For decades, Russia has tried to protect its interests in the South Caucasus following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But Russia had nothing to offer to the countries of the region, be it for their economic and political challenges, or even more importantly for the process of restoring peace in the region after it slid into conflict at the end of the Soviet era. There was however one thing that it could do, and that was to spoil any efforts for peace and reconciliation, if these efforts did not originate and were managed by Russia itself. This way it could maintain it primordial position in the region, and as much as possible, keep everyone else out, whilst often presenting itself as an exemplary peacemaker.
This grotesque situation has played itself out in front of everyone’s eyes since 1992. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have for most of the time had no choice but to play along with the Russian masquerade, and the international community, most of the time distracted by other issues, generally played along, being content to be seen offering some kind of balance to Russian posturing.
Russia’s role in managing the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is a classic example of its negative role. For decades, it was formally a co-chair, together with France and the United States, of the OSCE Minsk Group. The Group went through all the motions of conducting diplomacy to achieve peace and reconciliation, but was completely ineffective. One of the main reasons was Russia’s intrigue. Whenever it suited it, Russia abandoned the trio, and went alone pushing for some imaginary breakthrough. One such moment was in Moscow in 2009, when as part of a process of distorting its intentions in the recent Georgia-Russia War (and Russia’s subsequent decision to recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) it organised a summit in Moscow with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the first of many. The French and the American co-chairs were also invited, but they were kept in a separate room in the Kremlin, and never got anywhere near the three presidents. When asked later why they were not brought in the meeting, as was the agreement, the Russians said that they forgot. And so they muddled on, providing arms to both sides, raising hopes for peace one day, and provoking incidents the next.
It seems that they forgot too a decade later, in November 2020, when Putin negotiated an end to the 2nd Karabakh War, and the introduction of a Russian military force in Karabakh as part of the deal, without any reference to the other two co-chair countries. This was Russia’s idea of international cooperation in managing the conflict. Russia continued to go through the motions of working with the other two co-chair countries because it understood that neither Armenia, nor Azerbaijan, trusted it. The Minsk Group process was simply a smokescreen.
This charade finally collapsed under the diplomatic pressures resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Without the convenient camouflage of the Minsk Group, Russia now had to manage its own shenanigans, fully exposed. And what an ugly sight it has been!
At first Russia did not take the Brussels process seriously
In 2021, when the dust from the Second Karabakh War settled, both Armenia and Azerbaijan had to think what happens next. An offer by the European Union to provide good offices for negotiations, without the overbearing Russian presence, appeared attractive for both sides, and the Brussels format kicked off in December 2021.
Russia at first did not take the Brussels format seriously, and thought it will blow away under the stress of the usual Armenian-Azerbaijani tensions. To their surprise it did not. This also coincided with the breakdown of communications with the West after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. For nearly two years now, the Brussels format offered an alternative to Armenia and Azerbaijan to negotiate the many problems between them. Moscow was not pleased, it tried to run a parallel process, with limited success; it started criticising the Brussels format, first in a subdued way, but increasingly vocally. Once it became apparent that a deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan could be reached in Russia’s absence, Moscow has become hysterical.
As usual, the first shots came from the foreign ministry’s Maria Zakharova, always an early sign of where the wind is blowing in Moscow, but very soon foreign minister Lavrov weighed in, and soon after, Mr Putin himself. They criticised the West accusing it of geo-political intrigue; they said that it was Western pressure on the two countries to move towards a peace agreement that was fuelling tensions, and in so many words, Lavrov speaking in September in New York, accused the EU of being responsible for the displacement of the Armenian community of Karabakh.
EU and US reach out to Russia
Could this be simply a misperception? The answer is no, because the EU and the US have gone to great lengths to keep the Russian side informed of their efforts and their intentions, despite the diplomatic awkwardness that this entailed given the state of relations as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On 5 July, speaking at a LINKS Europe conference in The Hague, the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Toivo Klaar, revealed that he had spoken with the Russians at the end of June. Klaar told the meeting the Russians had told him that, "the EU had stolen their agenda”.
And on 4 October, the Brussels publication “Politico” revealed that top officials from the United States and the EU met with their Russian counterparts for undisclosed emergency talks in Turkey just days before the 19 September Azerbaijan military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The off-diary meeting marks a rare — if ultimately unsuccessful — contact between Moscow and the West on a major security concern, after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 upended regular diplomacy.”
The U.S. was represented by Louis Bono, Washington’s senior adviser for Caucasus negotiations, while the EU dispatched Toivo Klaar, its representative for the region. Russia, meanwhile, sent Igor Khovaev, who serves as Putin’s special envoy on relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In a statement provided to POLITICO, an EU official said “we believe it is important to maintain channels of communications with relevant interlocutors to avoid misunderstandings.” The official also observed Klaar had sought to keep lines open on numerous fronts over the “past years,” including in talks with Khovaev and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department declined to comment on the meeting, saying only that “we do not comment on private diplomatic discussions.”
However, a U.S. official familiar with the matter who was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters explained the discussions came out of an understanding that the Kremlin still holds sway in the region. “We need to be able to work with the Russians on this because they do have influence over the parties, especially as we’re at a precarious moment right now,” the American official said.
It is right that the EU and the US should be transparent in their endeavours, and if it is necessary to do that through direct talks with the Russians, so be it.
However, the lessons of the past should not be forgotten. Russia never had, and certainly does not have now, any interest in working genuinely with international partners to support peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. If a dialogue with Russia is necessary so that Russia will not be a spoiler, than that dialogue is futile because Russian objectives are not the same as those of the West. Russia’s gloating when Azerbaijani president Aliyev failed to turn up for a crucial summit in Granada last week is a case in point. We are now already seeing Russian rhetoric increase as preparations for the long-expected meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan, with Michel, scheduled for later this month, intensify. Russian pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan ahead of the Brussels meeting is also increasing both overtly and covertly.
Armenia and Azerbaijan must now rise to the occasion
How about Armenia and Azerbaijan?
The two countries play the geo-political game when it suits them, but at other times they play the role of the reluctant bride dismissing different suitors. This is a dangerous game, and it seems this game continues to be played even now when things, especially with regards to a possible peace agreement are so advanced. This now must stop and the leadership of both Baku and Yerevan need to rise to the occasion.
There is an argument that Armenia and Azerbaijan simply cannot afford to be seen agreeing with each other, under the auspices of Brussels, without the Russians being part of the story. Thus there has been in recent weeks some frantic discussions about how that could be done, including by having the final lap of any discussions in Tbilisi, without any outside mediators. Such ideas have also found favour in Tehran and Ankara. A wonderful idea, but one that has many flaws. Any agreement will need to be somehow underpinned by some kind of international patronage. And “ownership” will also determine who is going to pick up the bill for post-conflict reconstruction and other costs of erasing the scars of the conflict from the region, including for example demining. Still, Tbilisi may be a venue that more or less can be acceptable to both the Russians as well as to the Europeans and the Americans.
In the end, the location of the symbolic finishing line must not turn out to be the most important issue. All focus, and all efforts must be concentrated on getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree to finally put an end to this long painful episode in their history, that has taken the lives of tens of thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and costed billions. And that would be just the end of the beginning because translating a written agreement into concrete actions that would ensure lasting and durable peace will be a much longer and more difficult endeavour.