Russia sees its role in a future peacekeeping force in Karabakh as a way of consolidating its influence in the region, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed.
As the world mobilizes to combat the COVID - 19 it sometimes appears that the pandemic has stopped geopolitics. Many urgent topics of international relations have been put aside. However, sooner or later the world will return to normality, and the old problems will re-emerge. Coronavirus has not decreased US - China rivalry, to the contrary the Post COVID-19 world will likely be characterized by a growing confrontation between China and the US.
Among the problems waiting their turn to re-emerge in the geopolitical landscape in the Post - Soviet space is the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. A ceasefire was reached in May 1994 and since then a negotiation process has been under way in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group process. Since late 2007 talks have revolved around the so called "Madrid principles and elements", which have been publicized by the Russian, French and US Presidents in July 2009. They envisage the return of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control, interim status for Karabakh, a corridor linking Armenia to Nagorno Karabakh, international security guarantees including a peacekeeping operation, the right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence, and the future determination of the final legal status of Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will. Despite the fact that these principles were not acceptable for the vast majority of people in Armenia and in Karabakh, the sides were close to signing an agreement based on them during the Kazan summit in June 2011.
After the failure of the Kazan summit negotiations have been essentially stalled, despite the elaboration of a "Lavrov plan". The April 2016 four-day war made the signature of any agreement even less likely. The April 2018 Velvet revolution in Armenia has not brought about significant changes in the negotiation format, despite the efforts of the Armenian new leadership to bring Stepanakert back into the negotiation process despite Baku's opposition. In this period, the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers met ten times while the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders discussed the issue during three one-on-one meetings in Davos and Vienna in 2019 and Munich in February 2020. Armenia's new leadership made several statements clarifying that those meetings were not negotiations, and there was no document on the table, despite the fact that in their March and December 2019 statements the Minsk group Co-chairs reiterated that any lasting peace agreement should be based on the above mentioned basic elements.
In the midst of the coronavirus crisis the Nagorno Karabakh conflict was brought back into regional focus by the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. On April 21 Lavrov stated that a new document was disseminated during the April 2019 Moscow meeting of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian foreign ministers. According to Lavrov, this document has no stark differences from all other options discussed during the last 13 years; it is based on a phased approach, and during the first phase some territories should be returned to Azerbaijan and communications should be opened between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Armenian Foreign Ministry immediately strongly rejected this statement, reiterating that Armenia did not pursue any negotiations based on the phased approach, and all pre-2018 documents based on that logic were not acceptable for the current Armenian leadership.
Lavrov's intervention and its timing left some commentators baffled. However, the key to understanding recent developments, and the current phase of the negotiation process, lays in identifying and understanding Russia's geostrategic interests in the South Caucasus. Moscow's top priority in the region is the increase of its influence. Regardless of all problems between Armenia and Russia which have emerged after the Velvet revolution, Moscow is quite confident that Armenia will remain within its sphere of influence for the foreseeable future. The Kremlin is satisfied by the current status quo in relations with Azerbaijan as well, since President Aliyev pursues a balanced foreign policy, and has no intentions to join either the EU or NATO. However, Russia needs iron-clad guarantees that no u-turn can happen in Azerbaijani foreign policy. One of the few options to secure long term Russian interests in Azerbaijan is the deployment of Russian military forces there. Obviously, the current Azerbaijani leadership will never agree to establish a formal Russian military base on its territory. However, there is an option which will allow Russia to have a permanent military presence in Azerbaijan without creating a military base: the Madrid basic elements envisage the deployment of peacekeeping forces, and this Russia views as a strategic opportunity.
Not surprisingly, not long after the Kazan failure, Russia pushed forward a modified version of the Kazan document dubbed by experts as the "Lavrov plan". This new document envisages the deployment of a solely or mainly Russian peacekeeping force in the region during the first phase of the settlement, in spite of an earlier understanding in diplomatic circles that Russian, American, French, Iranian and Turkish forces will not be part of any peacekeeping force in Karabakh. Azerbaijan was happy to accept this as an alternative to a Russian military presence in its territory. However, Armenia and Karabakh were never genuinely interested to give any territories to Azerbaijan, and view this agreement as another opportunity to complicate the negotiations. According to several sources Russia pushed forward the ideas that eventually became known as the "Lavrov plan" in 2014 and than again in 2016, but this plan was rejected by the Armenian government. The latter story was publicized by the Belarusian President Lukashenko during his interview with Russian mass media representatives in December 2018. Lukashenko said that during the CSTO summit in Yerevan in October 2016 the Russian President suggested to his Armenian counterpart to give five districts to Azerbaijan and accept the deployment of Russian and Belarusian peacekeepers, but this offer was declined. However, the Kremlin continues to view the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh as a tangible way to strategically secure its positions in Azerbaijan. One can safely assume that the document circulated in April 2019 contains the same ideas.
New geopolitical reality
Changing geopolitics may force Azerbaijan to accept such an offer. Baku passed its oil production peak in 2012-2014 and, even before the pandemic and slump of oil prices, was experiencing economic stagnation. Given the current oil glut and the prospect of lower oil prices remaining the norm for years, Azerbaijan is not able to significantly increase its military budget and to continue its policy of military pressure against Armenia. In the current circumstances the return of some territories back to Azerbaijani control could provide a life-line to the Azerbaijani leadership, increasing the popularity of the leadership and decreasing the growing anti government resentment among the population.
The US and France may also change their positions. Strategically COVID - 19 may accelerate the process of regionalization of globalization and the establishment of several regional blocs with fixed zones of influences. In this context, the post - Soviet space could be accepted as the Russian sphere of influence, and Moscow may receive a free hand there. Russia - West rapprochement may be triggered by the US desire to prevent the growing Russia - China strategic partnership and secure a more balanced Russian position in US - China rivalry. In this case any deal between Russia and the US may include recognition of the Post-Soviet space as a sphere of Russian influence. In both cases the US and France may stop their active prevention of Russia's plans to deploy its peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh.
Regional players, such as Iran and Turkey, have so far also opposed the Lavrov plan. Iran is fully satisfied by the current status quo as more than 100 kilometers of its de-jure border with Azerbaijan is controlled by Nagorno Karabakh. However, re-imposition of US sanctions, COVID - 19 and oil price slump has put enormous pressure on Iran. Tehran faces existential threats and must concentrate its efforts to prevent the regime collapse. In these circumstances, Iran has no resources to actively oppose a Russian push towards a change of the status quo in the Karabakh conflict zone. At the end of the day Iran could be forced to make a choice - to face Russian or Western forces along its borders. The weakened Iran may perceive the first option as the lesser of two evils.
Despite recent ups and downs in Russian - Turkish relations, both sides view themselves as strategic rivals in the South Caucasus. Turkey is very active in a trilateral Turkey - Georgia - Azerbaijan strategic partnership, and is interested in strengthening its position in the region. The presence of Russian armed forces in Karabakh is not the best case scenario for Turkey, as Ankara would prefer the total control of Karabakh by Azerbaijan. However, Ankara understands that this outcome is not realistic. If Turkey is offered to choose - territories under Armenian control or under de facto Russian control, Ankara may prefer the second option.
Russia has activated its efforts to change the status quo in the Karabakh conflict zone, seeking to deploy its peacekeepers and to establish a de facto military base there. In the current circumstances it is likely that Azerbaijan will agree to this offer and other key players may not resist. Thus, Armenia and Karabakh may face tough pressure from Russia to choose between two options: accept the Russian plan or face the threat of large-scale hostilities. The military defeat of Armenian forces is clearly one option that may hasten the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov at a meeting in Moscow on 15 April 2019 (archive picture)
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