Eggert: “Russia Not a Winner in Karabakh”


Russia failed to protect, perhaps even endangered, an ally. If we accept the idea that it's Putin's revenge on Pashinyan, it also doesn't really make Putin look good – says Deutsche Welle's Konstantin Eggert in a sprawling interview on the implications of the Karabakh truce. For Eggert, the Kremlin is far from the uncontested winner of the situation, although the latter certainly plays it out that way. Talking to the Georgian Institute for Security Policy, the popular Russian journalist asserted that the Russian strongman might have a “mirror image” of himself in Turkey’s Erdogan to deal with in the Caucasus from now on.

With the regional power balance changed, aside from the obvious two, who do we have as winners or losers?

I would argue that Russia is not exactly a winner here. When the dust settles, what we will see is that you now have Erdogan's Turkey as a player in the Caucasus. Now, everyone in the post-soviet space, plus China, plus NATO, can figure out one thing: Azerbaijan allied itself with Turkey and won a war, there's no doubt about that; Armenia, Russia's ally, lost the war, there's no doubt about that either. So, who you would rather have as an ally? I think the conclusion is pretty clear, from the military perspective: we see a 21st century army that defeated a 20th century army and the political perspective is only one: Putin, who until that time was the strongest player in the region, failed to prevent a war and failed to protect an ally. And if Russian intelligence doesn't understand that Azerbaijan is going to start a war, then what is the value of Russian intelligence? If Russian intelligence on the other hand knew about it, and did not inform the Armenians that the situation was so dire, that means Putin just betrayed an ally. Some people might suggest that it was all a very elaborate plot organized by Putin to get revenge on Pashinyan for overthrowing Putin’s ally Sarksyan in 2018. I think it’s much simpler than that: The truth is that Azerbaijan prepared to launch the war against Armenia at a time convenient for its main ally Turkey, at a time when Turkey was interested in pressuring Russia on issues in a different region, in the Middle East; more specifically in Libya, and it succeeded.

What are the consequences of Russian inactivity, be it deliberate or not?

The consequences of it is that Russia is now responsible for a very tricky and volatile situation; it now has an additional, major player in the South Caucasus. Armenia was probably the most trusted ally Russia had inside the Collective Security Treaty Organization; now it failed to protect, or even endangered, an ally. If we accept the idea that it's Putin's revenge on Pashinyan, it also doesn't really make Putin look good. This is a warning to all: doing deals with Putin, dealing with him at all, is an extremely dangerous and unreliable enterprise; he can betray you anytime. It’s a reality check for Putin's allies in the region and worldwide. After everything that Putin has done in the neighborhood. Also, since the early 1990s, everyone knows that Russian peacekeepers are doing anything but keeping the peace anywhere they are deployed in the former USSR. Counting in the democratic revolution in Belarus and the defeat of the pro-Moscow presidential candidate in Moldova, we can say that 2020 became a year where the Russian dominance in the post-soviet space as we knew it has come to an end.

Speaking of deploying Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh, is that a burden or is it geopolitical leverage?

It's not a financial burden to keep 2000 there; I think it’s a risk in the long term, because it exposes Russian troops in a volatile region which is not of huge importance to the Russian public: this also puts a burden on Russia to keep the situation stable and without bloodshed for the foreseeable future. Russia has now taken full responsibility for keeping Karabakh stable.

Let's talk about reality checks for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. What alternatives do they have?

I think Abkhazia and South Ossetia already learned all their lessons; they already know that Russia will never let the Abkhaz express their opinion on their domestic matters without the Kremlin commissars telling them what the right opinion is. South Ossetia, well, when I visited the so-called border, it seemed to me that the only population left there is sheep and FSB operators in observation towers. So what kind of politics in South Ossetia are we talking about? Another thing that is clear is that the Georgian government is not going to, in any foreseeable future, try and take these regions back by force of arms. Also, we must remember: people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are very susceptible to Russian propaganda, and they'll be watching Kremlin TV and consuming Moscow narratives on social media. There, they’re saying it's a huge victory, and Putin's keeping the peace.

How does Turkey’s entering the military arena in the South Caucasus for the first time in almost 100 years change things?

There are two elements in that: First of all, we now have a full-fledged NATO member as a major player in the Caucasus; number two, you have an expansionist regime which draws domestic strength from projecting influence outside its borders. In this respect, Putin got the mirror image of himself, and it's a very dangerous game for Putin. I don't think Erdogan forgot or forgave Putin for his humiliation back in 2015, the sanctions, apologies, or Putin’s forcing Erdogan to wait in the antechamber of his study in the Kremlin earlier this year when he came to discuss the situation in Syria. Also, there's an important element that one shouldn't forget; Putin's obsession with the US and NATO; his fear of regime change instigated by the West. It’s his weakness and Erdogan knows it; he knows that Putin needs him to destabilize NATO from the inside. Erdogan is going to use Putin’s desire for that because he already figured it out, and he is going to use that desire to manipulate both Putin and the West.

What about the status of Karabakh?

The status of Karabakh is going to be suspended for an indefinite time, because I don’t think Putin will be able to make the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis agree on anything. Baku, and Azerbaijan’s allies in Ankara, see the current situation as an interlude. The Azerbaijanis will seize the first opportunity to reconquer the whole of Karabakh and force the Armenians out.

Does Putin want an agreement between Baku and Yerevan? Frozen conflicts are the Kremlin’s favorite toys, after all.

In 2008, Putin decided that the frozen conflict was not in his interest and he ‘unfroze’ Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But this one, I think he won't for one simple reason: if he unfreezes it, he won't be able to control it.

Does this spell an end to Pashinyan's government and to Armenia's attempts to choose a slightly more pro-western path?

I would be hesitant to predict that, but what I think will happen is that at least part of Armenian society will realize that Russia is not a protector; that overreliance on Moscow probably wasn't a very wise proposition to begin with.

Just like Ossetia and Abkhazia. What choices and alternatives do they have?

Armenia will be burdened in the foreseeable future with the threat of Karabakh being overrun by the Azerbaijani army, but, as opposed to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Armenia is a sovereign state and it can choose certain steps in its foreign and domestic policy if it's bold enough to do so. Another thing that's important: Armenia has a huge diaspora in the world, which is always supportive. Armenia is a member of the EU Eastern Partnership, and this is something that cannot be completely discounted, because, at least in terms of economic and social development, it’s one of the things that Armenia can use. That is, if it can stand up to Moscow.

What are the lessons from all this for the West? Because they definitely skipped the whole game: they were just spectators.

Let's face it, the West is not very keen on meddling in conflicts in what used to be called the post-soviet space, especially if these conflicts don’t involve any kind of loss of sovereignty, as was the case of Crimea. The Karabakh conflict is something that the West will not intervene in unless there's a major humanitarian crisis. This is essentially a game now for the Armenians, the Azerbaijanis, the Turks, and the Russians.

What will the impact be for Tbilisi? When you look at the map, three-fourths of the Georgian territory is surrounded by Russian military bases and “peacekeepers.”

Conclusion number one: the more Russian peacekeepers you have anywhere, the more trouble you import; that's very simple. Number two: I think you'll have to deal eventually with a more pro-Moscow government in Armenia, which, in case problems appear between Georgia and Russia, may be forced to create problems for Georgia. My third point is that Georgia will have to live with a more prominent role played by Turkey in the region, but considering that Georgian-Turkish relations are good, it's not something Georgia should fear for now. I think that to some extent, the Erdogan government will want to bring its relations with Georgia to an even higher level as a way of diminishing Moscow's influence in the region. Putin is a player in the region, but no longer an indispensable one. What is becoming indispensable now is Erdogan’s Turkey. Turkey is the real, uncontested winner here.

By Vazha Tavberidze

19 November 2020 17:09