Russia may signal greater involvement in Nagorno Karabakh conflict, but no boots on the ground for now
Analysts and local journalists draw attention to several events possibly signalising an increasing Russian involvement in the Nagorno Karabakh war. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev blamed Moscow for supplying Armenian forces with vital arms and other military equipment.
Until now, the war was characteristic by Russia’s relatively hands-off approach to Nagorno Karabakh, which is not recognised as a part of Armenia and therefore is not covered by The Collective Security Treaty Organization.
The first sign of more direct involvement is a small military outpost, Russia set up on the border of Armenia next to Tegh. This settlement is located on the road to a strategically essential Lachin corridor connecting Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Although neither Russia nor Armenia have officially confirmed the existence of the outpost, it was reported by foreign journalists. As Eurasianet wrote in its assessment of the situation, the Russian deployment in this vital narrow region is a “significant deterrence for Azerbaijan”, since despite its small size it would act as a “tripwire deterring Baku from triggering a more substantial Russian response”.
Carey Cavanaugh, United States Ambassador and Special Negotiator for Eurasian Conflicts, agrees that Azerbaijani attack on Lachin corridor would cause “a humanitarian catastrophe” and might drag Russia in the conflict. “If this corridor is severed, the conflict will stand on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. This could lead Moscow to act in accordance with its mutual defence pact with Armenia which in turn could elicit the entry of the Turkish military,” claimed the diplomat.
Alleged Russian involvement in the conflict was also criticised by Aliyev in his interview for Italian TV channel Rai-1. “After all, we do not talk every day about how many weapons are supplied from Russia to Armenia. We do not talk about the fact that Armenia would not have lasted a day in the occupied territories without external assistance. Political support, military support, moral support – all this comes from countries that are supposed to stay neutral,” said the President.
International media also informed about other less direct, yet still indicative steps by Kremlin. Stephen Bryen claimed for the Asia Times on October 26, that Moscow “has unleashed” its “drone killer” electronic warfare system ‘Belladonna’ in Armenia” knocking out at least nine Turkish Bayraktar armed UAV’s.
Moreover, some analysts suggested already in the first days of the war, that Kremlin, instead of conducting operations directly in the Nagorno Karabakh, might disengage Ankara’s involvement in the South Caucasus by causing trouble in Syria or Libya. And indeed, on October 26 Russia conducted an airstrike on the military training camp of Failaq al-Sham, one of the largest Ankara-backed groups in Syria, just several kilometres from the Turkish border. The attack, which claimed lives of at least 78 fighters and injured many others, was seen by many experts as “a message to Turkey”.
For now, however, Russia does not seem eager to send boots on the ground of Nagorno Karabakh. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 31 requesting ‘immediate consultations to determine the type of assistance that the Russian Federation can provide to the Republic of Armenia’. Kremlin reacted with a statement saying that Russia will give Yerevan “all assistance necessary” if the fighting reaches Armenia proper.