Countering Russian Influence in the Caucasus

Countering Russian Influence in the Caucasus

Western diplomacy regarding the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has unwittingly helped Russia’s effort to reassert its influence in the region. 


After U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently met with European Commission President Ursula on der Leyen and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the parties announced support for regional cooperation on transit, energy, and telecommunications. The sums pledged in Brussels were modest, but Armenia was pleased to receive assurances that the West remained engaged.

The benign event was met with a frenzy of rage from Moscow, Baku, Tehran, and Ankara. The Kremlin described it as an anti-Russian ploy and “at odds with the fundamental interests of the Armenian people.” Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev denounced it as “non-transparent” and geared towards “creating dividing lines and eventually tensions.” Türkiye, while downplaying last September’s ethnic cleansing by Azerbaijan of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh by describing the events as “anti-terrorist” in nature, criticized the West and called for a more “impartial approach.”


The evident desire of these authoritarian states to frustrate the West in the South Caucasus reflects a deeper truth: the West’s ongoing efforts to achieve a full peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan is unrealistic. Establishing basic security is necessary before progress can be made towards a durable peace agreement. Attempting to seek peace under the barrel of a gun without pre-established, credible security guarantees will only serve to embolden Russia in the South Caucasus.

The West’s diplomatic endeavors in the South Caucasus aim both too low and too high. They are too low because Washington and the European capitals see talks primarily as a tool to manage a conflict between two small states, underrating the potential of this case as a model for broader order-building in Eurasia and its centrality to the geopolitical clash between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. They are too high because the West also underrates the Azerbaijani habit of accompanying the talks with a drumbeat of aggression.

Allowing Baku to perpetuate a tense security environment in the South Caucasus region serves Russia’s strategic goal to counter the West with neo-imperial geopolitics from Central Asia to Eastern Europe.

So Much Diplomacy, So Little Peace

At the core of this intractable, decades-long dispute is the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was left within Azerbaijan after the Soviet Union collapsed but has long been administered as a self-governing entity. After Azerbaijan attacked and compelled the flight of all 120,000 people in September 2023, some commentators thought that negotiations between the two states might somehow be easier with the thorniest issue gone.

Instead, we see Baku’s growing discomfort with third-party mediators—and especially Euro-Atlantic involvement—as it increasingly coordinates with Moscow. At the same time, Armenia loses faith in Russia as a mediator vis-a-vis Azerbaijan.

Aliyev refused to attend the planned October 2023 talks with Pashinyan in Granada, which the EU had organized. Then, he canceled a scheduled meeting with Pashinyan and European Council President Charles Michel and another official at the level of foreign minister in Washington and declined a meeting with senior members of the U.S. State Department. Instead, Aliyev flew to Moscow to cement Azerbaijan’s deepening strategic relations with Russia, centered on north-south transit routes—designed to enable Russia to work around Western sanctions.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s anti-Western rhetoric and policy against the EU, France, and the United States continues. At a COP 29 Policy Forum meeting in Baku, Aliyev argued that Armenia should be grateful that Azerbaijan is not harming the EU civilian border monitoring force on its territory and that EU observers would probably leave under an Azerbaijani attack.

While Baku’s policy focus in the talks seems to be on establishing corridors and transit routes, Armenia is pushing for an open, free-market regionalism and broader regional connectivity. Baku prefers informal deals without international security guarantees, while Armenia pushes for security guarantees and international involvement. Baku’s alignment with Russia is a clear contradiction of Armenia’s steady disengagement from Moscow and realignment towards favoring Western levers of diplomacy. Most importantly, Baku continues to threaten force as a tool in negotiations, while Yerevan advocates for demilitarization and nonaggression.

Thus, Armenia’s relationship with Azerbaijan is one of total misalignment, not only of interests but also of vision and modus operandi.

Baku’s strategy contradicts long-established best practices for peace negotiations, which include withdrawing forces beyond the status quo ante (generally, beyond international borders), demilitarized zones, third-party guarantees, peacekeeping, and joint commissions for dispute resolution. Stable security in a post-war environment is the sine qua non for achieving lasting peace agreements.

Aliyev’s insistence on keeping the war on the table serves one player. Historically, unresolved conflicts have been an instrument for Russian control over its post-Soviet peripheries.

What has Western Diplomacy Achieved?

Despite its failures, the Western engagement has achieved two things.

First, it reinforced international norms against territorial conquest via frequent references to global treaties supporting the non-use of force. For example, at a meeting that took place in October 2022 in Prague between France, the EU, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the two conflict parties affirmed the UN Charter and the 1991 Alma-Ata Declaration, which recognized the territorial integrity of both states. The Prague meeting also confirmed the Alma-Ata agreement as a basis for border delimitation and the deployment of EU civilian border observers on the Armenian side (Baku refused a mission on its side).

Since then, despite continuing criticism by Russia and Azerbaijan, EU civilian monitoring has played an important role in fact-finding and dispensing with dangerous misinformation, rumors, and claims of military deployments, which otherwise might have become pretexts for acts of aggression.

Second, Western diplomacy helped manage a declining Russia. Around its former imperial peripheries, Moscow advances its interests when rules are fuzzy and stability fragile. However, Western diplomacy in Armenia-Azerbaijani relations has helped avoid such direct skullduggery, including Aliyev’s efforts to bring in Russian support for an extra-territorial corridor through Armenia.

All this has pushed Armenia to seek ties with a diverse group of states, diluting what was once its own security dependence on Russia. Armenia’s so-called “minilateralism” amounts to a targeted use of discrete alliances rather than a comprehensive alignment with a single bloc. Its recent move to join the International Criminal Court also reflects a strategy of seeking security through international levers of influence and deterrence.

“Getting To Yes” By First Saying “No”

Due to the region’s complexity and the continuing bad faith between parties, before a “yes” can be reached on a peace treaty, it is probably essential that the Western powers cement their own “no” to the Russian-Azerbaijani assault on regional stability.

It will require a more robust push against aggression and threats of aggression and much stronger administrative and political support on border delineation between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Western peace-before-security approach underestimates Russia’s leverage over Azerbaijan (similar to that of its bond with Belarus) and amounts to implicit legitimization of violence in conflict management. Both factors strengthen Russia’s hand in the South Caucasus and undermine the West’s ability to integrate infrastructures and align interests in the region.

That’s why a security-first approach is needed to get to a durable peace agreement.

History provides an intriguing precedent for this approach. Just over a century ago, Colombia and Peru were rivals with unsettled borders in a dispute that lasted for decades. As they struggled with border delimitation, with no agreement in sight, they actually signed a modus vivendi agreement in 1904 to confirm their willingness to keep the status quo to commit to nonviolence as they continued to work for border delimitation and a more durable peace. The countries are now at peace. In fact, they have built a partnership through mutual cooperation within multilateral entities, such as the Andean Community.

The West should aim for such a nonaggression pact between Armenia and Azerbaijan first and a complete peace agreement only after the foundations for trust can be established. If diplomacy is the art of the possible, then this, indeed, is what’s possible.

Anna Ohanyan is the Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Stonehill College and a Nonresident Senior Scholar in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her on X: @AnnaOhanyan03.

Image: Kirill Skorobogatko /