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Who Can Prevent a New War in the South Caucasus?


Russia Wants to Remain the Main Mediator in the Region


November 9, 2022, marks two years since the signing of the trilateral ceasefire statement which put an end to the 2020 Artsakh War. The trilateral statement, signed by Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin, also resulted in the deployment of a Russian peacekeeping mission in Artsakh with an initial five-year term. Two years on, Armenia is now also facing serious threats.


On October 31, 2022, Pashinyan and Aliyev met in Sochi under Russian President Putin’s mediation –– the first time Russia initiated a talk around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the state level since the invasion of Ukraine. It is clear that the recent mediation of Brussels and Washington made Armenia’s “strategic partner” insecure. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova commented on the West’s mediation effort several times, saying that “the true goals of Washington and Brussels are by no means the development of compromise and balanced solutions, but self-promotion and squeezing Russia out of the Transcaucasus.” Thus, with the Sochi meeting, Putin aimed to demonstrate that he remains the chief mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan.


Nonetheless, the outcome of the meeting seemed to demonstrate Russia’s weakened leverage over Armenia and Azerbaijan. After talks lasting several hours in both bilateral and trilateral formats, a joint statement was adopted. The third point noted “the key contribution of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in ensuring security in the area of its deployment” and “emphasized the importance of its efforts aimed at stabilizing the situation in the region.” The fact that “Nagorno-Karabakh” was not even cited as the area of Russian peacekeeping operations shows the weakening of Russian influence in the region, since they couldn’t clearly mention where their peacekeepers are deployed. In comparison, the previous trilateral statement of November 26, 2021, explicitly mentions the “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone”, as did other prior statements.


During a press conference after the Sochi meeting, Putin tried to provide explanations why many issues were not tackled in the joint statement. He said, “as for the issues that could not be agreed upon, is it possible to talk about them? I can, but I shouldn’t. Because if they have not been settled yet, then, in my opinion, there is no need to focus the attention of the press and the public on them. And we just need to calmly seek compromise behind closed doors. These issues are very sensitive for both sides. And I shouldn’t open them without the approval of the partners.” Russia’s dissatisfaction with the outcome of the talks became obvious when Sergey Kopirkin, Russia’s Ambassador to Armenia said, “The issue of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status is one that should be left to future generations, when conditions acceptable to all will be formed for a fair solution.” The fact that the Russian ambassador signaled that a final resolution is not even conceivable right now illustrates that Russia is not interested in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh issue or solving it based on Baku’s expectations. It prefers to leave it the way it is now.


After the Sochi meeting, Pashinyan stated that Armenia agrees with Moscow’s proposal to postpone the issue of settling Nagorno-Karabakh’s status. He also said that he suggested extending the mandate of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. “The options are [to keep the mandate] for an indefinite period, for 20 years, for 15 years, or for 5 years. The proposal was not accepted at this stage, but I must indicate that, in my opinion, the issue became an agenda item,” said Pashinyan. These statements contradict Baku’s official maximalist approach. During the bilateral meeting with Putin, Aliyev said that the conflict “is already history; it was resolved two years ago, so there is practically nothing to discuss in this context.”


Postponing the settling of Nagorno-Karabakh’s status and maintaining the unstable status-quo are beneficial to Russia. An ongoing conflict provides opportunities for Russian military presence in the region and gives Russia leverage over both Armenia and Azerbaijan. While from Armenia’s standpoint there are currently no better alternatives to the Russian proposals, Yerevan must still work toward internationalizing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. An international mandate for a peacekeeping mission can provide more sustainable guarantees for the security of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Keeping the conflict limited to the region increases Armenia’s dependence on Russia.


Armenia’s leadership made a big mistake by “lowering the benchmark” for Nagorno-Karabakh’s status. Replacing the words “the right of self-determination” with more generalized “rights and security of the Artsakh people” was not justified. If the aim was to prevent further provocations, then it didn’t work. Moreover, Baku took it for granted, became even more aggressive toward Artsakh and Armenia, the most recent attack showing that Azerbaijan’s territorial claims are not limited to Artsakh. Moreover, if Armenia agreed with the Russian proposal to leave the issue of the status to future generations, why was the benchmark lowered? Hinting at Baku’s dissatisfaction with delaying Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov said, “It is inadmissible and unacceptable for any third party to take subversive steps or for the other party to take steps under their influence and show destructiveness at a time when new opportunities for cooperation are emerging in the region.”


Azerbaijan wants the conflict to be seen as an internal matter completely under its jurisdiction, doing their best to omit “Nagorno-Karabakh” from all talks and statements. Its reaction to the sizeable October 30 rally in Stepanakert and the appointment of Armenian-Russian businessman Ruben Vardanyan as the state minister of Artsakh, however, expose the fact that Baku does not control the reality on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, nor does it control the lives of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Attempting to create a narrative beneficial to Baku, Azerbaijan’s Global Media Group Director Hamid Gamidov said that the rally’s participants “were invited there for money by Ruben Vardanyan; they were actually hired actors, extras. And it certainly didn’t surprise me that the organizer of all this was the commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in Karabakh, Major General Andrei Volkov.” Azerbaijan wants to deprive its own public from the realities of Nagorno-Karabakh and suppress the fact that Armenians have mostly returned to their homes, despite the many challenges created as a result of the war. The return of the Armenians creates a basis for the Russian peacekeeping forces to remain longer. Thus, Vardanyan’s appearance and activities, the public coverage he received especially by the Russian media, made it clear that certain actions can change the situation and Baku will be able to do nothing if not undertaking a new military attack.


Azerbaijani MP Azay Guliyev said, “People like Ruben Vardanyan are being brought to the territory of Azerbaijan, where Russian peacekeepers are temporarily stationed, and they want to create an obstacle to the Azerbaijani-Armenian peace agenda. When the time comes, Azerbaijan will take the necessary retaliatory steps.” In propagandistic articles in Azerbaijan, Vardanyan was referred to as a “Russian emissary” who “even bribed Russians by buying a house for Volkov in Moscow.” Website Caliber.az, seemingly tied to Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry, published a video titled “Operation ‘State Minister’: Find and Destroy” which even contains threats of physical violence against Vardanyan.


Azerbaijan Is Preparing the Information Ground for a New Escalation: Who Can Prevent It?


On November 5, 2022, head of Azerbaijan’s State Security Service Ali Nagiyev said that “forces living with revanchist feelings in Armenia and the foreign circles that patronize them must accept the new realities that have arisen in the region. Armenia should refrain from all dirty deeds that would create a risk to the security of Azerbaijan. Otherwise, they should take into account that, as the head of state said, the iron fist is in place.” On the eve of Azerbaijan’s military attack on the Lachin corridor in August 2022, Nagiyev made a similar statement; a week before that attack, on July 26, he said, “Revanchist forces in Armenia have not yet abandoned their provocative intentions and the opposition is making serious attempts to undermine the process of normalizing Azerbaijani relations.”


On November 5, 2022, immediately after Nagiyev’s statement, Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov highlighted “the importance of constant observation and control over the activities of illegal Armenian armed detachments in Azerbaijani territories, where the Russian peacekeeping contingent is temporarily stationed.” Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry made similar statements with harsher wording before the aggressions against Artsakh and Armenia respectively in August and September, suggesting the possibility of a new escalation.


Apart from the official statements of Azerbaijani officials, we can observe the public activism and appearance of the Turkish Colonel, the Special Forces Commander General Bahtiyar Ersay, who jointly with a few other Turkish generals organized and headed Azerbaijan’s military aggression against Artsakh during the 2020 Artsakh War. Ersay remained in Azerbaijan after the war as head of the Turkish Armed Forces special command group in Azerbaijan. Basically, this group is in charge of the Azerbaijani army. Just a few months ago, in August, Erdogan granted Ersay the rank of lieutenant general. Most recently Ersay appeared in pictures while he was watching the exercises of the military units of the Special Forces of the Azerbaijani Army along the border with Iran. His appearance is quite alarming.


Signaling a potential for a new round of aggression is Azerbaijan’s disparaging of the EU monitoring mission, which was recently sent to Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. A recent report by Azerbaijan state AZ.TV disparaged the Russian peacekeeping mission and also portrayed the EU mediation in a negative light. The reporter of the segment, which was titled, “No Russian Soldier Should Remain in Karabakh: We Are Aware of Their Deeds” said, “Russia, Europe or any other side who has intentions to populate Karabakh again: forget about those thoughts, Karabakh is Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani soldiers didn’t die to let either the Russian peacekeepers or the European ones in the name of monitoring groups build a nest here.” This kind of reporting can never be published in Azerbaijani state media without an order, or at least approval, from the top.


In this vein, Aliyev began complaining about French President Macron in Putin’s presence on October 14, 2022 during a gathering of CIS leaders, stating, “Despite the goodwill shown by Azerbaijan […] the President of France made insulting, unacceptable, false and provocative statements […] In these statements, he accused Azerbaijan of engaging in a horrific war, thereby manipulating the facts, trying to mislead the French and world public […] Biased statements were also made against the Russian Federation, namely, that ‘Russia played the Azerbaijani game’ […] For our part, we categorically condemn and reject such statements and, given the attitude of the French government, see no further possibility for France to play a role in the normalization of Azerbaijan-Armenia relations.” Baku’s condemnation of Macron continued on Azerbaijani media and even drew in Azerbaijan’s children, a group of whom were enlisted to sing a song on public television insulting and accusing him of being dishonest and pro-Armenian.


By disparaging Macron and simultaneously trying to get on Russia’s right side around Macron’s criticism of Russian involvement in the conflict, Aliyev aimed to curry favor with Putin to secure more concessions on a “peace treaty”. Still, Russia’s interests in the region do not always coincide with Azerbaijan’s, especially as it relates to Russia’s desired extension of its peacekeeping mission. Now, Azerbaijan’s propaganda machine is attacking Russia again.


On November 7, a week after the Sochi meeting, the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan met in Washington, this time under the mediation of the U.S. After bilateral and trilateral meetings between Foreign Ministers Mirzoyan and Bayramov and Secretary of State Blinken, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry stated that, “the Ministers shared views on the elements of a possible peace treaty and acknowledged that there is a range of issues that still need to be addressed. Both sides reiterated the commitments undertaken by the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in their meetings on October 6 in Prague and October 31 in Sochi. They agreed to expedite their negotiations and organize another meeting in the coming weeks.” A similar statement was released by Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry. Nonetheless, ongoing developments, mostly intense military propaganda and Azerbaijan’s harsh rhetoric demonstrate that the sides have quite opposite views on the so-called peace treaty. Moreover, despite calls of international partners to retreat to their original positions, Azerbaijani troops still remain on the sovereign territory of Armenia.


Aliyev’s goals are not to find lasting peace, but to play on the contradictions existing between the mediators—in particular Russia and the West—to obtain the best possible outcome for its maximalist approach and a “peace treaty” based solely on his wishes. None of the current mediators will be able to satisfy Baku—be it Moscow, Brussels or Washington. That’s why dissatisfaction at negotiations are followed by propaganda targeted not only at Armenia and Artsakh, but also mediators. The aim is to hint at a military solution again to gain further concessions. The question is now about who the most influential and determined mediator to prevent the possibility of another aggression against Artsakh or/and Armenia is. The answer will define who can be the main peace guarantor for the South Caucasus.


 

(c) EVN Report 2022

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