Russia is running out of options in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. While it has proven that its radar jamming system, known as Krasukha-4, can down Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, that “victory” does not erase the fact that Russia is losing to Turkey and losing big time in a proxy theater.
That helps to explain why the Russians attacked a Turkish-supported “rebel” (read radical Islamist) training camp in Idlib, Syria, on October 25, killing at least 56 and wounding scores more. Russia was clearly sending a strong message to the Turks, who are causing Russia trouble in Syria, Libya, Armenia and elsewhere.
On the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish-backed Azerbaijani forces, supplemented by Turkey-imported radical Syrian mercenaries, are now moving in on the town of Lachin.
Should the Azerbaijani forces succeed in the next week or so to take this town, the road to the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh capital, Stepanakert, will be closed. If Stepanakert is isolated, Armenian and local forces there will be trapped without any possibility of supplies and without hope of reinforcements.
That is why the desperate Armenians just sacked their commander of Border Forces, Vaginak Sarkissian, after Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan demanded his dismissal as Armenia’s battle losses mount. Armenia also fired Major General Hovhannes Karumyan, head of the counterintelligence department of the National Security Service.
Two weeks ago, on October 8, Pashinyan also lashed out at the head of Armenia’s intelligence services, Argishti Kyarmyan, and fired him as well. Meanwhile, the commander of the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) defense forces was badly wounded on October 26, a big setback for Armenia.
It isn’t completely clear if Stepanakert’s surrender, if that were to happen, would trigger a complete collapse of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. But it is likely the Armenians living there, a total population of around 150,000 and overwhelmingly Armenian, may be driven out of the territory into the State of Armenia.
All of this suggests the strong possibility of regime change in Armenia. On Russian news talk radio and in the Russian press, there is plenty of talk about the possibility of replacing the Armenian government.
Russia has two main bases in Armenia that hosts land troops, attack and transport helicopters, and Mig-29 jets.
None of these have been committed to the war, and so long as Turkish F-16’s are sitting in Azerbaijan, Russia would only commit its forces if they had an assured chance of success against the Turkish jets and Azerbaijani air defenses, and if their entry into the war would make a difference.
Today, there are some 15 Russian-piloted and controlled Mig-29’s in Armenia, protecting the capital city Yerevan. The Mig jets and attack helicopters are based at Gyumri, Armenia, very close to the Armenia-Turkey border, leaving the Russian base potentially exposed to direct attacks by Turkey if the war were to spin out of control.
So far, Turkey is known to have deployed six F-16s to Azerbaijan. They were spotted this week confirmed in pictures from a US commercial satellite at the Azerbaijani airbase Gabala. Four of the F-16s are shown in a photo released by Armenia.
Gabala Air Base was once the home of an important long range Russian radar station, which was closed down in 2012. Gabala is in the north-central part of Azerbaijan, not far from the Russian border.
Meanwhile a number of Turkish-recruited, trained and paid for Syrian mercenaries have been captured by Armenian forces, confirming reports of the recruitment and transport of Syrian mercenaries in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. (They are reportedly paid around US$50 a month for their military services.)
Russia is in a difficult position, both in regard to Armenia and because of Turkey. The Vladimir Putin initiative to gain a political foothold in Turkey has backfired, and today Turkey is a bigger enemy of Russia than either the US or NATO.
The current situation leaves the Russians holding the bag unless they can forge a settlement of the crisis and get the Turks and their Syrian Islamist recruits out of Azerbaijan.
The bottom line is that Armenia will have to make major concessions to Azerbaijan or fight an endless, losing war that will entrench the Turks in Azerbaijan for the long term. That would have major negative ramifications for Russia.
Azerbaijan, a relatively moderate Muslim country, is a major potential leverage point over Iran not only because of its shared border with Iran but also because there are more Azerbaijanis in Iran than there are in Azerbaijan.
If Turkey stays in Azerbaijan for the long term, the price will be the Turikfication of the country, meaning a much more militant form of Islam and pro-Islamic politics. Azerbaijan could thus serve as a jumping-off point to destabilize the Caucuses and reinforcing separatist Islamic movements inside Russia’s territory.
For Russia to have any influence under the scenario an Azeri victory, it would have only one option –to convince the Armenian government to make a deal. The current Armenian prime minister almost certainly will not make concessions and, for that reason it is hard to see him continuing in office if the Russians have any say.
While for the most part the war has not come to Armenian territory, that can’t be ruled out if the situation continues to deteriorate. The likelihood of regime change in Armenia is, therefore, increasingly likely in the near term.