As Russia maintains the illusion of neutrality vis-a-vis the Armenian protests that ousted Sargsyan, Russia’s Medvedev and Kremlin-backed interim-Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan, exchanged a phone conversation the same day rumours of Karapetyan’s resignation began to spread in Armenia. That same day Karapetyan, who was also a former chief executive of Gazprom Armenia, refused to meet with Pashinyan, leaving observers wondering what was going on. The phone call between Karapetyan and Medvedev was followed by another phone call with Vladimir Putin. Karapetyan then flew to Moscow on April 28. Local media reported that Sargsyan, along with his predecessor, Robert Kocharyan, also flew to Moscow on May 1. While making Pashinyan leader of Armenia seemed tolerable, it was obvious that Moscow would prefer someone who would toe Putin’s line with greater predictability.
Meanwhile, some groups in Armenia’s ruling party tried to play up the Azerbaijan threat to coerce protesters to accept them as viable and more seasoned leadership. However, it was also clear that Karapetyan’s desire to grab the power received no support by the majority of those in the ruling party and therefore could not stay in as interim PM.
While this crisis continued, Azerbaijan has continued to deepen its alliance with Russia. Since its April 2016 offensive, Azerbaijan has concluded two extensive deals with BP and Statoil. Subsequently, the message to Azerbaijan from the West has been, if conflict is localized in Artsakh and does not threaten pipeline infrastructure, then Azerbaijan has a freehand to push militarily against Armenia and Artsakh. In fact, the decision by Western oil companies to ignore the risk of war and carry on with business as usual is in and of itself a contributing factor to a possible escalation of hostilities.
Furthermore, the United States also failed to condemn Azerbaijan’s use of force against Artsakh. The U.S. also remained silent even after the discovery that Azerbaijani Army officers trained by the U.S. Army had been involved in the fighting. Those two officers were Colonel Vugar Yusifov and Lieutenant Colonel Murad Mirzayev. Yusifov was trained at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and Mirzayev completed Marine Corps training courses in Virginia and North Carolina. He also attended the Defense Language Institute in Texas. Both of these U.S.-trained Azerbaijani officers were found killed in action in the Armenian village of Talish. The use of U.S.-trained men in the conflict means that Azerbaijan is confident it won’t face pressure from either Western business interests or governments.
The question now is what Russia will do with its influence and pressure in the region against Armenia. How will it utilize Armenia’s domestic political crisis and a more powerful Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan may be tempted to take up Russia’s original suggestion for what to do next, the Lavrov plan, whereby Azerbaijan will gain a number of regions controlled by de facto Artsakh and Joint Armenian Armed Forces, in return for the deployment of Russian peacekeepers and greater Azeri integration with Russia. Yet the temptation for being a tool in Russian designs for the region could backfire for Azerbaijan, because the JAAF actions will be less controlled by Russia should conflict arise. The Armenian side will also be more desperate and willing to fight back. Additionally, Russia itself can’t allow significant territorial transfers to Azerbaijan without bringing in their own peacekeepers to maintain control. Putin knows Russian boots on the ground will yield an additional lever in Moscow’s hands to mitigate Azeri sovereignty. Aliyev also knows this and therefore agreeing to the Lavrov plan would be a tough pill for Azerbaijan to swallow.
However, on the other hand, the likelihood of cooperation between Azerbaijan and Russia is high because of a convergence of both nations’ interests. Azerbaijan’s economy has not recovered from the economic downturn the country suffered with the fall of the oil prices in 2015 and that too will give Aliyev impetus for distracting the public from domestic politics. Aliyev does not need his people to think that another national destiny or domestic political arrangement is possible. He would also want to be sure to avoid any coups, many of which took place during the early years of the republic. Finally, Aliyev is also cognizant of the fact that even another small territorial gain will boost his public image as it did in April 2016.
Most recently, multiple independent reports from as early as April 22 demonstrate Azerbaijan moving massive amounts of manpower and military hardware towards the line of contact that is still ongoing. This means that conflict is still likely and will be ongoing for some time, with both the political crisis in Armenia and the conflict with Azerbaijan showing no signs of abating.
Therefore, the only way to thwart a catastrophe in the region would be for Azerbaijan to receive a clear signal from the West that any involvement with the Kremlin to undo Armenia’s revolution would be unacceptable. Any attempt to force regime change must be seen by the West as another expansion of Russian power and influence in the region. Otherwise, renewed conflict will be guaranteed and the increasing unpredictability will spill over instability throughout the Black Sea-Caucasus region.