Russia Quietly Exits Karabakh, Ceding Its Clout ‘For Good'

A still image taken from a handout video made available by the Russian Defense Ministry Press-Service shows the beginning of the process of withdrawal from Azerbaijan of the Russian peacekeeping contingent stationed in Karabakh, Kalbajar district, Azerbaijan, 17 April 2024. (EPA /Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / Handout)
A still image taken from a handout video made available by the Russian Defense Ministry Press-Service shows the beginning of the process of withdrawal from Azerbaijan of the Russian peacekeeping contingent stationed in Karabakh, Kalbajar district, Azerbaijan, 17 April 2024. (EPA /Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / Handout)
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Russia Quietly Exits Karabakh, Ceding Its Clout ‘For Good'

A still image taken from a handout video made available by the Russian Defense Ministry Press-Service shows the beginning of the process of withdrawal from Azerbaijan of the Russian peacekeeping contingent stationed in Karabakh, Kalbajar district, Azerbaijan, 17 April 2024. (EPA /Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / Handout)
A still image taken from a handout video made available by the Russian Defense Ministry Press-Service shows the beginning of the process of withdrawal from Azerbaijan of the Russian peacekeeping contingent stationed in Karabakh, Kalbajar district, Azerbaijan, 17 April 2024. (EPA /Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / Handout)

When Russian troops deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh four years ago, their task was clear: keep the peace between bitter foes Armenia and Azerbaijan and prevent another war in the volatile region.

But as Azerbaijani forces swept through mountainous Karabakh last September and crushed Armenian separatist forces in a matter of hours, the Russian mission looked lost.

The Kremlin this week quietly confirmed that the peacekeepers were withdrawing, taking with them their weapons and hardware, as well as Russian clout from a region it long considered its own backyard.

Moscow ruled over the Caucasus region first during the Russian empire and then in the Soviet era. When war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the USSR's collapse, Moscow sought to mediate.

The Kremlin deployed almost 2,000 troops in 2020 as part of a ceasefire deal that halted six weeks of brutal fighting between the arch-foes over the Karabakh region.

The accord held until the lightning Azerbaijani offensive last September that ignited an exodus of more than 100,000 Armenians from Karabakh and deepened their frustration with Moscow.

Russia 'betrayed us'

"Along with the Russians leaving Karabakh, the last hope that the population will return home is gone," said Iveta Margaryan, a 53-year-old trained accountant on the streets of Armenia's capital.

"The Russians have betrayed us," she added.

Observers of the Caucasus say Russia is too caught up with its invasion of Ukraine to retain its sway in the region.

Azerbaijan has recently deepened ties with Türkiye -- a close military and political partner with shared cultural ties. And with the pullout from Karabakh, Moscow has further alienated Armenia.

Yerevan has criticized Moscow's perceived shortfalls, with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan busy forging closer ties with the West.

In February, he froze Yerevan's participation in the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a defense grouping of several ex-Soviet states.

Yerevan also joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Moscow's wishes -- a move that obligates it to arrest Vladimir Putin should he visit Armenia.

The European Union and United States are now leading efforts to broker a peace agreement between the Caucasus foes, with Moscow stuck playing second fiddle.

'Shattered' myth

Moscow's unease over Armenia's rapprochement with the West has also become public. The foreign ministry this week demanded that Yerevan "disavow" reports it was deepening military ties with Western countries.

France -- home to a large Armenian diaspora -- has also planted a flag in the region, intensifying its diplomatic backing for Yerevan and providing cutting-edge defensive radars and missiles. "Russia is out, the West is in," said Azerbaijani political scientist Eldar Namazov.

The Russian peacekeepers were meant to "project influence," said Gela Vasadze, senior fellow at the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre.

But their withdrawal has clearly illustrated the limits of Russia's power, he told AFP.

"The myth that Russian boots never leave territories they had once stepped in is shattered."

Shahinoglu said Putin had withdrawn from Karabakh to keep up friendly relations with Azerbaijan and Türkiye at a time when the Kremlin is isolated over the Ukraine war.

But in doing so, Russia has lost its ability to "exploit" Armenian separatism in the Caucasus and leverage it for regional influence, he said.

"Russia has lost its historical footholds in the Caucasus for good."

That sentiment was echoed in Azerbaijan, where the announcement of the Russian drawdown was met with joy and relief.

"People say Russian troops don't ever voluntarily leave," said Ramil Iskenderov, a 37-year-old courier.

"Azerbaijan proved that with the right policy it's possible to achieve the impossible," he told AFP.

In Armenia, where Russia still maintains a military base, the peacekeepers' withdrawal was a final straw for some that meant Yerevan should sever military ties with Moscow.

"Russia has once again betrayed the Armenian people and sold us out. That's it," said Valery Harutyunyan, who lived in Karabakh before fleeing to Armenia in September.

"We can't rely on the Russians again. It's impossible. We should kick Russians out -- not only from Karabakh -- but also from Armenia," he told AFP.



What Are the Implications of the Visit by 4 Arab Leaders to China?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
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What Are the Implications of the Visit by 4 Arab Leaders to China?

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a meeting with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Cairo in January. (Egyptian Presidency)

The leaders of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Tunisia are conducting a visit to China this week to attend the China-Arab Cooperation Forum, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing announced on Monday.

From Tuesday to Saturday, the presidents will “pay state visits to China and attend the opening ceremony of the 10th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, diplomats and experts in Chinese affairs said the participation of Arab heads of state was aimed at conveying a message about efforts to strengthen relations with China, which in return is seeking to engage more in political affairs related to the Middle East.

According to the Chinese statement, the Arab delegation includes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Tunisian President Kais Saied and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

During a press conference, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Deng Li said China’s President Xi Jinping will attend the Forum and deliver a speech on Thursday, adding that he will hold separate talks with the four Arab leaders to discuss bilateral relations and exchange views on regional and international issues of common interest.

Former Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister Ambassador Ezzat Saad told Asharq Al-Awsat that Chinese-Arab relations have witnessed a boom in recent years, specifically since Xi came to power in 2013.

“There are about 12 Arab countries that currently maintain comprehensive strategic partnership relations with China,” he said, noting that Chinese investments in Arab countries almost reached $250 billion dollars, while the volume of Chinese trade with Arab countries is close to half a trillion dollars.

He interpreted the high-level Arab participation as “a message to the West, reflecting the development of Arab relations with eastern powers, such as China and Russia, in light of those countries’ respect for the United Nations Charter and the rights of peoples to self-determination and non-interference in the affairs of others, in contrast to existing Western double-standard policy.”

Asian affairs expert at the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs Diaa Helmy said China is interested in the region, demonstrated in its involvement in political issues and its effort to create “global balances”, in wake of the war on Gaza and the possibility of its spillover into the region and impacting international trade.

China is interested in joining the mediation efforts and help in taking just and urgent decisions to preserve peace and security in the Middle East, he added, noting China’s balanced position towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its support of legitimate Arab rights.