The recent seizure of a police station by radical opposition groups in Armenia is rooted in the long-standing tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A new outbreak of fighting in the region could have consequences not only for the parties involved, but also for Russia.

A riot police officer installs barbed wire to prevent a march of anti-government protesters, supporters of the armed group who have been holed inside a police station, in Yerevan, July 30, 2016. Photo: PAN Photo via AP

In the early morning hours of July 17, supporters of the Founding Parliament movement calling themselves the Sasna Tsrer (also known as the Daredevils of Sassoun) — in reference to an ancient Armenian epic — seized a police station in Yerevan. The men killed one policeman and injured two more before releasing the rest of the police force and occupying the building.

The group then announced the beginning of an uprising against the government of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. They demanded the resignation of the president and the government, as well as the liberation of their comrade and coordinator – Jirair Sefilian, a Lebanese-Armenian, veteran of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-1994 and a hardliner opposed to any concessions to Baku. Sefilian is currently serving time for possession of weapons and anti-government activities.

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In the midst of the occupation, a militant crowd sympathetic to the Sasna Tsrer along with supporters of the opposition clashed with police outside the station. While behind bars, Sefilian made a political alliance with Raffi Hovannisian, the head of the Heritage Party and a popular moderate opposition leader, to form a new political movement called “New Armenia.”

The Heritage Party has of late been playing on the disapproval of much of Armenian society of any attempts by President Sargasyan to make peace with Azerbaijan. Their job has been made easier by the recent flare-ups.

What a new conflict would mean for Russia

In an April report, Eugene Chausovsky of Strafor argued that there is a real possibility of a new escalation of the Armenian-Azeri conflict. Any outbreak of hostilities in the region could have serious consequences for Russia. After the withdrawal of troops from Georgia in 2007 and from Azerbaijan in 2013, Armenia is the only Russian foothold in the region. Russia’s 102nd military base, which hosts about 5,000 troops, is located near the city of Gyumri. The mission of the soldiers there is to protect the Turkish-Armenian border and airspace.

It is worth noting that the Founding Parliament party is skeptical about the Russian base in Gyumri, especially after a Russian soldier stationed at the base, Valery Permyakov, murdered an Armenian family in 2015. At that time, Zaruhi Postanjyan, a member of parliament from the Heritage Party, proposed revising the terms of stay of the 102nd military base in Armenia, and protests erupted aimed both at the Russian military and the government, which tried to hush up the matter.

Since 2012, Founding Parliament has named “the increasing dependence on external forces” as one of the threats to impoverished Armenia, and a symptom of a systemic crisis in the country.

Yerevan, like Baku, is part of the “conflict equilibrium” on which Moscow is building its foreign policy in the region. According to Sergey Markedonov, associate professor of Foreign Regional Studies and Foreign Policy at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU), “For now, Russia is not interested in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, since a frozen conflict allows it to exert pressure on both Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

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Russia finds it convenient to act as a mediator and seller of weapons to both sides, although the possibilities are greater in oil-rich Azerbaijan. A year ago, Moscow promised to sell Baku $4 billion worth of weapons while offering Yerevan only $200 million worth of weapons on a 13-year loan.

Although Baku had always been a good customer of Russian weapons, shortly before the conflict escalated, it signed a contract mainly for the supply of heavy offensive weapons: the Solntsepek (Sun) flamethrower, the MLRS Smerch, self-propelled howitzers MSTA-S, T-90 tanks, as well as attack and transport helicopters. In contrast, Yerevan’s procurement spectrum is much smaller and focuses on defensive tactics – anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons, conventional and rocket artillery, armored vehicles and small arms.

Following the escalation of the conflict, Russia did not impose any embargos on the warring parties, but on the contrary, sped up the pace of implementation. According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, the strategy “preserves the balance of power in the region.”

But in fact, the equilibrium and balance of power are quite fragile. For more than 20 years, Moscow has balanced on a razor’s edge, as a real settlement of the conflict would deprive it of a convenient lever of pressure on Azerbaijan along with the justification for its military presence in Armenia. A full-scale war between the two, on the other hand, would put Moscow in conflict with both Baku and its traditional ally Ankara, and drag Russia into the conflict on the Armenian side, according to an alliance treaty signed with Yerevan in 1997.

Armenia is also part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a regional international organization whose goal is to maintain peace and stability in the CIS, which includes, in addition to Russia and Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This membership conveys certain obligations on Moscow vis-à-vis Yerevan.

Analyzing the mediation efforts of Moscow in April, Chausovsky of Stratfor noted that, at the moment, Moscow sees no benefit in another hotbed of tension on its borders, and is trying not to emphasize its close relationship with Armenia in an attempt to reconcile the two countries. Russia also must consider its relationship with Turkey, which is currently on the mend after several months of tensions.

Sargsyan’s dilemma

Russia is counting on the leadership of Armenian President Sargsyan. He has his own reasons for trying to prevent an escalation of tensions with Azerbaijan, as this would make him a target for criticism by Armenian opposition and radicals. With this in mind, on May 16, Sargasyan refused to endorse a bill proposed by the Armenian parliament calling for the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent republic. This move sparked outrage among those who consider any concessions to Baku as a defeat and betrayal.

Sargasyan is walking a difficult path. Although he must take into consideration the demands of the opposition, his landlocked country is suffering from serious economic difficulties due to two decades of economic blockade imposed by Ankara and Baku. The economic situation has caused tension within society, which could get worse should a war start.

Given these circumstances, it is no coincidence that Sefilian has been under arrest for the third time since June 20. Since April, Sefilian has regularly made public accusations against the government and the military command, accusing them of having “surrendered” to Baku the commanding heights near the village of Talish. The Armenian Ministry of Defense rejected these charges, and accused Sefilian of fomenting tensions.

According to Mikael Zolyan, an expert at the analytical Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, it is evident that “in Yerevan and Stepanakert [the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh], they believe that the longer that the status quo holds, the more likely that the international community, and ultimately even Azerbaijan, will recognize the existence of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.”

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Zolyan thinks that Azerbaijan is continuing its tactics of dragging out the status quo as long as possible in order to prepare for an offensive war. Baku, ever more confident in its military strength, may soon consider an escalation – even a limited one — beneficial. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, who effectively inherited the position from his father Heydar, urgently needs a way to legitimize his rule, and the usual anti-Armenian rhetoric is not enough.

Azerbaijan is currently suffering from the collapse in oil prices and the devaluation of its currency. From Aliyev’s perspective, a new conflict can kill two birds with one stone – by making things difficult for Sargsyan and confirming his own authority.

However, it is too early to say that the overthrow of Sargsyan would benefit Baku. If the opposition should come to power, the prospects of at least a continuation of the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan will become extremely illusory, and at the very least, it would be a setback in the negotiations process. Baku, for its part, needs a victorious blitzkrieg, or another loud provocation, like the April battle in Talish. A protracted war with an uncertain outcome could bury the Aliyev regime.

How these tensions apply to Nagorno-Karabakh is yet to be seen. The Karabakh knot is an equation with many unknowns and too many losing variants for all interested parties to the conflict – both those interested in the status quo, Russia and Armenia, as well as those who wish to change it, Azerbaijan and Turkey. Despite the apparent deadlock and the outbreak of violence in April, Alexander Krylov, president of the Caucasus Scientific Community, says, “the sides keep playing the role of negotiators to avoid being accused of walking out from the process.”

Paradoxically, this escalation has led to the activation of the peace process, and the resurgent role of Moscow in it, according to analysts at Stratfor.  However, events in Yerevan continue to unfold, and it is too early to talk about their real consequences on the future settlement of the Karabakh conflict.