Gabriel Gavin

Is Putin’s war spreading?

Armenians grow fearful as Russian forces are distracted

Is Putin's war spreading?
A map of landmines in Nagorno-Karabakh (Getty)
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Yerevan, Armenia

‘This is our land,’ Anna says, looking out over her roadside flower shop. ‘Lenin promised it to us.’ Her father was born across the mountains in Russia, one of around 100,000 displaced Armenians only able to return home after world war two. ‘But thanks to Lenin, we have our own country. A free country – at least for now.’

As the fighting in Ukraine stretches into its first month, another conflict between two former Soviet states might not be far away. Last year, a brief but bloody war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been autonomously governed by ethnic Armenians over the past three decades. Backed by fearsome drones and heavy weaponry from their Turkish allies, the Azerbaijani forces made rapid gains. Many in the tiny Caucasus nation of Armenia feared the whole country could soon be overrun.

Despite being one of the few genuine democracies to emerge from the fall of the USSR, Armenia received little support from the West: only Russia was willing to back up its southern neighbour. Thousands of Armenians were forced to leave Nagorno-Karabakh as the Azeri military rolled in and took control of towns and villages, tearing down churches and redistributing civilian property. The war was only halted when a Moscow-brokered ceasefire deal saw Russian peacekeepers deployed on the ground – something those in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, had repeatedly called for. Now, though, with the Kremlin pre-occupied with its catastrophic invasion in Eastern Europe, it appears that fragile peace could shatter.

On Thursday, the Armenian side reported that Azerbaijan’s troops had crossed the contact line. Women and children have been evacuated from at least one village in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian peacekeepers seem keen to avoid becoming involved in the confrontation, their country’s military now focused on the other side of the Black Sea. Those watching from Kyiv seem only too happy with the situation. The official account of Ukraine’s national parliament today tweeted:

Although quickly deleted, that thumbs up emoji has proven controversial in Armenia. Tensions have been growing between the two countries – one has a vested interest in a strong Russian military; the other clearly does not. ‘What do we owe Ukraine?’ Anna asks. ‘Everyone sat by and watched the war in Karabakh ­– Britain, America, Ukraine. Only Russia helped us.’ Over the last month, the country has welcomed tens of thousands of middle-class Russians fleeing repression back home. ‘This is a good thing,’ Anna says. ‘We are a poor people, and maybe the Russians will spend money.’

However, some Armenians are sympathetic towards the plight of the Ukrainians. ‘We know what it is like to be attacked,’ says Raz, a 29-year old tech worker. ‘We have seen our friends coming home in coffins and we worry about whether our country will cease to exist, so of course we support Ukraine. But we are so dependent on Russia that we can’t do anything about it.’ Despite pursuing close ties with the West, Yerevan has so far declined to sanction Moscow in the wake of the invasion and its UN diplomats have abstained on votes against Russia.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, which most Armenians consider an integral part of their country, another humanitarian crisis is growing. Azerbaijan has reportedly cut off gas supplies, leaving homes without heating as temperatures drop below freezing. Officials in the Azeri capital, Baku, deny turning off the taps, accusing the separatists of doing it themselves for propaganda purposes.

The rhetoric coming out of Azerbaijan is itself chilling. One MP from the ruling party said earlier this month that Russian peacekeepers had stood in the way for too long. ‘Measures must be taken to eliminate those separatist terrorists who exist in our territory today,’ he said, hinting that a new military campaign could soon be underway.

As Putin's tanks entered Ukraine, the Russian President raged against the artificial borders left by the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, Armenia, which has turned to Russia for protection, may soon see its enemies attempt to redraw those same borders once again.