The Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers meet in Moscow today at the invitation of their Russian counterpart. It is the latest attempt by Russia to ensure that it is not marginalized, as Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations continue in earnest with western mediation. In this op-ed for commonspace.eu, Benyamin Poghosyan says that Russian demands to include in the peace agreement the issue of rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh may allow Armenia to take a more flexible position during the upcoming negotiations and seek to create minimally acceptable conditions for Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh.
In recent months it appeared that the US and the EU had taken the lead in pushing forward Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations. In May and June, the US organized two meetings of the foreign ministers with their respective teams to work on the text of the peace agreement, while the President of the European Council brought together President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan in May and July. The Russian President organized a summit of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in late May 2023. However, besides the public debate between President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan on the 'Zangezur corridor", that meeting brought no other tangible results. Given that Russia has shifted its focus to Ukraine since February 2022, the recent increase in US and the EU engagement with Armenia and Azerbaijan seemed quite natural; Russia started to lose its influence, and the West sought to use the momentum. After the Washington and Brussels meetings, there is increased talk that Armenia and Azerbaijan may sign a peace agreement by the end of 2023 due to the intensive dialogue facilitated by the West. If this scenario becomes a reality, and a peace agreement is signed in one of the European capitals, this will be another sign of Russia's weakened position and the West's increased influence in the region.
However, Russia has recently taken steps to bring itself back into the game. On July 15, 2023, less than an hour before the negotiations in Brussels, the Russian Ministry of foreign affairs issued a special statement on the developments around Nagorno Karabakh. Arguing that the recognition by Armenia of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan within the EU facilitated negotiations in October 2022 and May 2023 has fundamentally changed the conditions under which November 10, 2020, trilateral statement was signed and Russian peacekeepers were deployed in Nagorno Karabakh, Russian Ministry of foreign affairs stated, that Russia respected the sovereign decision of Armenia to recognize Nagorno Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. However, the statement emphasized that no third country should be declared responsible for the security and rights of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabakh after that action. Meanwhile, the Russian MFA stated that the issue of rights and security of Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh should be included in the peace agreement, and called Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers to meet in Moscow to discuss the details of the future agreement and prepare the document for the signature by leaders in a summit to be held in Moscow. In the same statement, the Russian MFA again demanded unblocking of the Lachin corridor.
Almost immediately after this statement, the Azerbaijani foreign ministry issued a commentary, claiming that the statement contradicted the Declaration on Allied Interaction between Azerbaijan and Russia and the statements of the President of Russia supporting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan, including the Karabakh region. Azerbaijani MFA also claimed that the complete withdrawal of the remnants of the Armenian armed forces existing in the territory of Azerbaijan had yet to be ensured, contrary to the 2020 Trilateral Statement, to which the Russian Federation was a party. On the contrary, Armenian armed forces were supported under the supervision of the Russian peacekeeping contingent.
Russia – Azerbaijan diplomatic debate continued in the following days. On July 17, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Bayramov, during a meeting with the newly appointed Ambassador of Russia to Azerbaijan, Mikhail Yevdokimov, stated that the issue of “rights and security” of Armenian residents mentioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation would be resolved within the framework of national legislation of Azerbaijan. For this purpose, a dialogue was initiated with Armenian residents.
On the same day, Russian deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko met with the Azerbaijani ambassador to Russia, Polad Bulbuloglu. In connection with the incorrect comments of the Azerbaijan MFA in relation to the statement of the Russian MFA of July 15, 2023, Rudenko emphasized that the Russian Federation had always respected the territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan. At the same time, that did not eliminate the problem of comprehensively promoting the process of normalizing Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and solving all agenda issues, including ensuring the rights and security of the population of Nagorno Karabakh, exclusively through peaceful political and diplomatic methods.
The Russian side again confirmed the need for the complete and immediate unblocking of the Lachin corridor, the restoration of transport links along it in both directions, in accordance with the tripartite statement of November 9, 2020, as well as the creation of conditions for normal life in Nagorno-Karabakh. During the same meeting, The Russian side confirmed its readiness to organize a tripartite meeting of foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Moscow soon to discuss the peace treaty, which would be followed by the summit of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia to sign the treaty in Moscow
The recent increased Russian activities in Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiation track probably are evidence of Russian understanding that some document may be signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of the year. Suppose the document has no mention of Nagorno Karabakh. In that case, it will allow Azerbaijan to demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from Nagorno Karabakh after November 2025, as was hinted recently by Turkish President Erdogan. Meanwhile, in this scenario, many Armenians will leave Nagorno Karabakh, while the blame for that outcome can be put on Russia. If a peace agreement is signed in any European capital, it will be another message that Russia is no longer the number one player in the South Caucasus.
Thus, Russia wants to restore its leading role in the South Caucasus by offering Moscow as the place for the signature of the Armenia – Azerbaijan treaty. Simultaneously, by demanding the inclusion of the article on the rights and security of Karabakh Armenians in the peace treaty, Russia seeks to create a base for the extension of peacekeepers' mandate beyond November 2025, as peacekeepers will guarantee the implementation of the agreement. Thus, probably understanding that it cannot stop the process of the signature of the comprehensive Armenia – Azerbaijan peace treaty, Russia has decided to lead the process and secure its interests. Meanwhile, Russian demands to include in the peace agreement the issue of rights and security of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh may allow Armenia to take a more flexible position during the upcoming negotiations and seek to create minimally acceptable conditions for Armenians living in Nagorno Karabakh.