By Robyn DixonFrancesca Ebel

RIGA, Latvia (Washington Post) — With virtually the entire population of Armenians fleeing from Nagorno-Karabakh, refugees are voicing rage over the loss of their homeland and accusing Russia of betrayal after peacekeepers sent by Moscow failed to protect them.

The lightning military operation by Azerbaijan to seize back the disputed mountainous region made a mockery of President Vladimir Putin’s 2020 guarantee that Russian peacekeepers would protect the region’s population, maintain a cease-fire, and assure access on the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, through the Lachin Corridor.

Russia failed on all three counts.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has warned that the entire Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, roughly 120,000 people, will leave and he accused Azerbaijan of “ethnic cleansing.” Azerbaijan has insisted that residents can stay, but those fleeing say they do not trust the Azerbaijani government in Baku after decades of war.

More than 100,000 refugees arrived in Armenia from the Nagorno-Karabakh region after Azerbaijan took back control of the region in late September. (Video: Reuters)

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By late Friday, September 29, 93,000 Karabakh Armenians had arrived in Armenia, according to Pashinyan’s office, more than 77 percent of the region’s estimated population.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov has insisted that Russia does not bear blame, and said that there was “no direct reason,” for the exodus, merely that “people are willing to leave.” His statement ignored repeated cycles of war and ethnic violence in the region.

“It is hardly possible to talk about who is to blame,” Peskov insisted on September 28 amid mounting criticism of Russia. He described Baku’s swift moves to reimpose control over Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory, as “a new system of coordinates.” He said residents should get to know the agreements on living under Azerbaijani rule.

Many analysts ascribe the Russian failure down to the Kremlin being highly distracted by its war in Ukraine. The focus on the war has undermined Russia’s authority and influence throughout its geopolitical neighborhood, including the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Moscow’s sway was also diminished when Turkey, Azerbaijan’s powerful military backer, emerged as the victorious regional power broker in the 2020 war that Baku used to seize back most of Nagorno-Karabakh and other Azerbaijani territory taken by Armenia in the first Karabakh war, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But other analysts and officials see darker motives: Moscow betrayed Armenia, for which it had long provided security guarantees, in a conscious shift to accommodate Azerbaijan and Turkey. Some believe Putin was seeking to punish Pashinyan over his search for new Western partners, as the Armenian government in Yerevan seeks to reduce its decades-long dependence on Russia.

Pashinyan’s supporters fear Moscow may use the largely pro-Kremlin opposition in Armenia to stage protests in a bid to oust the prime minister and drag Yerevan back into Moscow’s fold.

When Armenia won control of Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were forced to flee. Decades of war ensued.

But in 2020, heavily armed with advanced weapons from Israel and Turkey purchased using oil and gas riches, Azerbaijan attacked its smaller neighbor, defeating Armenia.

The truce brokered by Russia allowed it to deploy peacekeepers and border guards and maintain at least the appearance of a role as a regional power broker. But it left uncertain the fate of the breakaway Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh; its capital; Stepanakert; and its Armenian residents.

Putin has devoted great energy trying to re-create Russia’s lost empire and dominate its ex-Soviet neighbors, so the failure to protect Armenia, a longtime ally, was a striking shift. For other small nations on Russia’s borders, the message was clear: Who could trust Russia in the future?

“I think it’s a process of managed decline,” said Laurence Broers, an expert on the Caucasus at Chatham House, a London-based policy institute.

Broers said that Russia had quietly turned away from Armenia toward the powerful regional nexus of Turkey and Azerbaijan, because of Turkey’s importance in Russia’s war against Ukraine and in regional energy and transportation routes in the South Caucasus.

“I see it as a pivot to Azerbaijan and becoming a partner in Azerbaijani-Turkish connectivity,” he said.

Olesya Vartanyan, an analyst with International Crisis Group, said a study of Russia’s peacekeeping mission showed that it grew less effective after the invasion of Ukraine, as Azerbaijan steadily withdrew cooperation.

Russian peacekeepers patrolled tense areas but “no matter how often they traveled, and how often they patrolled the areas, that did not have any impact,” Vartanyan said.

“Azerbaijan clearly started testing the Russian peacekeepers and Russia’s readiness to stand for its peacekeepers when the Ukraine invasion started,” she said. “And the more they were testing, the more it was becoming clear that Russia had no appetite to get involved in any kind of confrontation with Azerbaijan.”

With Nagorno-Karabakh emptying out, the Russian peacekeepers will soon have no mission. The broken trust, however, could reverberate for years.

“The Russians are whores! The Turks are whores!” raged 70-year-old Jorik Isakhanyan, using an expletive in Armenian. As he spoke, Isakhanyan was changing a flat tire on his car in Kornidzor, an Armenian border town where he and his wife had fled with no hope of returning to their homeland.

“The Russians lied to us and tricked us,” he said. “They told us the peacekeepers would be there and that there would be no more war. Then, at night, they started shelling with artillery and Grads and drones,” he said, referring to Azerbaijani forces.

For the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, there is also anger at being ignored by the world. For most of the last 10 months, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin Corridor, causing food shortages.

Artur Babayan, 26, of Martakert, blamed Russian leaders. “They either failed to give the right orders or they didn’t want to do it,” Babayan said. But he was also angry at Armenia’s government, as well as the global community that “watches and does nothing.”

“No governments around the world can provide any safety for us,” he said. “There is no country in the world who is willing to take actual steps against Turkey and Azerbaijan.”

The West has never engaged deeply in Armenia’s intractable problems, with the nation perceived as firmly wedded to Moscow. For Armenia, an isolated, landlocked nation, wedged between two enemies, there appeared to be no realistic partner but Russia.

But when Armenia reached out to others, Moscow threatened repercussions. A decade ago, when Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova planned to sign economic agreements with the European Union, the Kremlin saw it as a threat.

In Yerevan, a Russian diplomat warned that Armenia was on a “road to hell.” Another likened the planned accords to pacts with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Yerevan caved and dropped the deals.

Armenia had long relied on the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But as Armenia came under threat in recent months, the organization did nothing.

Increasingly, Pashinyan has slow-walked cooperation with the CSTO. Earlier this month, Armenia skipped CSTO military exercises in Belarus, but welcomed U.S. forces for a 10-day training exercise in Armenia. It also angered Moscow by sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine in early September.

Even worse, from the Kremlin’s view, was Armenia’s decision to ratify the Rome Statute underpinning the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Putin for alleged war crimes over the deportation of Ukrainian children. Peskov called Armenia’s decision “extremely hostile for us.”

In an interview with Italy’s la Repubblica in early September, Pashinyan said that Armenia’s history of relying on Russia was a “strategic mistake.”

Putin’s distaste for Pashinyan is evident in the vehement condemnations by his diplomats and state propagandists.

Pashinyan’s attitude toward Putin is also not subtle. At the same CSTO summit, he moved as far from Putin as possible, leaving an obvious gap in the group photo.

Pashinyan, who helped lead Armenia’s Velvet Revolution protests in 2018 and was twice democratically elected, is not a natural partner for Putin. More relatable is Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, a tough autocrat who broke promises to Western leaders by launching last week’s military operation. Like Putin, Aliyev has a history of brutal rhetoric and inciting hatred of enemies.

“The Armenians believed that Russia would protect their sovereignty,” said Paata Zakareishvili, an expert on the Southern Caucasus and former state minister in Georgia. “But now it’s complete disappointment. They understand Russia will not protect their interests.”

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