The new Armenian government and the majority of the Armenian people, he says, “are under not the slightest illusion about the role and true intentions of the Kremlin in the region,” especially after the long history in which Russia has used the war and threat of war over Karabakh as a means of keeping the Armenians in line.
Both are especially concerned now because of the unfortunate Russian “tradition” of marking major international sports events with a war – Georgia in 2008 after the Beijing Olympiad and Ukraine in 2014 after the 2014 Olympics. Now, he says, many in Armenia fear the World Cup will be followed by “a new war, in Karabakh.”
There are ever increasing signs of preparations for just such an outcome, Khzmalyan says. “More than that,” he continues, “it is possible even to suggest a more or less exact date for a possible escalation – the middle of July. At that moment the football competition will be ending and the Putin-Trump meeting in Helsinki will be taking place.”
Those events will create enough “information ‘noise’ for the conduct of a three or four-day special operation in Karabakh without much interference.” Making that even more likely, he says, is Pashinyan’s successful visit to Brussels for the NATO summit, something many in Moscow view in the darkest colors.
But the clearest indication of all involves the shifting of Russian units on the ground along the front, moves that recall what happened before the outbreak of a new round of hostilities two years ago. Now as then, Khzmalyan says, “Putin wants to introduce Russian forces in key points (from Russia’s point of view) of the Karabakh front.”
These ae in the north in the Mardakert district and in Goradiz on the Iranian border. Why there? the Yerevan commentator asks rhetorically. Because these are areas through which north-south pipelines could flow between Russia and Iran, an increasingly important dimension of Moscow’s policies given its ever greater involvement in the Middle East.
Ensuring its base in the southern Caucasus, Kzmalyan says, is thus critical for Moscow. It clearly is hoping for the following scenario: “Russian forces are introduced into an earlier selected territory as ‘peacekeepers’ after three or four days of fighting, in the course of which an Azerbaijani shock group … is given the chance to seize as much territory as it wants.”
Then, the analyst says, Moscow hopes that “an official appeal will come from Yerevan” for Russia or the Organization for the Collective Security Treaty to provide assistance to stop the Azerbaijani advance. And then Russia will introduce forces into Karabakh itself, possibly covered with soldiers from Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan.
“Putin would thus obtain not only significant bases in a strategic region and direct leverage on both Armenia and Azerbaijan but also the laurels of ‘a peacekeeper’ with claims to a Nobel Peace Prize ‘for stopping the years’ long Karabakh conflict,” the Armenian commentator suggests.
Azerbaijan of course isn’t prepared to take the risks that getting involved in a full-scale war would involve. It has too many internal problems as the recent energy blackout and riots in Ganca show, Khzmalyan says. But Ilham Aliyev is certainly ready to take advantage of a situation to advance during a short war.
Putin wasn’t able to orchestrate everything to suit his goals in 2016; and there are reasons to think that he may not now, reasons that reflect the new government in Yerevan and the new calculations of the regime in Baku. But the Kremlin leader is pushing things up to the edge in the hopes of sweeping the board, something that unfortunately cannot now be excluded.