Who should Russia support in this conflict?
By treaty, Russia is not obliged to do anything, at least so long as Azerbaijan (or Turkey) do not violate Armenia’s internationally recognized borders, of which Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh is not a part. And while neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey can be remotely considered Russia’s friends, they both have a substantial trade relationship with Russia (e.g. both buy Russian arms) and the latter in particular is increasingly becoming an irritant rather than an asset to Western power, which can at times indirectly serve Russian interests (e.g. from the re-Islamification of the Hagia Sophia, which discredited the schismatic Istanbul Bart, to Turkey’s current face off with the EU over refugees and maritime borders). So it would obviously not be in Russia’s best interests to completely torpedo relations with either of them.
Furthermore, Russians should also be under no delusions that Armenian friendship can be highly situational. They are a highly distinct civilization – neither ethnically Slavic, nor for that matter Eastern Orthodox (their Christianity is about as distant from Russian Orthodoxy as is Roman Catholicism). So there isn’t even that much “civilizational commonality”, not that it usually counts for much anyway, given that the bloodiest enmities often tend to be within closely related groups. The commenter Ano4 lists other reasons for caution which are one also often sees made by Russian nationalists.
But does this mean Russia should also be entirely indifferent to the fate of Artsakh, should it appear that the Azeris are seriously threatening to overrun it entirely? Certainly not.
First off, it is worth mentioning that regardless of the “genuineness” of their friendship, Armenians almost exclusively fought in the Novorossiya Armed Forces in the Donbass War, while Azeris fought for Ukraine.
True, absolute numbers were very low regardless, even relative to their populations, so one shouldn’t put too much stress on this. Besides, I have seen suggestions that the breakdown was not actually that one-sided, e.g. there were reportedly three Azeris with Strelkov’s unit at the outbreak of the conflict. Nonetheless, the “big picture” of Armenians being overwhelmingly on Russia’s side (perhaps even more so than ethnic Russians, sadly – ~3,000 traitors opted to fight for Chaos vs. ~12,000 for the Donbass) while Azeris strongly backed the Ukrainians is correct.
But it does illustrate some broader truths. From a Russian self-determinist perspective, Artsakh has a comparable status to that of the Donbass. Both are defined by a struggle between the legitimacy of internal Soviet borders and the rights of compatriots to decide their own national fate (integration into Armenia and Russia, respectively). In this sense, again broadly speaking, Azerbaijan plays the role of the Ukraine – with whom it happens to have very good relations, including military sales from Ukraine, common membership of the GUAM grouping, similar anti-Russian voting patterns in the UN, and recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide.
And indeed, in this most recent clash, Ukrainian nationalists have taken a near uniformly pro-Azeri position, leaving any “civilizational” considerations by the wayside:
Few rightists and proto-liberals who are trying to be neutral and present the situation as complicated, due to varying degrees of Christian solidarity, get emotional rebuttal from their supporters. The latter demand clear anti #Armenia stance.
— Anatoly Voronin (@qorachius) September 28, 2020
On Ukrainian nationalist forums, there is happiness over the Azeri advances in the past couple of days. This is not illogical. A win for the Azeris would be a morale boost and an inspiration along the lines of Operation Storm for Ukrainians (this comparison is made explicitly). This is one reason why Russia should not be indifferent to the fate of Artsakh, even if the Azeris (and Turks) leave Armenia proper untouched.
To the contrary, Armenian victory and hopefully ensuing recognition of Artsakh should on the contrary further undermine the unreasonable sanctity that accrues to sovok borders.
This is not to say that Russia should intervene now, or indeed at all, so long as the Armenians are managing to keep the offensive at bay by themselves.
But should that cease to hold, Russia would be choosing between a major increase in Pan-Turkic power on its southern borders, a large morale boost to the Ukrainians, and the delegitimization of the principle of national (inc. Russian) self-determination in favor of the sanctity of Stalinist-era borders over… I don’t know, upsetting some Russian citizens of Armenian ancestry such as Lavrov and Simonyan on account of some autistic and marginal Russian nationalists having an irrationally exaggerated degree of Armenophobia. That will happily not enter Putin & Co.’s considerations.
The correct response, and what I expect will happen, is logistical and intelligence support dialed up to the level that the Armenians need to prevent an Azeri breakthrough. This will not be fun for either of them since it means more soldiers will die on both sides. But it will reinforce existing Russia’s position as a regional arbitrator, and all those expended tanks and anti-missile systems will need replacing.