Armenia has asked the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to chair peace talks with Azerbaijan in a fresh challenge to Vladimir Putin’s increasingly loose grip on Russia’s regional allies in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
The snub from a traditional ally to Putin, who had hosted an inconsequential meeting of the warring countries’ leaders last month, comes immediately on the back of his disastrous summit with six former Soviet states.
During a “family” photograph of leaders of countries in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in Yerevan on Wednesday, Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, stepped away from Putin, who had been standing to his left.
Pashinyan then refused to sign a summit declaration, as he railed against the recent failures of the CSTO, which ties Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into a mutual defence agreement.
He expressed frustration at the lack of a response to his formal request for the CSTO to intervene on Armenia’s behalf after his country came under fresh attack from across the border with Azerbaijan in September.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in an on-and-off conflict for three decades over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but largely controlled by the majority ethnic Armenian population.
Following the most recent outbreak of violence in September, which cost the lives of 207 Armenian and 80 Azerbaijani soldiers, gruesome images emerged on social media of alleged war crimes, including that of a naked female Armenian soldier with her legs cut off, her eyes gouged out and a severed finger in her mouth.
“It is depressing that Armenia’s membership in the CSTO did not deter Azerbaijan from aggressive actions,” Pashinyan had told the meeting in the Armenian capital.
On Friday it emerged that Pashinyan had sought France’s involvement in the latest attempt to build on the current fragile ceasefire, with talks scheduled to take place on 7 December in Brussels.
In response, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, said he was cancelling the summit as he could not accept a French role, accusing Macron of an “anti-Azerbaijan position”.
He said: “It is clear that under these circumstances, with this attitude, France cannot be part of the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia.”
Asked about Aliyev’s comments, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Moscow – which deployed 5,000 peacekeepers to the region in 2020 – was ready to help broker further agreements.
Tom de Waal, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Europe thinktank specialising in eastern Europe and the Caucasus region, said the damaging summit optics for Putin highlighted the increasing fragility of Russia’s influence on its immediate neighbours, with the institutions through which the Kremlin asserts soft power failing and the true strength of its hard power being exposed in Ukraine.
He said: “It is part of a broad trend in which Russians still have this Soviet legacy of seeing their neighbours as kind of junior partners beholden to them, but they are sovereign countries. The CSTO is supposed to be a defensive organisation, but as far as Armenia is concerned it hasn’t lived up to its obligations.”
Armenia’s criticism follows comments from Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the UN general assembly in September during which he implicitly criticised Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Emil Avdaliani, a professor at the European University in Tblisi, Georgia, and director of Middle East studies at the Geocase thinktank, said Armenia was trying to diversify its foreign relations in light of Russia’s weakness.
He said: “Dependence on Russia is deadly, so Yerevan is seeking rapprochement with Turkey, closer ties with the EU, Iran and China.
“This is a result of Moscow’s half-hearted approach toward Armenia and most of all Russia’s weakening position in the south Caucasus as a result of its increasingly unsuccessful war in Ukraine.”
Outside the CSTO summit, Armenian protesters had called for Russia to leave Ukraine.
“The protests indicate a shift in Armenia’s perception of Russia,” Avdaliani said. “Its unreliability as an ally has grown palpable. Anti-Russian sentiments always were present among Armenia’s political elites, but now it turns into resentment.
“The protests benefited Pashinyan as it allowed him to show that Armenia needs concrete guarantees and not just empty promises. This does not mean that Armenia will be withdrawing from CSTO, but just that Yerevan tries to influence the negative dynamics in the grouping.”