Putin’s Weakness: Losing Armenia


After 20 months of squandering Russia’s military might in Ukraine, Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin couldn’t — or wouldn’t — arm his peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and consequently surrendered the Armenian enclave to its Azerbaijani attackers.

That failure just cost Putin a crucial regional ally and exposed him to further vulnerability to arrest for alleged war crimes.

Armenian legislators earlier this week voted to join the International Criminal Court. In March the court issued a warrant for the arrest of Putin. The Russian president is accused of personal responsibility for the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children for indoctrination in Russia.

As a signatory to the ICC’s founding treaty, Armenia will be obliged to arrest Putin on the outstanding warrant if the Kremlin leader dares set foot in the Caucasus country. Putin was forced to skip the August summit of the BRICS alliance for fear of being detained and extradited as the host nation, South Africa, is a member of the ICC.

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan cast the move to join the ICC as motivated by a desire to pursue charges against Azerbaijan’s government for its violations of international law in seizing the enclave. But Armenia’s accession to the ICC is expected to take at least two months and the court’s jurisdiction would not be retroactive to undertake a probe of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev for alleged crimes committed in the Nagorno-Karabakh rout.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov condemned the vote to join ICC as “inappropriate” and vehemently disputed Pashinyan’s recent statements that Armenia erred in depending on Moscow to protect its security interests.

In recent incidents of Yerevan drifting away from Putin’s orbit, the Armenian government has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and last month hosted U.S. troops for a joint military exercise.

“Armenia’s security architecture was 99.999% linked to Russia, including when it came to the procurement of arms and ammunition,” Pashinyan told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica a month ago, two weeks before the Azerbaijani attack on Nagorno-Karabakh intensified in mid-September.

“Today we see that Russia itself is in need of weapons, arms and ammunition and in this situation it’s understandable that even if it wishes so, the Russian Federation cannot meet Armenia’s security needs,” Pashinyan said. “This example should demonstrate to us that dependence on just one partner in security matters is a strategic mistake.”

Armenia is one of six former Soviet states aligned in the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization that purports to operate along a NATO-like strategy of joint protection of its members. The defense alliance also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Putin’s loss of Armenia as an ally was spurred by an evolving conflict of interests. A country of less than 3 million people with a long-struggling economy, Armenians have traditionally close ties with Europe and the United States. Armenians, especially younger voters, have been wary of Russia’s commitment to protect them at least since Azerbaijan waged a new war against Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, seizing back the enclave after its quarter century of declared Armenian statehood.

Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated territory surrounded and imperiled by Azerbaijan’s Muslim autocracy since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, has virtually disintegrated since a mid-September assault waged by Baku. More than 90% of the enclave’s 120,000 Armenian residents have fled in the past three weeks since Aliyev’s forces swept in and Russia’s 2,000 deployed cease-fire enforcers made no move to stop them.

The few Western and independent journalists who managed to cover the demise of the centuries-old Armenian community described the vacated enclave as resembling a “zombie apocalypse,” with no sign of human habitation except empty chairs left by the roadsides where residents waited to be evacuated.

Independent Russian analysts point out that Putin has been irritated by Armenia’s recent involvement with Western security and economic powers in its search for more reliable defense assistance. Putin’s government is dependent on Azerbaijan and its Turkish allies for help in circumventing Western sanctions. That assistance is of higher priority to the Kremlin and likely motivated the decision to sacrifice Nagorno-Karabakh to Aliyev’s 30-year effort to conquer and repopulate the territory with Azeris.

“The tragic exodus (of Armenians) also reveals another truth: as a result of its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Russia can no longer protect the interests of even its closest partners,” Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote in a commentary for the Financial Times on Monday.

“The destabilizing effects will continue to be felt across the vast Eurasian landmass,” Gabuev concluded, hinting at instability likely to intensify as Putin needs to rob from his other foreign occupation forces to pay for manpower and munitions to continue the war in Ukraine.  

While the United States is not an ICC member, a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation visited the war crimes court last month to offer assistance in gathering evidence of Russian genocide in Ukraine to back additional war crimes charges against Putin.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters during The Hague visit that Putin has “tried to erase a culture, a people and a religion, and that is the definition of genocide.”

McCaul said 30,000 children “have been taken away from their families and indoctrinated in Russia.” He said Washington was looking for ways to help The Hague collect more evidence and intelligence to prove the case against Putin.

U.S. and European diplomats tried to engage with Russia to avert the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis days before Azerbaijan’s blitz attack that drove the enclave’s population to flee en masse to the Armenian mainland. The low-profile meeting in Turkey failed to avert the crisis that has erased the Armenian community that had been ruled by a succession of Christian, Muslim and Orthodox powers over millennia as empires rose and fell around the remote region.

“The U.S. remains deeply engaged on the situation and we continue to be committed to helping the parties achieve a lasting peace in the South Caucasus,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told journalists in Washington after word of the failed Western attempt to avert the crisis spread.

Carol J Williams
Carol J Williams
Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.


  1. Thanks for the article.
    I am perplexed by this line at the end.
    “ ruled by a succession of Christian, Muslim and Orthodox powers”
    Orthodox churches are some of the oldest Christian churches. Why the distinction between Christian and Orthodox?

    • Hi Chris. Too complicated to answer fully here but in short: While Western Catholics & Protestants and Eastern Orthodox are all Christians, the two pillars of Christianity ruled from Rome and Constantinople split in the Great Schism of 1054 and have each diverged from the other’s dogma over nearly a millennium, as in Eastern rejection of the Immaculate Conception, Western assertion of papal supremacy and infallibility, governance by changing canonical codes, etc. Ottoman (Islamic) rule over the east also influenced Christian religious practice in those lands. There are more recent fissures in the East as the Russian Orthodox Church has split from the Ukraine patriarchy. Lots of good reading on this online.

  2. Greatly informative, Carol. Nothing I have read elsewhere made the situation clear. You helped us understand. My thanks for your depth of knowledge of the region and politics.


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