Russia increases presence after Armenian Pashinyan protests at Zangezur border

Russia increases its presence in Zangezur region in Armenia’s south province 

Rachel Brooks

May 4, 2021  

“File:Nature reserve of Zangezur v3.jpg” by Armenak Margarian is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

On May 3, Reuters reported that Russia has reinforced military positions along the Azerbaijani border in the Zangezur region, which is referred to as Syunik Province in adjacent Armenia, and borders Azerbaijan immediately in Armenia’s south. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan stated that this was an “additional security guarantee.” Moscow’s move now gives Russia an increased presence in the region where it sent peacekeepers to enforce a ceasefire agreement brokered between the two former Soviet Republics. Pashinyan stated to Interfax news agency that the 102nd Russian military base had established “two strongholds” in the Syunik region.

This follows an earlier wish from Yerevan that Russia would place troops closer to Azerbaijan. Portions of Zangezur (Syunik) are within meters of the Azerbaijani border, and is the location of a heated post-conflict debate over corridor establishment.  Political tensions over corridor establishment have also included debates over a railway through Zangezur, with Armenia proposing a route to Russia that would be “shorter than that Azerbaijan proposes,” wrote Eurasianet. 

Zangezur continues to be a most-sensitive region in the history of the Karabakh conflict 

Zangezur has been the subject of heated border debate and rhetoric for years, with an article likewise by Eurasianet reportedly “distorting the truth” about Azerbaijan, which presidential aide Hikmet Hajiyev responded to directly in 2018. Ethnic pogroms against Azerbaijanis in the area historically fueled the heat of the war that followed in the Soviet and post-Soviet control era. The actions of Garegin Nzhdeh were referred to by Hajiyev as a “scorched earth” policy. The history of this conflict and Nzhdeh’s actions, Hajiyev noted only received a unilateral review in the western press. 

“Your article, ‘In the shadow of war: Life in Armenia’s defensive corridor,’ dated June 22, 2018, reflects only views of one side in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and fails to provide objective historical information on the Zangazur region. I am profoundly regretful that the authors pass in silence over the atrocities committed against the indigenous Azerbaijani-Muslim population of the region. I also completely disagree with the illustration of Garegin Nzhdeh’s personality in the article,” Hikmet Hajiyev wrote in a response statement to Eurasianet in 2018. 

Azerbaijan argues that a Zangezur corridor is a must of the ceasefire, as rebuilding continues 

Azerbaijan stated that Armenia is not complying with a clause of the November 10 ceasefire statement, which guarantees the restoration of economic and transport ties,  by its reluctance over the Zangezur corridor. Azerbaijan has set well underway its process of post-conflict Karabakh restoration, including the building of the “Victory Road” to Shusha and the construction of an airport in Fizuli, reported on May 4 by Trend. 

An increased Russian presence in the area an Armenian political goal 

“‘The question of expanding and bolstering the Russian military base on the territory of Armenia has always been on the agenda,” Armenian Defence Minister Vagharshak Harutyunyan told Russia’s RIA news agency,’ wrote Reuters, in a report published on February 22. 

This followed the 44-Day Karabakh War of 2020. Moscow already has a military base in northwest Armenia and sent an additional 2,000 troops to the Karabakh region. 

The establishment of two new strongholds in the area follows a mass arrest of anti-Pashinyan protestors in Syunik, (Zangezur) which was posted to Asbarez media on April 22. Pashinyan was met with angry protests in Syunik during a surprise visit to the province on April 21. Asbarez states that Pashinyan was met with scores of angry protesters as he walked through the streets of Syunik “the next morning” who blamed him for Armenia’s defeat in the war with Azerbaijan in late 2020. Pashinyan called the protests a “violation of the law” and demanded that the Armenian National Security Service and local Armenian police take “tough” actions on the protestors. 

American presence in the region 

Before the protests in the  region, Public Radio Armenia stated that the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Lynne M. Tracy had traveled to the Syunik region “to learn first-rhand from local officials and U.S. Embassy program partners how the region has been affected by the twin crises of the pandemic and conflict this past year,” wrote Public Radio Armenia. Ambassador Tracy visited Syunki from Sunday, April 18-Thursday April 22. Tracy met with a series of public offices, as well as families displaced from the Armenian settlement in Karabakh at the close of the conflict. She met with the USAID services in Meghri which assists “half of Meghri’s farmers” as well as the displaced people area in Goris. She also “met with the Border Control Post Commander and visited the St. Hovhannes Church, a recipient of a $500,000 Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation grant.” 

Despite the American ambassador’s presence in Baku and support of continued ties between the U.S. and Azerbaijan, the American support of the Azerbaijani interest in the post-conflict process has been considered lopsided. Vestnik Kavkaza noted that Azerbaijani President Aliyev is growing impatient with Armenia’s continued behaviors at the border. The post noted the passions of both sides over the politically charged issue and the fact that Armenia has received strong western support as the newly-minted Biden administration recognized the 1915 Armenian ethnic cleansing pogroms in Anatolia unequivocally as “the Armenian genocide,” a subject of intense historical and political debate in the region.  

Vestnik Kavkaza noted an “interesting” political scenario in the region in which Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan are mutually interested in unblocking the economic transport communications of the area, yet Armenia and its western support are “blocking” this process. Russia has warned Armenia against sabotage of the trilateral agreement, noting that to do so would be political suicide on Armenia’s part. The outlet also pondered whether the current behavior of western flirtation by Armenia was not a move to secure Pashinyan’s struggling election campaign. 

Rhetoric and lines accompany the complex process of establishing new fixed borders post-conflict

The greater Zangezur southern Armenia region has been the scene of heavily politicized rhetoric following the Karabakh War. The Armenian Mirror-Spectator posted a story which contained some of this heated rhetoric regarding the Shurnukh village of the Goris area in Syunik, at the Azerbaijani border which is stated was “coming under Azerbaijani rule” and stated that the villages’ houses were being ceded to Azerbaijan. The region in question is part of a complex borderline dispute with mere meters between the two shared national lines.

Russian patrols mediated with Azerbaijan, during the Pashinyan “staged” protest 

The Azerbaijani State Border service issued a statement regarding Pashinyan’s visit to Zangezur as “staged” to cause further political and post-conflict process unrest. Azerbaijan reports that Azerbaijani forces were alert for border provocation in the heat of this protest’s revel, and the Russian mediative forces requested Azerbaijan not to react, noting the local domestic politics of the rabble incident. This was reported by AzerNews on April 22.

“The report said that the units of the State Border Service located in Zangilan region’s Seyidlar village on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border and the positions of the Border Service of the Russian Federal Security Service serving in this direction on the Armenian side came under the Armenian servicemen’s fire in the evening on April 21,” said the Border Service Statement, as quoted by AzerNews.

The report likewise stated that the Russian patrol informed Azerbaijani forces the rabble was “drunk.” Azerbaijan warned that such rabbles would be met with retaliation if they continued.