Whatever Armenia and Azerbaijan will agree upon regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is not at all important, as Moscow has its own interests to promote in the South Caucasus region. If Moscow once lost Georgia and withdrew its forces from there, it does not mean that it will happen in the case of Armenia – and in Azerbaijan too, technically, as Russia’s peacekeeping contingent is placed in Artsakh, which the Armenian prime minister has accepted as Azerbaijani territory. Russia therefore physically is not present only in one country of the South Caucasus but two. Most probably, the position of Russia will be presented to the concerned parties during the upcoming meeting between Aliyev, Putin, and Pashinyan in Moscow.
Moscow’s stance may be characterized the following way: “You may agree on anything about the future of Artsakh but we have our interests to be addressed in the region and we are not going to give them up.” Moscow understands perfectly that the policy of the West is to push Russia out of the South Caucasus region, and Moscow will naturally do everything to prevent this from happening. This is a very normal geopolitical struggle that has been present since the collapse of the USSR.
Is it even possible that Yerevan and Baku can decline Moscow’s requests or not take into consideration Russia’s interests? Most probably not. Although Russia’s primary military and diplomatic resources are aimed at Ukraine, where Russia carries out military operations with great difficulty, it would be wrong to think that Russia will give up its “historical sphere of influence” where it has been present for centuries. As already mentioned, there is an opinion in the West that today there is a good opportunity for Russia’s influence in the South Caucasus to be reduced and balanced by Turkish influence.
The same strategy was evident right after the collapse of the USSR, when there was an opinion that Russia was too weak and fragmented and could not maintain its spheres of influence. However, this did not happen and Russia continued to maintain its influence, though with considerable difficulties. Another example is the aftermath of World War II. By the end of the Second World War, there was a similar opinion that although a winner in the war, the Soviet Union in fact endured excessive losses. As it became extremely weak economically and socially, it would not be able to maintain its zones of influence around Eurasia and the world. However, this did not happen either, and the Soviets kept their spheres of influence and even expanded them.
The question remains, is Russia in such a weak position today that it does not have any leverage to pursue its interests in the South Caucasus region? This does not seem likely. Though focusing on the Ukrainian war, it is still trying to serve its interests in the South Caucasus, and its goal remains to continue its presence there. Therefore, at the upcoming meeting in Moscow, regardless of what agreement Armenia and Azerbaijan will reach in terms of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and bilateral relations, it would be naive to think that Russia will not present its interests to the parties, which Yerevan and Baku simply cannot ignore.
Russia retains a significant influence on the domestic and foreign policy of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Besides the “standard” tools of influence, there are some other factors which are extremely important. According to some calculations, there are more Armenians living in Russia than in Armenia. They have significant financial wealth and therefore huge influence in Armenia. Russia is also home to wealthy Azerbaijani businessmen who are totally dependent on the Kremlin rather than the Aliyev regime. This means Russia can use these elements to significantly influence the internal political life of the two states.