Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South caucasus - 2023: Russia

Russia Has Long Ceased to Be an Exclusive Player in the Region

Andrey Areshev, Expert at Strategic Culture Foundation

- What was Russia’s agenda during the establishment of ceasefire in the NKR war zone in November 2020, and how did the step-by-step changes in the post-war status quo affect this agenda?

Throughout the entire period of hostilities, the Russian side attempted, first of all, to negotiate a ceasefire using political and diplomatic means, as stated by the President of the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, not all of these efforts were successful, including, as mentioned in Putin's interview (when at some point a proposal was made to keep Shushi within Nagorno-Karabakh, provided Azerbaijani refugees returned there), also because of the Armenian side. However, hostilities continued, and as a result, a ceasefire was reached on much less favorable terms for the Armenian side. In Armenia and RF, there are quite differing viewpoints regarding Russia’s efforts. I would like to draw attention to the fact that Azerbaijan had every chance to make progress towards capturing Stepanakert, Martakert and other territories controlled by the Armenian side, but Russia insisted on the deployment of a peacekeeping contingent, which was not at all easy. Nevertheless, it was important for the RF to maintain at least minimal stability and predictability in the South Caucasus while avoiding the ultimate defeat of Nagorno-Karabakh, which, of course, could lead to undesirable consequences for the RF. It was this factor and the extraordinary nature of the evolving situation that drove the efforts of the Russian political leadership in those fateful days. Then the Russian side tried to transform the November 9, 2020 statement into a precisely outlined peacekeeping mandate. We know, including from foreign publications, that this was not a success: having sensed its strength, Azerbaijan demonstrates disinterest, hinting that the peacekeepers will leave the conflict zone after 2025. In the current turbulent situation, making accurate forecasts is a lost cause, but one thing is certain: the Russian side will persist in its formal and informal efforts to maintain stability in the region and avoid another humanitarian catastrophe. We talk a lot about the blockade, but I guess the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, nevertheless, is partial - otherwise, the region would have suffered famine long ago. But we understand that the potential withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno-Karabakh will trigger a mass exodus of the Armenian population, which would be a serious blow to the authority of Russia.

The recent dramatic events near the village of Tegh (referring to the April 11, 2023 clashes on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border - ed.) are not the first escalation of the kind. We recall the September tragic events not in Nagorno-Karabakh, but actually on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, with massive shelling and the loss of hundreds of soldiers. Baku, acting from a position of strength, is seeking to impose its agenda, namely, the signing of a peace treaty on Azerbaijan’s terms (they consider themselves winners), Yerevan's consent to all the conditions of the “winner”, since, in my opinion, there are and will be no winners in such conflicts, and the infamous Zangezur corridor is an extraterritorial strip of land or even two. As we know, the so-called “Zangezur corridor” refers to a railway route through Meghri and a highway, conventionally through Sisian. By the way, although at one time in Armenia there were talks about the possible opening of a checkpoint in these parts, the issue came to a halt due to the September escalation, and it seems to have been forgotten since then... Nevertheless, from recurrent military escalations indirect conclusions can be drawn that the process of agreeing the peace treaty is, to put it mildly, not in the best phase.

- Can we say that the activation of Turkey, Iran, Israel, the USA, the EU, other Western countries and structures in the South Caucasus in varying degrees amid the Russian-Ukrainian war has already changed the algorithms of relations in the region, which everyone was accustomed to? With the policies and actions of which countries is this most connected?

We can talk about the conditional nature of certain blocs, although against the backdrop of recent events - military displays on both sides of the Araks, public rhetoric, expert statements - we can conclude that, on the one hand, there is a strong partnership between Turkey and Azerbaijan, where I would add Israel actively cooperating with Azerbaijan. Iran, in its turn, is set for closer cooperation with Armenia on specific issues. First of all, the Iranians are interested in a small section of the border near Meghri, which, under unfavorable circumstances, may be cut off by this extraterritorial Zangezur corridor, which the Iranians oppose both at the formal and informal levels. Russia is indirectly aligned with Iran. Since February 24 of last year, the so-called “North-South” corridor between Russia and Iran has gained a qualitatively wider significance, including for trade between Russia and the Middle East. However, there are also serious contradictions here that may come back to a haunt in the future - the western branch of the corridor is expected to be launched through Azerbaijan, but its serious ties with London, the West, the North Atlantic Alliance make this land route problematic. There is a rather deep tangle of contradictions here, which in the current turbulent situation is compounded by the beginning of the Special Military Operation (SMO). Regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh issue settlement, we can recall that the same Charles Michel used to call Putin before taking any actions in the South Caucasus, where until recently the presence of Brussels was very weak. Following February 24, we see an evolution in Brussels policy, including the negotiations in the Prague, Brussels formats, which Pashinyan recently criticized in one of his speeches. Additionally, the observation mission on the borders of Armenia, caused significant concern for the Russian Foreign Ministry. By the way, with regards to the escalation near the village of Tegh, we will see how adequate and satisfying for the Armenian side the statements by the European observers on the causes of this incident will be. I believe this will be one of the indicators. I think the issue of sending a CSTO monitoring mission, which was rejected by the Armenian side, judging by the statements of the Russian Foreign Ministry representatives and the head of the alliance, remains open.

- In the context of the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation, how does official Moscow define the sphere of influence and responsibility of Russia and the CSTO in the South Caucasus? 

The area of responsibility is the territory of the Republic of Armenia - it is another matter that the borders are not properly demarcated and defined. The RF insisted on this, including within the frames of the trilateral format at the level of deputy prime ministers, who have not met for several months. This is one of the bottlenecks, because when the head of the Armenian government calls Azerbaijan from the UN podium to mention the legitimate border with Armenia from their perspective, that's what they say, trying to advance as far as possible with such actions. This is a matter of balance of forces and capabilities of the parties. The issue is no doubt serious - without this, it is difficult to clearly define the area of responsibility of the CSTO, and such incidents will continue to arise. As I see it, Russia is working both official and probably unofficially to bring the positions of the parties closer, and, by the way, a close dialogue between Russia and Azerbaijan, which Armenia is following with concern, will eventually contribute to stabilizing the situation...

- What and who (what countries, organizations) can ensure that Azerbaijan ends the blockade of the Lachin corridor, and other forms of pressure on the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. What did Azerbaijan achieve through this blockade as a result?

Azerbaijan is striving for the so-called integration of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh on its own terms. We are aware that both forceful actions and tactics verging on terrorism are being utilized - I can’t think of any other way to designate the killing of the NKR passport service employees. Certain actions can definitely be assessed as intimidation. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan is seizing the opportunities it has. I know that complaints against the Russian peacekeepers in this regard are mounting in Armenia... I would like to point out that any shot fired by Russian peacekeepers will lead to an immediate response and escalation, and I am not at all sure that Russian peacekeepers will come out victorious from it, given the forces and resources located along the perimeter of the territory - according to various estimates, several tens of thousands of people... Against the backdrop of the current negative assessment of the activities of Russian peacekeepers within Azerbaijani media and expert community, we can assume that the consequences will be quite serious.
Negotiations in a trilateral format are the alternative, which until some time had been taking place at the base of the peacekeeping contingent. Now Azerbaijan is trying (and is doing so quite skillfully) to convert this into a format of dialogue on Baku's terms between the Azerbaijani authorities and, what they describe as the Armenian community of Nagorno-Karabakh. The NKR authorities maintain their perspective, with Foreign Minister Sergey Gazaryan stating that this is unacceptable. But here I find it important to highlight official Yerevan’s certain detachment from the process... It is clear that if Armenia ceases to act as a guarantor of the NKR security, the dialogue, in fact, falls onto the shoulders of the Russian peacekeepers and other structures. Given that Russia has long ceased to be an exclusive player in the region, their success will be limited.

- Is the prospect for establishing a stability regime in the South Caucasus conditioned solely by the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict? Is there a possibility of a consensus between Russian and Western mediators in the Armenian-Azerbaijani post-war developments?

Of course, it is not the only issue. We have repeatedly pointed out the protracted SMO in Ukraine, which in one way or another has reverberations throughout the entire post-Soviet space and the South Caucasus. Various parties are observing and evaluating, among other things, the capacities of Russia and the Russian army as a peacekeeper, and as a party capable of firmly and decisively putting an end to various trends in its near abroad. If the SMO had unfolded a bit differently, I’m not sure that there would have been the September events and other escalations that deteriorate the situation and lead to further military casualties, hypothetically resulting in something more serious… Unfortunately, the longer the positional warfare continues on the territory of Ukraine and Donbass, the more likely there may be various types of escalation in the region.

In terms of consensus, the dominant view within the Russian expert community has until recently been that it is on the very Karabakh and South Caucasian issues that a consensus with the Western side is possible. But it is now clear that this is not the case. Brussels and Washington will pursue their own policies in the region, motivated solely by their interests, including the interest of driving the Russian military and other presence out of the region, but by no means of establishing a firm and lasting peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Because, as we understand it, signing a piece of paper is relatively easy if there is desire and appropriate degree of pressure by Mr. Blinken or some other figure, but the real challenge lies in executing it and thoroughly conveying its contents at every level and every form. 

Series of interviews "Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023" has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black See Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners.


© 2001-2024
"Region" Research Center

    +37410 563363
    [email protected]
    1/3 Buzand Str, 8 Floor, Yerevan, Armenia

The new version of the website was created with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED).