The benefits, which discontinuing the war on Russia’s terms can generate for defending or advancing Russia’s vital interests, will exceed the costs of doing so.
They say one of the follies that practitioners of foreign policy commit is to tell another country’s diplomats that it is in their country’s national interest to do something the practitioners want them to do. Well, I am not a practitioner, but merely an observer of Russia’s foreign policy. Moreover, my view of what Russia’s vital interests are has been formed by reading Russian leaders’ actions, words and documents. Therefore, I think it is permissible for me to ask whether it would be in Russia’s interest to stop the ongoing war over Karabakh. My answer to that question would have been an unequivocal yes even if I did not hail from that region. This war is already impacting six of the eight conditions whose maintenance is of paramount importance to ensuring Russia’s secure and unhindered development, and, therefore, can be classified as vital interests.
Russia’s vital interests that are or will be impacted if Russian does not intervene to stop the war
One of Russia’s vital interests that is already being impacted by that war is the need to prevent, deter and reduce threats of secession from Russia, insurgency within Russia or in areas adjacent to Russia, and armed conflicts waged against Russia, its allies or in the vicinity of Russian frontiers. Anyone following the war in Karabakh and familiar with the geography of post-Soviet Eurasia would conclude that this interest is put at risk by an armed conflict fought less than 130 kilometers away from Russia’s borders, with one of the warring countries bordering Russia and the other a founding member of a Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
Two more of Russia’s vital interests are not impacted yet, but may be seriously undermined in the future if this war continues.
The other interest is ensuring the survival of Russian allies and their active cooperation with Russia. If the war is allowed to continue and ends in Armenia’s total defeat in the continued absence of tangible support from Russia, then the Armenian authorities will be hard pressed by part of the Armenian public on why their country is participating in Moscow-led integration projects if Russia does not come to Armenia’s aid when it is facing an existential threat. In fact, one could argue that the war is already impacting Moscow’s reputation as a military ally. After all, it could not have escaped the attention of other countries pursuing military and security cooperation with Russia that even participating in all the Russian-led integration projects in post-Soviet Eurasia and hosting what the Russian defense ministry’s official mouthpiece describes as Russia’s southern foreword stronghold, as Armenia does, does not prevent adepts of real-politik in Moscow from insisting on an “equidistant” attitude toward you and your existential adversary.
Turkey has been providing direct military support to Azerbaijan in a move, which it has clearly has not coordinated with its fellow NATO members, just like it has not done so in Syria and Libya in makes one wonder whether this Western alliance is suffering from Tourette syndrome. Azerbaijan’s victory may prompt the hawkish part of Turkey’s ruling elite to take a closer look at opportunities for not only recovering some hegemonic positions that the Ottoman empire once enjoyed not only across the Caucasus, but also for advancing this elite’s long-time dream of anchoring the Turkic-speaking nations of Central Asia to Turkey.
Another vital interest, which the continuation of this war could have a formidable negate impact on, is the prevention of large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on Russia. That vital interest is already being threatened by the participation of thousands of foreign mercenaries in the Karabakh conflict, as can be inferred from statements by top Russian officials, such as director of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his deputy Oleg Syromolotov. Most of these mercenaries have been recruited by Ankara from the ranks of pro-Turkish groups in Syria and sent to fight on the side of Baku. Many of these mercenaries are former or current members of jihadists groups Russia has designated as terrorists, such as the Islamic State (IS), Ahrar al-Sham, which had worked with IS until 2014, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was affiliated with al-Qaeda until 2016. It goes without saying that it cannot be in Russia’s interest to have scores of armed jihadists in a country bordering Russia’s North Caucasus, where a large-scale jihadist insurgency was underway the 2000s-2010s and where IS established a vilayet in 2015. Stopping the war would increase the probability that these jihadists would pack up and leave Azerbaijan, though it is not clear how many of them will head back to their homes in Syria. After all, who can guarantee that they won’t seek a new opportunity for waging jihad in Russia’s North Caucasus, like some of the jihadist veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war did when they moved to the Caucasus and Bosnia in the early 1990s?
Russia’s vital interests that will be impacted if Russia intervenes to stop the war
If Russia does intervene to stop this war, then that will have a positive impact on at least one of Russia’s vital interests, though that impact will be modest. That interest is establishing and maintaining productive relations, upon which Russian national interests hinge to a significant extent, with core European Union members, the United States and China. If Russia, jointly with the U.S. and the EU’s France, as co-chairs of the OSCE’s Minsk group, manage to convince the warring sides to discontinue hostilities, then this success could contribute to repairing Russia’s relations with the West. By making this kind of progress toward normalizing relations with the West, Russia would also be able to advance toward more balanced relations with China (the basket in which Russia has had to keep more eggs than it would like, perhaps, to since its intervention in Ukraine). Moscow’s success in discontinuing the war would also help advance the implementation of one idea Russian strategists have proposed to ensure a global role for Russia amid a changing world order.
If Russia does not only intervene to stop this war, but also does so on Armenia’s side, then such an intervention can have a modest negative impact on another Russian vital interest. That interest is ensuring the viability and stability of major markets for major flows of Russian exports and imports. Should Russia intervene on Armenia’s side to stop the war, that would probably make Azerbaijan and Turkey reconsider their economic ties to Russia. However, given that Turkey and Azerbaijan account for less than 1/20th of Russia’s overall trade (0.5% and 3.7% respectively), these costs would be manageable for Russia.
Interests that are not and will not be impacted by the war
There are also two vital interests of Russia that will not be impacted by either the continuation or cessation of this war. One of these is preventing neighboring nations from acquiring nuclear arms and their long-range delivery systems on Russian borders. Neither of the three countries involved in the war are pursuing nuclear weapons, while whether Turkey acquires longer-range missiles is not something that would be influenced by this war. Another unimpacted interest is ensuring the steady development and diversification of the Russian economy and its integration into global markets.
And, yes, both Azerbaijan and Turkey have been buying many Russian arms, the sales of which help Russia to maintain some semblance of diversification in its energy-dominated economy, but neither is among the top 10 importers of Russian arms.
What Russia can do to stop the war and defend its interests
It is not too late for the Kremlin to make a meaningful effort to discontinue the war and it has the leverage to do so, such as its ability to block a multi-billion flow of remittances from Russia to these countries, which is something Vladimir Putin has already hinted he can do to stop the fighting. Russia can also impose constraints on the operations of businesses owned by citizens of the warring countries or on employing such citizens and restrict trade with these countries, which is something Russia did to Turkey in the wake of the shooting down of a Russian warplane by a Turkish warplane in 2015, eventually compelling the Turkish authorities to change tactics and seek to mend fences with Russia.
Russia can also team up with the EU and U.S., which are also interested in ending this war, to threaten these warring countries’ elites with freezing their assets, while Western countries can also threaten to suspend the warring parties from SWIFT.
These punitive measures won’t be without cost for Russia itself, but, as demonstrated above, these costs will be manageable. As important for adepts of realpolitik in the Kremlin, the benefits, which discontinuing the war on Russia’s terms can generate for defending or advancing Russia’s aforementioned vital interests, will exceed the costs of doing so.