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Russia is turning Nagorno-Karabakh into another Crimea

The Hill logo The Hill 1/27/2023 Janusz Bugajski, Opinion Contributor
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Russia’s “peace-keeping” troops in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan are pursuing Moscow’s plan to transform the area into another Crimea. Since its emplacement in Nagorno-Karabakh after the September 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the 2,000-strong force has become a focal point for Russia’s continuing power projection in the South Caucasus.

By preventing Azerbaijan from retaking its territory, Moscow poses as the protector of Armenian interests, prevents a peace treaty from being signed between Baku and Yerevan and pushes for emplacing a more staunchly pro-Russian government in Armenia itself.

In November 2022, Ruben Vardanyan, an Armenian businessman with close links to the Kremlin, was appointed head of the new administration in Nagorno-Karabakh. Vardanyan is also reportedly being groomed by Moscow to succeed Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power in a peaceful revolution.

Pashinyan has alienated Russia by criticizing its military presence is the region, and is reorienting Yerevan’s foreign policy toward the West. Vardanyan is seeking to delegitimize Nagorno-Karabakh’s return to Azerbaijan and is restoking conflicts between Armenians and Azeris to maintain Russia’s role as the primary “mediator” and ultimately the kingmaker.

To legitimize Nagorno-Karabakh’s separation from Azerbaijan, Vardanyan’s administration has released forged data on the composition of its population, a tactic that Moscow used to justify the illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories. The Kremlin’s protégé exaggerates the size of the enclave’s population threefold, claiming that Armenian numbers exceed 120,000, although all recent estimates place the figure at about 40,000. Azeris formed around 25 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh population before large-scale expulsions during the 1988-1994 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Vardanyan is also stirring ethnic animosities by claiming that protests by Azerbaijani environmental activists threaten over 120,000 Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians with a “humanitarian crisis.” In reality, environmental activists launched a peaceful protest in December 2022 near the Azerbaijani town of Shusha, traversed by a highway linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. They were protesting the illicit mining of gold deposits in Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by Russia’s military forces. The Azerbaijani activists have not prevented the passage of either civilian vehicles or humanitarian convoys. But the Russian-backed separatist authorities artificially created food shortages to blame Azerbaijan. In December, Vardanyan admitted that “the worse our situation becomes, the better the global reach of our demands and our voice.”

Vardanyan cites the figure of 120,000 Armenians in all his statements, including to the Russian press. In December, Russian official Konstantin Zatulin repeated Vardanyan’s assertions. This is reminiscent of how Moscow inflates the number of Russian ethnics in the occupied regions of Ukraine and claims they are being subjected to Ukrainian genocide. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow’s spokesmen are blaming Azerbaijan for the alleged genocide of Armenians to animate nationalism and benefit from ethnic divisions.

In 2017, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, together with seven other occupied districts of Azerbaijan regained during the 2020 war, stood at 147,000 people. The number of Armenians before the war reached an estimated 103,000. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 91,000 of this total moved to Armenia as a result of the 2020 war and that only 25,000 returned.

Hence, the actual number of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is around 40,000 with most returnees now living in settlements under the control of Russia’s military. By exaggerating the numbers, separatist officials are seeking to conceal the large-scale migration of Armenians to Armenia and Russia. They similarly inflated demographic data to justify the occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory in the early 1990s.

Russian ethnic warfare is not new. The Kremlin instigates and benefits from secessionist groups in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to consolidate Russia’s influence. After Moscow’s large-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Armenian nationalists in Nagorno-Karabakh together with some politicians in Yerevan called for increasing Russia’s military presence in the region and holding a referendum to join the Russian Federation, following a pattern set by the illegitimate referenda in Crimea and Donbas. Dissatisfied with the position of Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, who sought a peace settlement with Baku, Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian officials have increasingly called for Russian annexation while openly supporting Russia’s absorption of Ukrainian territory.

Former Armenian Prime Minister Hrant Bagratyan has declared that “Artsakh (the Nagorno-Karabakh region) intends to become a part of Russia.” Moves in that direction would include the widespread acquisition of Russian passports by the Armenian population, in line with the policy adopted in Crimea and other occupied Ukrainian territories. This would provide Moscow with a permanent pretext to “defend” its citizens in occupied Azerbaijani territories.

Russia’s control over Nagorno-Karabakh and its intent to dominate the government in Armenia could push the wider South Caucasus region into a conflict that embroils Turkey, NATO, Russia and Iran. To prevent further destabilization, Washington and its NATO allies and EU partners must mobilize international support to replace Russian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh with an international peacekeeping mission and help forge a durable peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan based on the territorial integrity of both states.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His new book is “Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture.”

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