VAYOTS DZOR PROVINCE, ARMENIA – The frequency of the ambulances starts to increase the further east you drive. It’s a sign of how bad the situation is. A mix of four-wheel-drive military trucks with red crosses and civilian ambulances are whisking away Armenian casualties in a steady trickle through the mountains.
On the evening of Sept. 12th into the 13th, Azerbaijan carried out a massive attack across a broad front along the rugged border with their neighbor. The Azeris have advanced inside Armenia to within a few miles of Jermuk, a spa town whose mineral water can be bought in bottles throughout the country.
On the Jermuk highway, a convoy of Russian soldiers heads west, away from the fighting, white-blue-and-red tricolors streaming proudly behind each dark green Kamaz truck as it passes busloads of Armenian reinforcements heading the other way, toward the border. There are Russian soldiers across the region: thousands are in a contested area within Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh, where they have been since November 2020, when Moscow brokered a ceasefire between the two Former Soviet Republics after a short, but intense, conflict. There are also thousands of Russian soldiers and border guards stationed in Armenia itself – their job is to deter military adventurism.
The Kremlin’s soldiers are here to keep the peace.
In this, they have failed.
Vladimir Putin spent decades modernizing his army and building his empire, ruthlessly asserting control over Russia’s border states through force, intrigue and economic might. Now the cream of his military has been destroyed or is bogged down in Ukraine: hundreds of his once-parade-worthy tanks rusting away as burned-out hulks in wheat fields while thousands of his best soldiers will never return home. Beset by sanctions, his economy survives mainly through energy exports: Putin’s enemies continue to buy hundreds of billions of dollars of gas and oil from Moscow, principle and even self-interest sacrificed to keep the lights on in European cities. The invasion of Ukraine is an increasingly obvious disaster for Russia’s dictator. He simply doesn’t have the bandwidth or resources to deal with another international crisis effectively, and everyone knows it.
“There is a relation between the war in Ukraine and what is happening now… Russia has less capability and less willingness to restrain Azerbaijan,” Tigran Grigoryan, a former staff member of Armenia’s Security Council, tells me.
Azerbaijan sensing an opportunity amidst Russian weakness and taking it, with backing from Turkey, is a microcosm of the ripple effect of instability the war in Ukraine is having on Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian political scientist Greg Yudin described it as a “catastrophic collapse of Russian foreign policy in a hugely important region.”
The Kremlin’s interests in and historic ties to the region are multitude – and it often plays both sides, selling weapons to Azerbaijan and Armenia alike. Russian energy interests and geography ensure its cooperation with Azerbaijan, but it has been Russian boots on the ground that protect Armenia’s borders. But the sound of Russian boots isn’t quite as fearsome as it was before the invasion of Ukraine.
After years of declining importance in the South Caucasus, the vultures are circling: Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are breeding instability throughout the country’s sphere of influence. The survival of Putin’s grand security strategy depends on achieving victory in Ukraine, but there is more than one way for an empire to implode.
To keep his regime from dying along with his ambitions, Putin must gamble. His announcement on Sept. 21st that Russia would mobilize hundreds of thousands of additional conscripts and send them off to fight in Ukraine is a desperate effort to keep everything from falling apart.
“Putin has been avoiding mobilization this whole time. He knows this is a major escalation, and it turns this into a ‘real war’ instead of a ‘Special Military Operation,’” says Dr. Olga V. Chyzh, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto who focuses on repressive regimes. She researches the Kremlin’s inner circle and the implications of the war in Ukraine for Putin’s rule. “His hand was forced. His only other option was to keep waiting as Ukraine chips away at his territorial gains.”
And the same strategic mistake that has left Putin with a maimed military is decimating its foreign policy.
“Russia is a regional hegemon. But it’s a hegemon that maintains its influence through brute force. They have no social capital… It’s no surprise at all that as soon as we see weaknesses in Russian military might, we see all of these countries going their own way,” Chyzh told me.
“Russia is losing its empire by trying to tighten its grip.”
For the moment, Armenia remains within Moscow’s grasp, like it or not. It is trapped between hostile neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Since independence 31 years ago, it has counted on Russia for security – a de facto continuation of its subjugation under Moscow as part of the Soviet Union for more than 80 years before that.
But dependence on an undependable – or even indifferent – partner is unsustainable.
“Everyone understands that this is a fake alliance. It doesn’t help Armenia maintain its security any more. There are no illusions about this,” Grigoryan, the former member of Armenia’s Security Council, tells me. Based in Yerevan, he is now a political analyst who hosts a video series called Focus on Russia.
Part of that “fake alliance” was through the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO – Moscow’s answer to NATO – which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.
And how are things going for the “Russian NATO”?
Well, four of its members are at war, without getting much support from the others. Two of them have even started fighting each other: two weeks ago Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan escalated a long-standing border dispute into clashes that have killed more than 100 and left thousands of civilians displaced. Armenia, another member, has been invaded by non-member Azerbaijan, which has simply decided to ignore – or in some cases even attack – the Russian soldiers tasked with carrying out Moscow’s will in the region. Kazakhstan has been publicly denying rumors that it plans to withdraw from the organization, but is quick to add that it won’t “bow to Moscow” because of the alliance. Belarus, after being used as a launching point for Putin’s failed attempt to capture Kyiv, shows few signs of actually wanting to get any more involved in the war in Ukraine than it must, to placate Moscow.
And of course Russia itself is increasingly on its own globally, its military ambitions plagued by Ukrainian soldiers equipped with NATO weaponry.
Suffice to say, if you take the actual “collective security” part out of CSTO, you’re left with just a meaningless piece of paper and an organizational chart with a fancy logo. So it probably isn’t surprising that there are Armenians who have begun asking: What good is the CSTO if it doesn’t provide any security?
Protests against the organization are turning into a regular feature of political life in Yerevan: late on a weekday evening, the chanting of demonstrators can be heard echoing across Freedom Square as Armenians – and some of the many Russian tourists in town – enjoy dinner on the terraces of fancy restaurants along Tumanyan Street.
But Grigoryan says it is unlikely this anger will turn into anything cataclysmic – certainly protests haven’t been uncommon under the rule of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, seen by many Armenians as responsible for their country’s defeat during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. Nevertheless, Grigoryan doesn’t think it likely Russian soldiers will be booted out soon – Armenia is too militarily weak for dramatic diplomatic gestures.
“Any kind of drastic move would only deteriorate the situation. I do not expect any kind of serious change in foreign policy in the next coming years,” Grigoryan said. Still, he adds, “everyone understands that Russia has closer relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey.”
That may be true. But it hasn’t kept Russian soldiers from being fired upon by the Azeris – in the 2020 war, they even shot down a Russian helicopter (although they did apologize afterwards).
In the current hostilities, “there have been multiple reports that the Azeris shelled a Russian base, and the Russians just left. They didn’t do anything,” Grigoryan notes. Whether such shelling is intentional or not, the fact that the Azeris are willing to put the Russians in the crossfire indicates they aren’t overly concerned about a response from Moscow.
Which may be why Armenia is looking farther afield for allies. “I expect Armenia to try to diversify its relations,” Grigoryan cautiously puts it.
In fact, it was the United States who stepped into the current crisis between Azerbaijan and Armenia, brokering a ceasefire in New York between the two neighbors days after the fighting began. That came shortly after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi completed a previously planned trip to Yerevan – a success for Armenia, primarily in that she didn’t cancel the trip despite the fighting on the border.
It was also a success for Pelosi and US foreign policy – Washington was regarded as somewhat disinterested in the region during the Trump administration, in Grigoryan’s estimation. But now, it is “deeply concerned” about what happens between Azerbaijan and Armenia, according to the US State Department.
Yet despite a seemingly emboldened United States playing a more assertive role in the Caucasus, American diplomacy and platitudes aren’t worth as much on the battlefield as its weapons and cash. There’s been no public declaration that Yerevan will receive substantial aid from Washington.
Meanwhile in Azerbaijan, advanced drones, mercenaries and open political backing have been among the material manifestations of Turkish support. Ankara itself has increasingly sought to position itself as a regional power broker in and around the Black Sea and Caucasus: it was Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who brokered a deal on behalf of the UN to allow Ukrainian grain to pass through Russia’s blockade of its ports. Turkish weaponry – the same drones that helped Azerbaijan defeat the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 – were also instrumental in enabling Ukraine to halt Russian armor in the early day of the invasion.
Without tangible foreign military support, most worrying for Armenia now is that there are signs Azerbaijan intends to renew its offensive – and the US, EU members and others are doing little more than pleading for both parties to stop fighting.
There’s – probably – a reason for that, and that reason isn’t a surprising one to anyone paying attention: energy. In July, Azerbaijan signed a deal to boost its exports of natural gas to the European Union, part of a plan to “help Europe to end its dependency on Russian gas.”
“Based on the strengthened energy cooperation, Azerbaijan is already now increasing deliveries of natural gas to the EU, from 8.1 billion cubic meters in 2021 to an expected 12 billion cubic meters in 2022,” the European Commission proudly announced on July 18th, 2022.
But Russia, too, is doing little to stop Azerbaijan. In fact, the leaders of the two countries signed an agreement on February 22nd – just two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – pledging that “the Russian Federation and the Republic of Azerbaijan, working closely to stimulate international energy cooperation and strengthen global energy security on an equal and mutually beneficial basis, intend to deepen cooperation in the fuel and energy sector.”
Although Azerbaijan’s natural gas exports to Europe are an order of magnitude smaller than Russia’s – 185 billion cubic meters the same year – the energy industry doesn’t work along the same comparatively neat lines as geopolitics. For example, Lukoil – Russia’s largest oil company – owns major stakes in a number of energy projects in Azerbaijan.
Furthermore, Azerbaijan shares a border with Russia – which Armenia does not – and also shares a border with Iran, which is becoming an increasingly important ally for Moscow in its war on Ukraine. Iranian munitions, aka “suicide drones,” acquired by Russia are now attacking Ukrainian cities, while economic and energy cooperation between the Federation and the Islamic Republic continues to increase. It would serve little interest to alienate the one country that serves as an overland route between the two sanctioned states. And then there’s China, which – to put it bluntly – has its own sphere of influence in the region to worry about. It’s worth pointing out that Chinese President Xi Jinping took his first overseas trip since the coronavirus pandemic began to Kazakhstan, where – in addition to meeting Putin – he also highlighted Beijing’s belief in Kazakh independence in the face of “outside” interference.
Kazakhstan, the observant will note, is geographically situated between China and Russia.
You needn’t be Peter the Great to understand that weakness abroad and instability at home are inextricably linked in Russian history.
Which returns us to Putin’s mobilization order.
There are many indications the draft is deeply unpopular at home, but it is unlikely to lead to widespread popular upheavals.
“We have already seen the regime’s repression hardening since the beginning of the war. Putin excels at domestic brutality and oppression. As Russia cuts itself off more and more, we will continue to see a hardening of techniques of repression,” Dr. Chyzh, who has been researching the Kremlin’s political power structures, tells me. “I’m sure Putin has thought about this, and I am sure he is ready. Mass protests directly challenging him are not going to manifest, resistance is very difficult.”
But not impossible, particularly in ethnic enclaves and peripheral territories that have traditionally been resistant to Moscow’s rule, such as Dagestan in the North Caucasus, or sought greater autonomy from Russian hegemony, as with portions of the Far East. That ethnic minorities and territories far from Moscow are shouldering an unequal share of the burden of mobilization exacerbates its unpopularity.
“Russian society is very unequal, there’s ethnic Russians and then there is everybody else,” Chyzh says. “Movements toward self-determination may not happen any time soon. But segregation is already a reality. Mobilization definitely won’t help those tensions.”
There have already been numerous incidents of resistance to the mobilization order in Russia – in Dagestan, people have reportedly erected barricades to keep the authorities from enforcing the draft. There have also been isolated instances of direct violence: at least 13 recruiting offices have been firebombed according to Russian-language media monitor Meduza, while a 25-year-old man in the Siberian region of Irkutsk went so far as to shoot a military officer at a draft station. Across Russia, more than 2,390 people have been arrested for acts of resistance against mobilization as of Sept. 26th, according to the independent human rights monitor OVD-Info.
Additionally, Russian internal security services estimate that at least 260,000 Russians have simply tried to flee the country to avoid the draft, according to the Novaya Gazeta Europe, an independent Russian newspaper that since the invasion operates out of Riga, Latvia, in order to avoid censorship by Moscow. One of the popular destinations for Russian draft-dodgers is Armenia, according to English-language video news service “The Armenian Report.”
The mobilization order is a plan concocted by hardliners in the Russian military to flood the battlefield with troops and thereby prevent any further Ukrainian victories. If it fails, it will add to instability within the regime.
“To understand the way Putin’s regime functions, he isn’t accountable to the public. But he is accountable to a small group of people who he needs to stay in power,” Chyzh says. That small group is composed of “hawkish” hardline members of the military and senior members of the security services – who are at least somewhat more cautious in their outlook.
Putin has now bowed to pressure from the hardliners, so it is their reputations – and their power on the line. As one faction fails and another rises, the political infighting could lead to even more desperate decisions inside the Kremlin.
There is no shortage of opinions about whether Putin or his inner circle might contemplate the use of nuclear weapons – tactical or otherwise – to stave off defeat in Ukraine. But it appears to be a realistic enough concern that the White House has privately warned Russia’s leaders that any use of nuclear weapons “would be met with catastrophic consequences,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in an interview with CBS News on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Ukraine will fight on. Its top military leaders are, characteristically, publicly unfazed by the Russian mobilization: “We will destroy everyone who comes to our land with weapons, whether voluntarily or through mobilization,” General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian military, said after Putin’s announcement.
Still, amid questions about the quality of the conscripts and the Russian military’s ability to train, equip and lead them effectively, there is no doubt that more Russian soldiers sent to Ukraine will mean more death and destruction – for both sides.
If things continue to fall apart for the Kremlin, instability will only spread throughout Russia’s satellites, proxies and client states. While Putin’s enemies may be eager to cheer that on, power vacuums lead to chaos, conflict, bloodshed and widespread misery – the prominent features of most geopolitical collapses.
In Armenia, plenty of suffering has been endured before: death marches, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps were all part of the Armenian Genocide just over a century ago, shortly before the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the wake of World War I. Some researchers estimate that between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were slain from 1915-1917.
As Armenians face an unrestrained Azerbaijan with a superior military – and as Azeri antiwar protesters are rounded up by the authoritarian state’s security services – one can, perhaps, forgive those who actually live in Russia’s “sphere of influence” if they look toward the uncertain future not with hope, but with apprehension.