Ruben Vardanyan – Moscow's new tool for disruption the peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan
Prof. Dr. Nina Dyulgerova
The categorical outcome of the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the fall of 2020 created conditions for a historic reconciliation between the two warring nations. However, it lasting peace in the South Caucasus does not benefit Russia, which needs an excuse to keep its military presence in the region. Therefore, Moscow seeks to maintain the confrontation between the authorities of Azerbaijan and the Armenian enclave in the Nagorno-Karabakh area.
Russia's aggression against Ukraine since February last year gradually began to change the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus. What was intended as a short "special military operation" in Ukraine turned into a long war of attrition. Russia found itself in diplomatic isolation and under severe economic sanctions. Therefore, it is no longer able to devote sufficient political, diplomatic and military resources to mainta in its dominant influence in the Caucasus. The European Union and the United States have begun to wrest from Moscow the role of mediator in the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.
From the fall of 2022, Russia is trying to use a new tool in its struggle to maintain tensions in the South Caucasus. This is the Russian billionaire of Armenian origin Ruben Vardanyan. He was born in Yerevan but made his fortune in Moscow through dubious financial operations involving leading Russian oligarchs and politicians. In 2019 the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) published an investigation on the money-laundering scheme on the “Troika Capital” – the main investment bank of Ruben Vardanyan. Consequently, over twenty members of the Parliament of the European Union demanded sanctions against Vardanyan as a banker responsible for money-laundering of billions of dollars from Russia’s topelite including Putin’s close friends circle sanctioned then for annexation of Crimea.
In 2020, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a Russian NGO led by Alexey Navalny, rеleased an investigation which concerned Santerna Holding Ltd, another company owned by Vardanyan. The Navalny’s foundation asserted that Vardanyan’s company made two disguised gifts to the wife of the president of the Russian republic of Tatarstan.
Following the 2022 Russian aggression against Ukraine, Vardanyan was placed on the Ukrainian government’s list of sanctioned people for his role as a Board member of the Russian air cargo company Volga-Dnepr, which plays an important role in Russian military air transport. He also was named in a draft bill in the U.S. House of Representatives which called for him to be targeted for individual sanctions.
In November 2021, Vardanyan gave an interview in which he spoke about plans to start a political career in Armenia, and even considered the possibility of becoming the president of this Caucasus republic. In September 2022, he declared that he was moving to the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) and announced that he was no longer a Russian citizen. A two months later, Vardanyan was appointed State Minister with "broad powers" by the president of Artsakh Arayik Harutyunyan. This appointment, of course, would not have been possible without Moscow's approval. Since his new appointment Ruben Vardanyan ruled out the prospect of cohabitation with Azerbaijanis for Armenian community of the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh. He cut off fragile cooperation links of local administration with Azerbaijani authorities.
In early December the Azerbaijani government expressed intentto undertake environmental monitoring at the gold-ore deposit and copper mines illegally exploited in Karabakh by “Vallex” group companies”, an Armenian copper-mining operator with close ties to former pro-Russian Armenian President Serj Sargsyan. Ruben Vardanyan declined Baku’s intention and provoked understandable outrage by Azerbaijan. Not without the approval and encouragement of the authorities in Baku, Azerbaijani activists organized eco-protest against “Vallex” depletion of natural resources in Karabakh, on the so called Lachin Corridor – the only road connecting Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia. As noted in a publication by the French NGO “Freedom of Conscience” which launched "Anti-Vallex" campaing, Vardanyan used the eco-protest asa pretext to announce a wave of international disinformation campaign portraying a protest by small number of unarmed activists as “genocidal blockade” of Karabakh Armenians. At the same time, Vardanyan passes by in silence the inaction of the Russian peacekeeping contingent, which does nothing to ensure unhindered passage through the Lachine Corridor. Asked why Russia is not doing anything to manage the crisis, Vardanyan, whose words were quoted by Eurasianet, parried back: “Why isn’t the UN doing more? Why aren’t France and the United States doing more? Why is the West not putting sanctions on Aliyev?”
Not many people in the EU and the US believe Vardanyan's narrative of the blockade of Nagorno Karabakh. However, it should be clear - Vardanyan is an instrument of Russian influence in the South Caucasus, and in this role he will seek to torpedo the peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan under the auspices of the EU. By imposing the "blockade syndrome," he sought to maintain tension and to fuel radicalization of the small Armenian community in Nagorno Karabakh.
Vardanyan’s renunciation of Russian citizenship was largely due to the desire not to end up on the sanctions list of the European Union and the United States. However, this should not mislead Brussels and Washington - Ruben Vardanyan is complicit in the corruption schemes of the Russian elite and in the financing of Russia's military invasion against Ukraine. His inclusion in the sanctions list will facilitate EU-backed normalization between Armenia and Azerbaijan and eliminate the Russian-Armenian billionaire's chances for a political career in Yerevan, where the Kremlin is also seeking the removal of Nikol Pashinyan.
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