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Russia’s Influence Wanes in Ex-Soviet States as It Pursues Ukraine War

Blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh shows Moscow’s sway in decline.

A Russian peacekeeping contingent is stationed in the Lachin corridor, which connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. [Tofik Babayev | Agence France-Presse | Getty Images]

Escalating tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan are exposing the declining influence of Russia in its backyard, as the Kremlin diverts money and manpower to the war in Ukraine.

The situation regards Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory in the South Caucasus that has been disputed, often violently, by the two former Soviet republics for almost three decades. The enclave is home to 120,000 people, mostly ethnic Armenians, but is internationally recognized as being part of Azerbaijan.

Russia has long supported Armenia when friction and fighting have flared over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Turkey has backed Azerbaijan.

Now, Armenian officials are warning of what they call a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Nagorno-Karabakh as the result of a weekslong blockade by Azeris of the Lachin corridor, the sole land route connecting the South Caucasus enclave to Armenia.

Those blocking the route say they are environmental activists protesting illegal Armenian mining projects in the region. Armenia has denied that it is expropriating national resources in the enclave.

The standoff has cut off food supplies to the enclave, which Armenians call Artsakh.

Azeris blocking the Lachin corridor say they are protesting illegal mining in the region. [Tofik Babayev | Agence France-Presse | Getty Images]

A Russian peacekeeping contingent has been stationed in the Lachin corridor since late 2020 following a peace agreement brokered by Moscow that halted weeks of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, handing the Kremlin a geopolitical victory.

Armenian officials have said Russia has failed to intervene to resolve the blockade, which began in mid-December. Moscow has said its peacekeepers are trying to de-escalate it.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed the need “for the earliest possible unblocking of traffic along the Lachin corridor,” in a phone call on Tuesday with his Azeri counterpart, Jeyhun Bayramov, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.

Mr. Bayramov told Mr. Lavrov that Azeri citizens have the right to protest against what he described as illegal economic activities on Azeri territory, and dismissed as groundless the claims that the road was blocked and it was causing a humanitarian crisis, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said.

Mr. Lavrov told a press conference on Wednesday that the Azeri government had provided information alleging Armenia’s transport of mines along the corridor, which Russia was now assessing.

“There are many mutual accusations,” Mr. Lavrov said. “We have proposed a simple thing. The Russian contingent has the authority to control traffic along this corridor and the contingent has the authority to check every vehicle,” he said.

Some analysts have said the Kremlin is tiptoeing around the situation because it can’t risk getting entangled in another fight and lacks the stamina to directly challenge Azerbaijan or Turkey.

Russia has sought to dial down tensions with Azerbaijan: The two countries signed a wide-ranging diplomatic and military agreement two days before Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

The Russians are “totally committed in Ukraine. They have no spare energy for anything else,” said Stefan Hedlund, director of research at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. “If they were going to try to support the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, that would mean putting up a fairly robust posture and they don’t have those [available] troops anymore.”

As the Ukraine war has dragged on, a weakened Russia has been forced to divert troops from other areas, possibly emboldening other countries within Moscow’s traditional sphere of influence to challenge its regional dominance, analysts said.

Georgia could be invigorated to recapture the Kremlin-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moldova could try to erase Transnistria, a narrow strip of land bordering Ukraine that is held by pro-Russian separatists, the analysts said.

Azeris have blocked the only land route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. [Tofik Babayev | Agence France-Presse | Getty Images]

Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries that were longtime allies of Russia have refused to support Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, instead remaining neutral on the conflict. The Kazakh government is seeking greater ties with China and, like other Central Asian states, it has welcomed a flood of Russian men who fled their country to escape Mr. Putin’s military mobilization in September.

Friction over the Lachin corridor issue has eroded relations between Russia and Armenia. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has accused Russian peacekeepers of being a “silent witness” to what he describes as Azerbaijan’s efforts to use the blockade to depopulate Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mr. Pashinyan has urged Moscow to take a greater role in resolving the standoff. He has also criticized the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led alliance of post-Soviet countries, for not condemning Azerbaijan’s actions, and said Armenia wouldn’t host CSTO drills that were planned on its territory this year.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said earlier this month that Moscow’s peacekeepers were actively working to stabilize the situation in the Lachin corridor and expect “full transport links to be restored in the very near future.” But she also criticized Armenia for pulling out of peace talks that were scheduled in December, which she said might have addressed the Lachin corridor standoff.

“Armenia made a huge mistake,” Mr. Hedlund said. “I suppose they didn’t have much choice, [but] they placed all their eggs in the Russian basket and that has now totally collapsed.”

The Kremlin didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether Moscow’s preoccupation with its military campaign in Ukraine was eroding Russia’s regional influence or whether it had contributed to preventing Moscow from taking more decisive action to resolve the Lachin corridor issue.

Russia’s presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down talk of friction between Moscow and Yerevan. Armenia remains Russia’s very close ally and dialogue will continue, he said last week.

Azeri officials deny that they are taking advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine to push ethnic Armenians out of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said in December that his country had the right to protest the fact that its “natural resources are being exploited and…shipped out,” according to comments published on the presidential website. He said the circumstances surrounding the Lachin corridor were “being presented in a completely distorted manner.”

As the political wrangling plays out, the government in Yerevan and human-rights officials in Nagorno-Karabakh said civilians are paying the price.

The blockade has halted the daily transport of 400 tons of food, medicine and other products that used to be delivered from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh, causing severe shortages, said Gegham Stepanyan, the human-rights ombudsman for Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia’s foreign ministry said aid was being allowed through, but local officials have said that it is far from enough. Eggs, rice, sugar, fruit and vegetables have largely disappeared from stores, they said, forcing the government to introduce rationing of basic foodstuffs. Residents will be allowed monthly purchases starting Friday of one kilogram each of pasta, buckwheat, rice and sugar, and one liter of cooking oil.

Biayan Sukhudyan, a pediatric neurologist who has been working in Stepanakert, the enclave’s capital, since mid-December, said the condition of patients has been deteriorating, with medications in short supply, including treatment for children who suffer from seizures. Parents have formed groups to exchange drugs, she said.

“There is a growing number of people who need medical attention, which they would normally get in Armenia,” Dr. Sukhudyan said. Negotiations to allow passage for patients can take days, she said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has facilitated the urgent transfer of 21 patients through the Lachin corridor and ensured the transport of medical supplies and baby formula. It has distributed a month’s supply of food to local hospitals, orphanages and senior institutions.

Asya Abramyan, 69 years old, said she was down to her last 15 capsules to treat her high blood pressure and had resorted to soaking her feet in hot water in the hopes that it would help. Damaged electrical cables have led to rolling blackouts across the region, forcing Ms. Abramyan to use firewood to heat the home she shares with her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

Police guarded the border in the Lachin corridor linking Armenia and Azerbaijan. [Alexander Patrin | Zuma Press]

“We live with fear,” Ms. Abramyan said. “Every night, we think, what will happen tomorrow?”

Ruzan Hovhannisyan traveled to the Armenian capital of Yerevan in December for business and hasn’t been able to return home in Nagorno-Karabakh. Her 15-year-old daughter is staying with her grandparents in a house that is cold.

“For me, as a parent, this is something very scary…to know that you cannot just go to your child,” she said. “Stores are almost empty, nothing is for sale. Even if something appears, there are long lines.”


(c) 2023, The Wall Street Journal


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