Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: Russia’s “Meddling” not a Factor of Stability

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The Conflict at the Backstage of International Attention

The case of the frozen conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh unlike other frozen conflicts of the Former Soviet Union is in the backstage of the regional and broader attention. While the recent developments with three other countries of European Union Eastern Partnership – Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova – signing the Association Agreement with the EU  give it  now a formal justification - there are a few more substantial reasons for that, the  main of which is its complexity. First of all, unlike in all other conflicts which have only one external adversary, involved in the secessionist domestic conflict – Russia, it has two – both Armenia and Russia. In addition, Russia’s role in all other conflicts is considered by the international community predominantly and unambiguously illegitimate, while in case of Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict – Russia is an ally of Armenia, which is small, landlocked and whose past grievances with Turkey have not been so far not addressed, which by itself cannot serve as a basis of legitimacy, but contributes to the perception.  Secondly, its complexity is strengthened by the historical context of the regional contradictions with the involvement of other regional powers and their broader relations, such as Turkey and the West, where Armenian diaspora has been promoting its political agenda and perception of security threats since the times of Ottoman Empire. Thirdly, there is a factor of what is perceived often as a civilizational bias in approaching the conflict by the Western actors, where the West is less inclined to perceive the current status quo as an “occupier versus victim”, rendering greater legitimacy to the violation of the international borders in case of NK conflict compared to the conflicts in Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine. This can be clearly seen on the discrepancy between the UN resolutions, Minsk process and voting of the Western states on the resolutions confirming territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.  Fourthly, the resolution is entrapped in the very substance of the Minsk process of OSCE, where the negotiating parties are in fact negotiating two principles – territorial integrity and self-determination in the conditions when the process did not de-legitimize the application of force, but rather use it as a bargaining tool. This circumstance conditions the fact of a little progress, as parties instead of a compromise boost their military capacities. Fifthly, for almost 23 years the ceasefire was supported without peacekeeping forces thus providing for basic stability sufficient for realization of the major interests of the regional and extra-regional powers, which first of all included energy and security cooperation. However, there have been worrying tendencies of the “status quo” lately, such as more frequent and more severe cases of violation of ceasefire on Armenian-Azerbaijani front, most alarming of which was April 2016 escalation.  

In other words, the issue of Karabakh conflict being overshadowed by other more important international events and being at periphery of the West’s attention is only one factor promoting “status quo” rather than resolution.  There are also regional actors, such as Russia, who so far has been utilizing an image – for some of a “stabilizing factor”, for the others- of “holding a key to the conflict” through support to one or another party to the conflict, mainly in military terms.  

Russia’s role

From the late 1980s - early 1990s Russia’s involvement in the conflict did not cause any doubts in Azerbaijan. The decision to get rid of all Soviet military presence in the republic was adopted in 1992 by the first elected president Abulfaz Elchibey, who saw Russia’s involvement as the main impediment to the independence of the country and resolution of the conflict. In his recent interview the former Foreign Minister Tofig Zulfugarov reminded that in the archives of the Ministry there are sufficient amount of documents confirming direct participation of Russian military basis located on the territory of Armenia in the fights in Azerbaijan, which was reflected at the press conference in 1994[1]. On May 2, 1992 following the seizure of Azerbaijani populated city Shusha in Nagorno Karabakh the Russian generals and politicians have made it clear that the city could be returned, if Baku agrees to pursue pro-Russian foreign and domestic policy and if Azeri forces are subordinate to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) command[2].

Nowadays Russia’s position as a co-chairman in the Minsk group of OSCE has been increasingly coming in contradiction with its alliances in the region and foreign policies in the countries – parties to the conflict. After the war in 2008 in Georgia, which showed that the countries are left without an external support visa-a-vis Russia’s threat, Azerbaijan moves towards closer military cooperation with Russia and signs an agreement for the supply of arms for more than 4 bln dollars. In spite of non-interference on the side of Armenia in April 2016 escalation official Moscow continued to play with the perception of its role as having “a key” to the resolution of the conflict. After April 2016 it did not wait to transfer a new batch of weapons to Armenia, as well as to sign a new plan of military cooperation for 2017 with Azerbaijan. In 2016 Russia deployed Iskander missile systems in Armenia, while Putin issued a directive to sign an agreement to create a Russian-Armenian Combined Force[3]. In March 2017 the president Serzh Sargsian stated that in case of war, Armenia will use the missiles against Azerbaijan, while the former commander of the Armenian armed forces in Karabakh general Ter Tadevosian named 12 specific civilian and infrastructure targets of such an attack in Azerbaijan[4]. Yet the following events proved that “the game” of managing the conflict by cooperating militarily with both parties to the conflict is becoming a difficult exercise.

Early 2017 was marked by the uproar in Azerbaijan caused by the statement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the Karabakh conflict is not the “internal affair” of Azerbaijan. In response the Azerbaijani foreign minister suggested, that “if Russia approaches the conflict with all seriousness, then it will change the “status quo”, the stability will be established and Armenian troops will withdraw from the occupied Azerbaijani territories”. Another illustration of the growing challenges to the Russia’s goal of “managing the conflict” was political standoff related to the closing down of the Azerbaijani diaspora organization in Russia (VAK) against the background of the “spy scandal” in the army in May 2017.  By all accounts, the deeper is Russia’s meddling in the conflict the higher the risks of resumption of the fighting and the farther delayed is political solution.

Other Actors: Can They Move Resolution Forward?

In the situation of uncertainty of current international relations, significantly shaped by the domestic processes in the West – the US and the EU, frozen conflicts become more vulnerable to manipulation from the side of interested actors. Because of the obvious higher risks of escalations in the zone of conflict, the reliability of the status quo” especially for the mid and long term stability of the region is increasingly put under doubt.

The most recent statement by the EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini suggests that there is a growing awareness of the risks related to simply preserving the “status quo” and that the conflict should soon find its political solution. Various regional powers tried to mediate peace in the region, but all failed. The capture of the Azerbaijani populated city of Shusha in 1992 took place immediately after Iran mediated peace talks, while participation of Turkey in mediation is rejected by Armenia. The Minsk group format is too rigid and in the absence of the clearly defined priorities in international principles more suits the objectives at the earlier stages of conflict – of consolidation and preservation of the ceasefire agreement, or the “status quo”. Participation of Russia in trilateral format of the co-chairmanship creates greater controversy and in fact is serving a legitimizing tool of the” managing” the conflict, or “divide and rule” policies, promoting the arms race in the conflict. Certain conceptual traps in the text of the basic principles should be straightened. It is obvious that there is no a sufficient incentive of the external actors to put pressure on any party in conflict. Armenia’s diaspora’s political influence in most of the Europe and the USA, which are both mediators in the conflict, along with military alliance with Russia creates its “immunity” against such pressure, while pressure on Azerbaijan would mean confirmation of “civilizational bias” in pushing the country to give up its internationally recognized borders under the application of force. Facing the lack of support on Karabakh in the West, Azerbaijan strengthens ties with the other regional actors (Georgia and Turkey) and with the Islamic world, which so far showed greater solidarity and support for territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. 

The “realpolitik” rather than consistent promotion of principled foreign policy approach by the West in application to the conflict along with the latter being at the periphery of international attention makes Russia more assertive and get deeper involved in the conflict, having previously reached its climax in annexation of Crimea.  In exchange to “managing” the NK conflict, Russia achieves a deeper political influence over the political leadership of the parties to the conflict. There are two ways the EU or the US may influence the conflict.

EU can restrict Russia’s influence in Karabakh by the united response in application of the consistency of international principles, resolving the situation of normative uncertainty in this particular conflict and addressing all cases of the clear violations of the international law and stating unacceptability of these violations. The EU can also attract more neutral countries- mediators, like Germany, and EU can intensify its integration of the parties to the conflict through reform promotion. In turn, the mediators should encourage leaderships to leave behind the military rhetoric, and delegitimize application of force.  The compromises should not be dependent on the military gains or military pressure, but rather from the vision of mutually beneficial cooperation and security guarantees to the population of Nagorno-Karabakh.  Once the normative and more balanced approach by the EU is taken, and united policies towards Russia are developed, the conditions for the civil participation become more conducive. As one of the measure, the regular consultations with the civil society of the co-chairmen should be restored. The consequence of recent escalations should not be the strengthening of the “status quo”, but addressing the urgency of conflict resolution and application of all efforts to finding a soonest political solution.  None of the conflicts with Russia’s participation can be resolved in isolation, as all of them are the symptoms of one policy behavior and interest of the Northern neighbor projecting its power in the former peripheries of the Soviet empire.

 

[1] “Tofig  Zulfugarov about the argument between Mammadyarov  and  Lavrov”  Baku,  Minval.az, 19.05.2017 http://minval.az/news/123689657

[2] “Azerbaijan city Shusha was occupied by Armenians this day 25 years ago” Baku 08.05.17, Turan agency.

[3] “Armenian President to Sputnik: Russian Iskander Missile Help to Balance Situation” Sputnik News, Europe 17.11.2016 https://sputniknews.com/europe/201611171047526883-iskander-armenia-azerbaijan-sargsyan/

[4] “Azerbaijan reacted to the threats of official Armenia to launch  Iskanders” Economic news 15.05.2017 http://m.eizvestia.com/news_abroad/full/1505-v-azerbajdzhane-otreagirovali-na-ugrozy-vlastej-armenii-primenit-iskandery

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