Reports are circulating about the use of different Russian weapons systems by Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. The point to pay attention to is that Russia provided such armaments to both sides as part of its “military diplomacy”. This term generally refers to Moscow’s strategy of supporting a “balance of power” between rival states through arms sales to both in the hopes that neither of them would provoke another round of hostilities with the other. The intent is to promote a political solution to the issue instead of a military one, but that policy hasn’t succeeded in the South Caucasus as recent events prove.
Armenia’s attack against Azerbaijan late last month provoked Baku’s ongoing counteroffensive. Yerevan wrongly felt emboldened by Moscow’s armaments and believed that it could rely on Russian support for its aggressive actions. Even worse, it’s nowadays abusing these weapons to carry out war crimes against Azerbaijani civilians far from the conflict zone. By contrast, Azerbaijan is putting its weapons systems from Russia and other suppliers to their proper use in defending its people in line with Article 51 of the UNSC Charter. In addition, the new reality that President Aliyev created is that Azerbaijan is now actively implementing the UNSC Resolutions.
This dynamic throws Russia into a dilemma, albeit one that it didn’t ever intend to be in. Russian decision makers thought that their weapons would be used for defensive purposes by both sides, not abused for aggressive ones like Armenia has done. Since Yerevan is committing war crimes with these same Russian weapons, these optics could in turn be exploited by Moscow’s rivals to provocatively claim that President Putin himself is personally responsible for those killings. That’s not true at all, but in order to preemptively deflect from such false allegations, Russia would do well to make a public statement on this issue.
The worst-case scenario would be that disgruntled Armenians, angry that Russia didn’t launch a Syrian-like conventional military intervention in their support, allege that Russian servicemen either operated or supervised the firing of weapons systems responsible for war crimes. Although there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this is the case, the accusations themselves might be irresistible for Russia’s rivals, who could eagerly pick them up and amplify them across the world in a new phase of information warfare against Moscow. The US might even use such claims as the pretext for imposing more sanctions against Russia, especially under a Biden presidency.
Russia believes that it can “balance” its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan without being forced to take a side in their ongoing hostilities, but its silence on the issue of its weapons being abused by Armenia to commit war crimes risks having others misinterpret its grand strategic intentions. For this reason and taking into account the sensitivity of its “balancing” act, Russia is encouraged to issue a general statement saying that its arms mustn’t be used to commit war crimes. Although the ambiguity of such wording might be interpreted to mean that it’s implying blame on both parties, it’s unrealistic to expect it to condemn Armenia by name.
That would of course be the best-case scenario which would send an unequivocal message that it condemns Armenia’s war crimes and would thus put immense pressure on Yerevan to stop, but it might also backfire in the sense of provoking an ultra-nationalist anti-Russian reaction in the landlocked South Caucasus country. That might inadvertently result in Armenia more decisively pivoting towards the West at the expense of its traditional relations with Russia on the false pretext that its CSTO ally is “abandoning” or “betraying” it. Even so, Russia would be showing the international community that it’s a responsible arms supplier.
With this in mind, Moscow’s decision makers must weigh the pros and cons of each option: remaining silent, issuing an ambiguous statement, or publicly condemning Armenia. It’s Russia’s sovereign right to react however it believes is best for its interests, but it’s arguably better for it to say something instead of nothing at all. Its “military diplomacy” hasn’t succeeded as intended in this case despite other examples such as its practice with regards to China and India hitherto maintaining the “balance of power” between them. In order to protect its international reputation, Russia should declare that its arms shouldn’t be used for committing war crimes.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, radio host, and regular contributor to several online outlets. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. The views expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.