers like Azerbaijan.

The deteriorating relations between Yerevan and Moscow have exposed Armenia to heightened military pressure from Azerbaijan. In recent years, Baku seized on this opportunity to deploy heavy weaponry to the Armenian border, which has, in turn, prompted Iran to mobilize its own border area troops and issue stern warnings.

Yaqub Rezazadeh, member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security Commission, cautioned Baku that any military operation against Armenia would be met with a response ten times stronger so that “they do not send their soldiers to die unnecessarily.” But like countless senior Iranian officials in recent years, Rezazadeh also reaffirmed Tehran position that Nagorno-Karabakh is “part of Azerbaijan and an Islamic territory”.

Iran’s cautious but proactive approach toward the disputed region partly reflects its domestic demographic considerations- the country’s northwestern provinces contain a large Azeri population and a smaller Armenian minority. Hence, Iran uses both threats (military exercises) and diplomacy (or economic incentives) to inch closer to Yerevan and Baku, in order to mitigate growing Turkish and Israeli influence on its borders.

Within this context, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi recently called Pashinyan to assure him of Iran’s clear position, and reiterated that his country would play “an effective role as a powerful neighbor to prevent regional clashes or geopolitical changes.”

Rivalry with Turkiye

While Iran was actively engaging with both Baku and Yerevan to prevent a new military escalation, Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan was meeting in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on 3 September to discuss various regional issues – including the volatile situation in the South Caucasus.

Behind the scenes, there is an ongoing but largely silent strategic rivalry between Iran and Turkiye for influence in the South Caucasus. Russia’s distraction on regional matters following the conflict in Ukraine has allowed Ankara’s influence to grow unchecked. The Turks are throwing their full weight behind “brotherly” Turkic nation Azerbaijan to pressure Armenia over an extraterritorial “corridor” known as the Zangezur corridor that, if opened, would change the geopolitical balance in the region — and directly connect Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhichevan and to Turkiye through Armenian territories.

Turkish regional analyst Sinem Cengiz argues that because the US has shown limited interest in filling the “Russian vacuum” in the region, and has not prioritized the Caucasus within its pivot to Asia strategy aimed at containing China, regional powers Turkiye and Iran are now competing for dominance in the South Caucasus.

In this context, Iran is likely to urge the conflicting parties toward diplomatic talks in order to “ease highlighted tensions with Azerbaijan, to avoid pushing Baku further toward Israel, to take the mediator role away from Turkiye, and to protect its interests in the Caucasus” adds Cengiz.

Suing for peace

While Baku is keen to secure a peace treaty with Yerevan, Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign affairs assistant to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, emphasized in an interview with Russian TASS news agency that his country has no intention of discussing matters that could raise questions about its sovereignty or territorial integrity “either with Yerevan or with any third party (hinting at Russia).”

Hajiyev also insisted that Yerevan halt its allocation of funds to Nagorno-Karabakh and said that by year’s end, he hopes, the Armenian government will accept Azerbaijan’s territorial claims by signing a definitive peace treaty.

Conversely, Azerbaijan’s former Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov contends that a military confrontation is necessary to force Armenia into a comprehensive peace agreement. He says that this could take the form of a short-term clash or even a war, because Pashinyan understands that another war could not only end his political career but also have dire consequences for Armenia as a whole. Mammadyarov has additionally proposed the need for a “counter-terrorist operation” to disarm Armenian ‘separatists’ in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Against this backdrop, Baku appears determined to pressure Yerevan into signing a treaty that would formally recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan – and potentially diminish Russian influence in the region.

Implications of abandoning Armenia

It is, however, essential to recognize a broader geopolitical context at play here. The ongoing Ukraine conflict has increased Russia’s dependence on Azerbaijan, which is currently Russia’s sole access route to Turkiye and Iran – Moscow’s pivotal gateways to the Persian Gulf and the rest of West Asia.

As such, the Russians are seeking to strike a balance between the conflicting parties in the South Caucasus to prevent other actors, particularly Turkiye or western powers, from gaining a foothold in what has traditionally been considered Russia’s sphere of influence.

The Kremlin also understands that any discord between Armenia and Russia will come at Yerevan’s expense, especially where national security is concerned. Open-ended diplomatic tensions and the non-resolution of conflicts could leave Armenia regionally vulnerable without Russian cover.

The crucial question is to what extent Russia will tolerate this situation while simultaneously dealing with Baku’s military aggression in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is clear that the ongoing conflict has the potential to escalate beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, with Turkiye becoming directly involved and offering support to Azerbaijan.

Now, the responsibility falls on Russia and Iran to manage and contain Turkiye’s pan-Turkic ambitions in the region. Armenia’s role in the conflict may not be sustainable without direct support from Tehran and Moscow.

Regardless of Armenia’s past and current policies, there is a strong argument that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh should not be abandoned, as a Turkish victory could open the door to a new wave of Turkish expansionism in the region.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh serves as a litmus test for Russia’s ability to maintain stability and security in its neighborhood. A successful resolution of the conflict could bolster Moscow’s image as a regional peacemaker, while continued instability could erode its influence.

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