Russia today is like a Potemkin hegemon —- a phantom political power desperate to hide its decline.
Once the unchallenged leader of both the South Caucasus and the entire former Soviet Union, Russia is today like a bit player struggling for relevance following its spectacular failures in Ukraine.
This disastrous performance has not only diminished Russia’s influence across the region, it has also created a historic opportunity for the United States and the West to establish a foothold directly in Moscow’s backyard.
Even as it struggles in Ukraine, Russia is working hard to preserve its authoritarian orbit.
But cracks have developed — most notably nascent democracies that are tacitly challenging Moscow’s autocratic dominance of its onetime Soviet satellites.
Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008, its current and previous invasions of Ukraine, and its collaboration with Azerbaijan to attack Armenia are all part of a pattern: Each nation experienced democratic revolutions that overthrew pro-Russian autocrats.
As punishment for these provocations, Russia has waged war — either directly or through its proxies — against these pro-Western states.
The instability in the South Caucasus — as demonstrated by Azerbaijan’s current offensive against the Armenian people — offers yet additional proof of Russia’s collapse as a regional overlord.
Indeed, Moscow’s abysmal performance in Ukraine has weakened Russia to such an extent that it no longer dictates developments along its edges.
And much as it invaded Ukraine to disrupt its pivot toward NATO and the West, Moscow is now collaborating with Azerbaijan to dismantle Armenian sovereignty to score a much-needed win.
Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced in this latest flare-up, which has seen Azerbaijan retake the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region while also occupying territories within Armenia itself.
But like in Ukraine, Russia has proven unable to fully contain Armenia, a small democracy of 2.9 million people — perfectly exemplifying Moscow’s newfound paralysis.
Wary of yet another humiliation, Russia has formed an axis with Azerbaijan to retain a sense of regional authoritarianism in the face of failure in Ukraine.
Along with expelling ethnic Armenians, democracy is the target of Russian-back Azerbaijani forces.
The rationale here is fairly straightforward: by attacking and fracturing nascent democracies, Russia can strangle democratization itself — and by extension, keep the United States and the West out.
The outcome of this strategy has been a horror show of destruction and loss of life for both Ukraine and Armenia.
And Azerbaijan — rich in oil and natural gas yet ruled by the same autocratic family for decades — is clearly taking its cues from Moscow.
Indeed, much as Russia has absorbed eastern territories in Ukraine, Azerbaijan has absorbed eastern territories of Armenia; in the same way Russia uses revisionist historical claims to justify its aggression against Ukraine, so, too, is Azerbaijan vis-a-vis Armenia; just as Russia has desecrated Ukraine’s sovereignty, Azerbaijan has violated Armenia’s borders; Russia has committed massacres in Bucha and elsewhere — Azerbaijan is killing civilians in the contested territories of Nagorno-Karabakh.
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Although the United States and the West have been unequivocal in their support for Ukraine, this same support has not been offered to Armenia.
To the contrary, to appease the oil-rich dictator of Baku, both Washington and Brussels have tolerated Aliyev’s egregiousness well beyond the limits of international humanitarian law.
More concerning, the Biden Administration appears to be turning a blind eye while vital American interests — including the pursuit of democracy itself — are imperiled.
As Azerbaijan embarks on what many are already calling an ethnic cleansing of the 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, Biden is literally standing idly and keeping his mouth shut
Still, the United States retains immense potential in the region, nowhere more so than in Armenia.
As Russia continues to struggle in Ukraine, the South Caucasus remains ripe for boosting America’s foothold in the region.
Despite rising isolationism at home, the US has clear strategic interests here: From bolstering Western-style law and order to, most crucially, securing a Russian exit from Ukraine and beyond.
As casualties continue to mount in the Caucasus, the US must support and protect democracy in Armenia and the region from expansionist aggressors like Russia and Azerbaijan.
Weaker by the day at the hands of Ukraine, Russia will now rely even more on nations like Azerbaijan (along with Belarus) to preserve the Kremlin’s diminishing command.
This is why to neutralize Russia’s bloody ambitions, America — along with the rest of the West — must neutralize Azerbaijani aggression first.
Nerses Kopalyan is an associate professor-in-residence of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas