Russia’s involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Unhelpful and unpromising

By Rusif Huseynov

The Minsk Group, a special body of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, established in 1992 in order to help the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been constantly criticized during the recent years. No breakthrough has been achieved over the resolution of the long-lasting conflict that emerged in 1988 over Armenia’s territorial claims against Azerbaijan, though the negotiations are underway through the mediation of OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries – the U.S, France and Russia for over two decades.

Many people in both belligerent sides claim the Minsk Group has failed to find the ultimate solution for the conflict and reach the peace accord. In Azerbaijan, there are also calls to reform the Minsk Group, which in its current state, is thought to unfit Azerbaijan`s interests.

However, this piece would mainly focus on Russia, presenting arguments why Russia`s involvement in the conflict settlement process was not helpful from the beginning and is not promising anything beneficial in the future.

Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The ethnic clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous province (4,400 square kilometers) inside Azerbaijan, arose in 1988 towards the end of Soviet rule. The conflict of local scale turned into a full bloody war at the end of 1991 – after the collapse of the Soviet Union – between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan: Azerbaijan tried to maintain its territorial integrity by keeping sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Armenia backed the separatist movement of ethnic Armenians in the region.

In 1992, the United Nations admitted Azerbaijan with its Soviet-time territory that included Nagorno-Karabakh. However, by 1993, Armenian forces, by taking advantage of internal political instability and squabbles in Azerbaijan, had occupied nearly 20 percent of the Azerbaijani territory –Nagorno-Karabakh plus adjacent districts (a total area of over 17,000 sq. km.) – and expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis. Four resolutions of the UN Security Council adopted throughout 1993 demanding unilateral and immediate withdrawal of occupying forces from the occupied districts were ignored.

The Russia-brokered negotiations secured truce in 1994 and ceased the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan but failed to pave a path forward. Controlled by Armenian separatists, Nagorno-Karabakh has maintained de facto autonomy since the cease-fire, while the region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Cross-border violence has remained constant in the two decades since the 1994 cease-fire and been claiming dozens of lives of military and civilians from both sides.

Beyond the humanitarian crisis, the ongoing military conflict, sometimes called ‘frozen’, over Nagorno Karabakh poses a very real threat to regional stability and security, as well as to the global energy market.

Minsk Group: history and activities

After Azerbaijan and Armenia joined the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (later renamed Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in 1992, the organization decided to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In March 1992, a committee under the CSCE was formed to find a peaceful solution. Belarus offered its capital as the venue for the final negotiations, hence, the name Minsk Conference or the Minsk Group.

In December, 1994, the Budapest Summit of CSCE decided to establish a co-chairmanship for the process. Following the Budapest Summit decision, in March 1995, the Chairman-in-Office mandated the co-chairs of the Minsk Group to provide an appropriate framework for conflict resolution in the way of assuring the negotiation process; to obtain conclusion by the parties of an agreement on the cessation of the armed conflict in order to permit the convening of the Minsk Conference; and to promote the peace process.

The triple co-chairmanship, including Russia, France and the USA, was established in 1997. This troika and its members have not changed ever since. The same year, the co-chairs, during their visit to the region, presented two proposals (Package deal and Stage-by-stage approach).

Although each of the proposal, which mainly included keeping Nagorno-Karabakh with the highest status of autonomy within Azerbaijan, returning displaced persons, deploying peacekeeping forces came to be accepted by both Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders, the government change, as a result of which, a Nagorno-Karabakh clan came to power in Yerevan in 1998, Armenia officially withdrew the consent to the proposals on the settlement of the conflict.

Throughout the 2000s, the Minsk Group mainly acted as a communicator and encouraged direct talks between the leaders and officials of the belligerent nations. Although the mediators announced “ripe moments” for the settlement of the conflict several times, those moments were never materialized.

The co-chairs makes it clear that it is the two presidents who are ought to find an agreement, while the Minsk Group will assist them in the negotiations. Azerbaijan’s position consists of recovering territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country, returning the displaced people to their homes, providing peaceful living together for Azerbaijani and Armenian communities of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Baku repeatedly stated its readiness to grant Nagorno-Karabakh the highest status of self-rule within the internationally-recognized territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan, while the Armenian side demands full independence for the breakaway region.

Looking back and analyzing the activities of the Minsk Group, many claim mediation efforts on Nagorno-Karabakh have turned out to be a complete fiasco and that these efforts themselves have prolonged the conflict although the co-chairs, in response, have laid the blame on the parties. The fruitless and endless talks, during which Baku has repeatedly offered a high autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan`s territorial integrity, the Armenian side continues to try to obtain independence for the breakaway region, neither compromise nor agreement has been achieved.

In the past few years, with no more real plan or proposal, the Minsk Group`s visits to the region and shuttle diplomacy-like efforts generated only criticism and distrust in both countries, especially in Azerbaijan. There have been calls in Azerbaijan to reform the Minsk Group: some officials and common people have negative perceptions not only towards the Minsk Group as a whole, but towards each co-chair.

Russia, which traditionally considers the entire Caucasus its sphere of interest, has been quite active in the negotiation processes, sometimes beyond the framework of the Minsk Group. However, the Kremlin`s engagement also raises criticism, particularly in Azerbaijani public, as Russia`s position does not seem objective due to numerous factors.

Russia-Armenia relations

One of the aspects casting shadow to Russia`s unbiased mediation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is related to Russia-Armenia relations.

Russia`s influence on Armenia has been so strong in recent years that many argue the latter has simply released its independence to the big brother. Russian state and private companies have captured the strategic spheres of Armenia and comfortably dominate the Armenian economy.

Add to this, Russia`s military base in Gyumri, Armenia – this is why many people in Azerbaijan are confident that Karabakh was occupied and is still controlled by the Armenians with the help of the Russians. Moreover, the Azerbaijani public has a strong opinion that had the Russians ceased their aid to Armenians, Azerbaijan could have easily retaken the occupied territories.

Armenia is also part of several Russia-led organizations and integrational processes (Eurasian Customs Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization), which makes the two countries strategic allies while Azerbaijan has distanced itself from such alliances and pacts.

Yerevan`s wholehearted support for Moscow’s rather aggressive policies in the post-Soviet periphery was also obvious during the Ukraine case, when Armenia found itself among the likes of North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, Belarus – to side with Russia during the UN General Assembly`s vote on Ukraine`s territorial integrity.

During the re-integration processes among several post-Soviet countries, Armenia strove to expand the jurisdiction of Russia-initiated entities over Nagorno-Karabakh too, but these attempts were dismissed by other member-states.

The situation is so complicated that in case Azerbaijan decides to clean separatists off its territory (which is formally beyond the Collective Security Treaty Organization as the CSTO`s force is limited to Armenia`s international borders), there is no guarantee Russia will not interfere on the side of Armenia.

Russia`s aggressive politics

While brokering a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh war and getting involved in the conflict solution as an intermediate in the mid-1990s, the Kremlin claimed they would help the sides to find a fair solution. While preventing Azerbaijan from restoring its territorial integrity, the Russian authorities, however, were bombing Chechnya in order to maintain the Russian Federation`s integrity.

For some period before and during the peace talks, the Russian mediators strove to install the Armenian separatists as a conflict party at the negotiations table. In parallel, the Chechen separatists inside Russia would always be labeled as insurgents, bandits, terrorists and not provided proper chance for self-determination.

In the turn of millennium, the Russian army brutally suppressed Chechen insurgency, having invaded Chechnya and completely destroyed Grozny.

The Chechen conflict could somehow look a remote, unforgotten issue in the contemporary context and is sometimes explained as Russia`s domestic issue. But Moscow`s aggressive actions towards independent countries in recent years are more worrying and threatening. Amid the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-2014, the Russian Federation took advantage of the domestic turmoil in the neighboring nation and annexed Ukraine`s territory of Crimea. The March referendum held in the peninsula tried to wear a veil of legitimacy to the annexation. As a result of voting, Crimea first declared brief independence and then asked the Kremlin to incorporate the breakaway republic as one of the federal subjects of the Russian Federation.

The Russian side opposes the “annexation” label, with Putin defending the referendum as complying with the principle of self-determination of peoples. In July 2015, Russian Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Crimea had been fully integrated into Russia.

Although many actors of international community did condemn the annexation, Armeni sided with Russia, when Armenia`s president Sargsyan became, interestingly, the first out of a handful leaders to congratulate Putin on the land acquisition, probably seeing that territorial change as a vital precedent to the Armenian claims for Nagorno-Karabakh since the Armenian community in the region also proclaimed independence from Azerbaijan and is eager to join the Armenian mainland in a scenario similar to the above-noted case.

Russia`s violation of international law and preference the right of self-determination over territorial integrity especially in other countries, but not inside Russia, also creates concerns and lots of question. The Kremlin still supports breakaway states in other post-Soviet countries: Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), Transnistria (Moldova), Donbas (Ukraine). In some of them, Russia has deployed the so-called peacekeeping forces, which are meant to keep status-quo and zealously resist any attempts for restoring territorial integrity (remember Transnistrian war, Russo-Georgian war). The Donbas conflict, in its turn, is called Russia`s proxy war against Ukraine as the Kremlin actively supports the separatist forces in self-declared Donetsk People`s Republic and Luhansk People`s Republic, by providing weaponry, finance and manpower.

The majority experts would agree that prolonging the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is in the best interests of Russia, which, through this conflict and mediation process, is eager to keep control over the region, sell weapons to both belligerent countries and make them depend on Moscow`s will. Therefore, any constructive changes in the settlement of the conflict are not anticipated as long as Russia is in charge as a mediator for the Kremlin will put its efforts, at least, to maintain the status-quo.

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Rusif Huseynov

Rusif Huseynov is the co-founder of Topchubashov Center, a Baku-based think tank. He obtained his bachelor degree from the Baku State University and master degree from the University of Tartu. His main interests are socio-political developments, frozen conflicts, ethnic minorities, in post-Soviet countries, while his focus areas mainly cover Eastern Europe, Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia. 

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