Russia Direct Blog

Russia straddles two sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute

April 13, 2016

Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh are far from over, and that places Russia in a very uncomfortable situation: trying to maintain friendly relations with two strategic allies while getting them both to the negotiating table.    


By Pavel Koshkin


The frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominately ethnic-Armenian enclave within the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, made headlines in early April when Azerbaijan reportedly carried out a military offensive to regain control over the disputed territory. While there are still conflicting versions of what actually happened, both sides eventually agreed to a ceasefire deal on Apr. 5. For now, Russia’s primary concern is preventing this conflict from spinning out of control in the near future. 


A brief history of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh


The Nagorno-Karabakh standoff goes back to 1987-1988 and has its roots in the unsatisfied demands of the Armenians living in Azerbaijan’s enclave and yearning for reunification with Yerevan. However, the conflict reached its apex after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it turned into a violent three-year ethnic war. Eventually, it ended with the 1994 ceasefire agreement.


Technically speaking, the military confrontation involves Azerbaijan and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, with Yerevan supporting the latter in its aspirations for independence from Baku. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s visit to the breakaway region in 2015 recently confirmed Armenia’s intentions to play an important role in the territorial dispute.   


However, officially, Yerevan doesn’t recognize Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state because such a move could hamper the Minsk Group peace negotiations, which involve Russia, the U.S. and France — the three countries with either big Armenian Diasporas or extensive political ties with Yerevan. Initiated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1992, these talks resulted in the Madrid Principles in 2007, a roadmap for achieving a peaceful settlement of the protracted conflict, even though Azerbaijan has repeatedly threatened to break off talks.    


Given Nagorno-Karabakh’s yearning for independence and Azerbaijan’s attempts to take hold of the disputed territory, the conflict reflects the fundamental tensions between two basic principles of international law: people’s right to self-determination and territorial integrity of a country. From a security point of view, Nagorno-Karabakh “remains one of the most dangerous challenges in the Caucasus,” according to a recent report of the Moscow-based analytical agency Foreign Policy


Why the OSCE Minsk Group has failed to resolve the conflict


According to numerous Russian and foreign experts, the OSCE Minsk Group is no longer the most effective tool for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For example, Alexey Fenenko, an associate professor at Moscow State University’s Faculty of World Politics, argues that such format is “no longer effective.”


Since 2010, peacemakers have found themselves in a deadlock, with each side trying to resolve the conflict without involving other participants of the peacekeeping process. “For the last five years, the peacekeepers and the conflicting sides have failed to resume the effective work of the OSCE Minsk Group or create a new negotiating format,” Fenenko said.


Likewise, Sergey Markedonov, an associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), argues that escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh results not only from the intransigence of the two Caucasian republics, but also from the lack of diplomatic rigor to resolve the conflict. According to him, this has “affected the Minsk Group’s reputation as a united and well-coordinated center,” because each mediator country has tried to play a greater role in resolving the conflict.


“For example, in an attempt to pacify Azerbaijan and Armenia, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with their presidents Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan in Sochi in August after an outburst of violence in the region,” Markedonov points out in a column for Russia Direct.  “Likewise, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Armenian and Azeri presidents at the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales to put them at the negotiating table in September 2014. In December 2015, Aliyev and Sargsyan met in Paris under the mediation of French President Francois Hollande. Previously, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy was very active in alleviating the conflict in order to be the major peacekeeper in the South Caucasus.” 


Russia’s stake in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict


Currently nobody is interested in the exacerbation of tensions in Nagorno-Karabakh, and especially not Russia. After all, both Armenia and Azerbaijan remain two of Moscow’s important strategic partners in military trade. For example, Azerbaijan continues to buy Russian weapons, including helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems, tanks and artillery systems. Likewise, Moscow sends armored vehicles and other military hardware to Armenia.  


Until recently the Kremlin has tried to come up with what Fenenko describes as “a balanced partnership” — “maintaining the collaborative relations with Armenia” and “a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan.” However, given Turkey’s political stakes in Azerbaijan and the sharp decline in Moscow-Ankara relations resulting from Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet near the Syrian border last year, the Kremlin’s attempts to straddle between Yerevan and Baku might be challenging. Turkey has made no attempt to downplay its political support of Azerbaijan, especially amidst the recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh. 


Shortly after the escalation in the region, Turkish President Recep Erdogan predicted that that Nagorno-Karabakh would come back to its “original owner” — Azerbaijan. About four months before this controversial statement, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutolgu said that Ankara “will do it utmost to accelerate the liberation of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories [in Nagorno-Karabakh].” 


This has the potential to create another headache for Moscow, with some high-ranking Russian officials such as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accusing Turkey of fueling the tensions in the region with its provocative rhetoric. However, according to Markedonov, though Ankara could be interested in minimizing the influence of Moscow in Azerbaijan, today it is preoccupied with much more relevant problems, including the Syrian conflict and the Kurdish challenge (the demands of Turkish Kurds for a broader autonomy within Turkey).   


Today Russia has much influence in the region and could find another opportunity to play a greater role in alleviating the tensions. The move might be welcomed by both Baku and Yerevan – or it could reveal the hidden rivalry within the OSCE Minsk Group. Ever since the recent military escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moscow has been increasingly active in preventing the crisis from spinning out of control.


Shortly after the flare-up in the region, Russian authorities, including President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu arranged phone calls with their colleagues in Yerevan and Baku. Reportedly, Russia’s mediation efforts contributed to the ceasefire deal in Moscow in early April. 


Afterwards, Prime Minister Medvedev paid a visit to Yerevan and Baku to reinvigorate the political settlement of the conflict. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Lavrov met with his Iranian and Azeri counterparts on Apr. 7 to discuss the details of a roadmap of how to resolve the impasse and prevent further escalation. All these moves are a good sign. However, all moves should be “comprehensive and involve the leaders of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, who have been sidelined since the late 1990s,” according to Hovhannes Nikoghosyan, an adjunct lecturer at the American University of Armenia.


 “Two crucial and mutually reinforcing elements of the renewed process will be better mechanisms for instigating incidents as well as a robust ceasefire monitoring mission, but under the auspices of the OSCE,” wrote Nikoghosyan in his column for Russia Direct, adding that the process should contain sustainable legal commitments for non-use of force to restore credibility, given the history of bloodshed dating back to the violent period of 1988-1994.


Pavel Koshkin is Executive Editor of Russia Direct and a contributing writer to Russia Beyond The Headlines (RBTH).


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Russia Direct is an English-language expert-oriented publication on Russian foreign policy, domestic politics and economy founded in 2013. It produces analytical articles, expert interviews, book reviews and monthly reports. Four reports are distributed as print supplements to Foreign Policy magazine each quarter. The goal of Russia Direct is to create a platform for dialogue between Russian and international experts and decision makers and to provide a more nuanced understanding of Russia's position on global matters and developments inside the country.


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