This commentary, prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu, was first published in the newsletter Caucasus Concise on 13 May 2021
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, travelled to the South Caucasus in the last days – first to Yerevan from 5-6 May for meetings with the Armenian leadership, and a few days later, from 10-11 May to Baku to meet Azerbaijani leaders.
Russia has an extensive agenda with both countries, ranging from economic issues to defence and security, and although it is only Armenia that is formally an ally, being a member of both the EAEU and the CSTO, the relationship with Azerbaijan is often described as being “strategic”.
However, whilst bilateral issues were discussed in both Baku and Yerevan during Lavrov’s visit, it was the regional situation that dominated the discussions in both capitals, and in particular, the implementation in practice of the 10 November “Trilateral Declaration” signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. That declaration provided for a ceasefire that brought the 44-day Karabakh war to an end, but even more ambitiously was meant to turn the page in regional relations, opening up transport and communication corridors that had been blocked for decades because of the Karabakh conflict. As the last six months have shown, that is easier said than done. Lavrov’s visit was clearly meant to get Armenia and Azerbaijan back on the same page. Apparently he failed.
Prisoners and border security paramount for the Armenians
Lavrov arrived in Yerevan to find that Armenia was still under the trauma of the decisive defeat in the 44-day war. On top of this, the country is now gripped with election fever, ahead of the 20 June parliamentary elections. The political discourse remains toxic; the mood, sombre; and the political leaders, restless.
In his discussions with the prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, and foreign minister, Ara Ayvazyan, Lavrov was left in no doubt what were the Armenian priorities. Dozens of Armenian soldiers remain in Azerbaijani captivity as Baku refuses to give them “prisoner of war” (POW) status since it argues that they participated in attacks on its people after the ceasefire agreement. The Russians have been trying hard to get the prisoners released, but so far, they have failed in the majority of cases – only three were returned. The issue has caused huge embarrassment to the prime minister, who faces a difficult election next month. Lavrov was told that Russia must secure the release of the prisoners as a priority.
The second Armenian priority is to secure its southern border with Azerbaijan, especially around the town of Syunik, which since 10 November, has become Armenia’s soft underbelly. As a military ally, Russia is expected to defend Armenia, and it is Russian border guards that sit on Armenia’s international border with Iran and Turkey. Whilst Russia washed its hands of getting involved in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding Azerbaijani territories, any incursion on Armenia proper is covered by various defence and security agreements.
The return of Azerbaijan to the territories that had been under Armenian control for a quarter of a century has created a new border situation between the two countries. The borders are based on old Soviet military maps, and since they were internal borders of the USSR, some details were not considered so important. Trying to mark these borders in the new, charged situation around Syunik is proving to be not so simple to say the least. To stabilise the situation, Russia may need to deploy even more troops than it has done so far.
Azerbaijan wants its victory acknowledged and the new reality translated into tangible changes on the ground.
Rather than fly from Yerevan to Baku, Lavrov took a break to be home for the 9 May Victory Day celebrations, and only arrived in Baku on 10 May. Even before Lavrov’s arrival in Baku, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had been on the phone that very same morning with Russian President Vladimir Putin – their fifth call this year, we were later told.
The mood in Baku could not be any different from that in Yerevan. President Aliyev, and all those around him, remain euphoric after the decisive Azerbaijani military victory. The Azerbaijanis are in a hurry to consolidate the military gains, including by starting the rather difficult process of returning hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict in the 1990s back to their homes. Restoring life to the territories regained is not easy, especially since most buildings had been razed to the ground and the area is heavily mined. Azerbaijan is demanding Armenia provides maps of the minefields. In Baku, Lavrov appeared to agree that they should give them.
Even more complex is the issue of the transport corridors and delineation of borders. In his meeting with Lavrov, President Aliyev stated his country’s commitment to work with Russia, its strategic partner, to normalise the situation, which despite being stabilised from a military point of view, still required work in terms of political, economic, transport and other considerations. He expressed hope that Russia would help to lower tensions and take a more vigilant approach to the positions of the Armenian side.
Solutions to the Karabakh conflict over the last three decades all somehow envisaged a quid pro quo arrangement, providing for an open transport corridor from the mainly Armenian-populated areas of Nagorno-Karabakh through the Lachin corridor onto Armenia itself, in return for a transport corridor from the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan to the Azerbaijani mainland through the Syunik/Zangezur corridor. Arrangements for the former were envisaged in the trilateral declaration and are in operation. The latter is, however, proving more complicated – the local Armenian population appears distressed by the close proximity of Azerbaijani military to their towns and villages, and by Ilham Aliyev’s claims that Azerbaijan will have its Zangezur corridor willy-nilly.
Some success, but a way to go
In essence, at the end of the visit to both countries, Lavrov could be pleased that both sides were happy with the work of the Russian troops recently deployed to Karabakh and that the ceasefire agreed on 10 November had held with few – if any – incidents; however, the implementation of the rest of the provisions of the trilateral declaration requires much more work.
In Baku, Lavrov thanked Aliyev for his “high-assessment” of the soldiers’ role, promising to do everything “so that everyone proceeds from the assumption that the military aspects are closed”. He brought up the importance now of handling the details on the ground, such as delimitation and demarcation, noting that whilst not everything will be simple, military experts with the participation of diplomats can agree on mutually acceptable solutions.
Speaking at a press conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Jeyhun Bayramov, on 11 May, the Russian foreign minister returned to the thorny issues of POWs and landmines:
“We want the humanitarian issues (live mines kill people) to be resolved as soon as possible and without any preconditions. I am referring to the need to return the POWs and bodies of the dead, find out what happened with the missing and settle problems related to the war’s material leftovers including mines.”
There was one inconvenient question asked of Lavrov in both Yerevan and Baku, and this related to the “future” of the OSCE Minsk Group, which Russia co-chairs with France and the United States. In Baku, Lavrov said, the Minsk Group remains relevant, primarily in sorting humanitarian issues and promoting confidence between the sides.
As for the issue of “the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh”, not a word escaped Lavrov’s lips during his visit to Yerevan and Baku, although implicitly that means that since Nagorno-Karabakh is now under Russia’s protection, it does not need any status.
Is Nagorno-Karabakh Russia’s poisoned chalice?
The 10 November Armenia-Azerbaijan-Russia trilateral declaration considerably strengthened the position of Russia in the South Caucasus. It bypassed the western countries involved in the Karabakh peace process to the point of embarrassment. But some are asking if Russia has not taken on a poisoned chalice, and whether a win-win situation might not turn into a lose-lose situation if the differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan are not resolved and the fragile peace breaks down.
Lavrov had hardly time to arrive back in Moscow from Baku when he had to take a phone call from the Armenian foreign minister protesting at what Armenians say was a border incursion in the Syunik region. Details of the incident remain hazy, but the Armenian National Security Council met late at night on Wednesday (12 May) to deal with the issue.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are far from being at a point where they can work together for the benefit of the region. Russia may find that this objective is either too elusive, or too costly in terms of the time and resources needed to sustain it, and even then, without any guarantees of success.
The Russians are aware of the magnitude of the problem. They have so far side-lined international partners, hoping that they can solve the problem on their own, and secure their predominance in the South Caucasus region. In so doing they may be left holding the baby – and for a long time to come, with success and failure simply too costly and too unpredictable. Back in Moscow, Lavrov must now consult with his political master about the next steps. Vladimir Putin has done the heavy lifting to get the situation up to this point. But the president of Russia has other things to worry about too, and any future leader may not be so enthusiastic about getting embroiled to such an extent in this deeply rooted conflict.
Source: This commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu was first published in the newsletter Caucasus Concise on 13 May 2021
Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arriving in Azerbaijan on 10 May 2021; Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs