Can Moscow reconcile two hostile nations of the Caucasus?

The peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has livened up after the “four-day war” between Armenia and Azerbaijan along the line of contact. The visits of Russian PM and FM to the region right after the Moscow brokered truce and the President Putin’s constant telephone conversations with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts showed Kremlin’s sensitivity to the conflict.

Can Moscow reconcile two hostile nations of the Caucasus? - GEOPOLITICA.info

Russia is a permanent co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group together with France and the US and played a crucial role on ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994. Geographical proximity and historical background differs Russia from other members of the OSCE troika. Russia still considers former-Soviet republics as its back yard and enjoys exclusive leverage over these states.

Unlike other self-proclaimed or semi-recognized states – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic – of the post-Soviet space, Russia has not been directly involved in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, yet Moscow has been considered as the main key holder in the conflict resolution.

During the late 80s despite the ambiguous approach of the Soviet leadership to unification claims from Armenian SSR with Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of Azerbaijan SSR, official Moscow later to prevent other potential breakaways backed the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan SSR. Radical changes in Moscow’s policy towards the conflict occurred after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when Russia had to pull out its military bases from Azerbaijan and latter initially refused to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that replaced the USSR.

Despite its mediation role in the conflict, Russia is a main arms supplier of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia is a member of Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and acquires Russian weaponry either with cheaper price or credits through the CSTO.

Arms embargo on Armenia and Azerbaijan due to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by OSCE in 1992 has deprived oil-rich Azerbaijan to acquire weaponry from EU or the US. Although Azerbaijan tries to diversify its arm supply through Turkey and Israel but it remains heavily dependent from Russia. Over recent years, Azerbaijan has purchased $4 billion worth Russian weaponry.

Following the “four-day war”, in his visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia will continue arms sales to both. Medvedev’s comments show that for its own economic benefits Russia will exploit “no war no peace” situation as much as possible. To reduce the effects of falling oil prices, Russia simply cannot reject any proposal on arms purchase. Also by doing so, Russia prevents other arms exporting countries to enter its market.

Arms sale to the conflicting parties is one but not the most important issue for Moscow. By maintaining the status quo Moscow keeps its leverage over these states and impedes any integration towards the West.

As a member of the OSCE troika, Russia together with France and the US is responsible to conduct peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But even here Moscow is intended to play a role of “first among the equals” by attempting to unilateral mediating.

Unilateral mediating attempts aims to achieve truce and later long-term peace under the Moscow’s guarantee. Leaked Russian FM Sergey Lavrov’s peace plan wants withdrawal of Armenian troops from five occupied towns of Azerbaijan and deployment of Russian peacekeepers.

Progress in Nagorno-Karabakh peace process might also bring Azerbaijan to Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Azerbaijan has repeatedly declared that it won’t joint to none of these organizations until the restoration of its territorial integrity.

Oil-rich Azerbaijan has strategic importance for Russia. Energy projects of Azerbaijan from the Caspian Sea are bypassing the Russian soil and playing an important role in energy diversification of Europe. By bringing Azerbaijan back to its orbit Russia will gain significant leverage over Europe.

Another crucial issue for Russia is to prevent expansion of Turkey towards the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Ethnic and linguistic proximity of Turkey with Azerbaijan led to close ties with each other in political, economic and military spheres. Turkey’s greater involvement in Azerbaijan might serve to strengthen its relations with other Turkic speaking countries of the Central Asia which jeopardizes national interests of Russia.

All these factors pushed Russia to take more active role in conflict resolution in order to maintain its role and impede consolidation of the third parties in the region. During the “four-day war” on the contrary of expectations Russia refrained from accusations or explicit intimidations towards the parties and contented its role with conducting active negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Russia’s latest approach contradicts with Russian President Medvedev’s interview with media representatives in 2011, where he said that “Armenia and Azerbaijan have learned lessons from Russia-Georgia war”.

Russia’s reluctance to protect its close ally made a cold shower effect in Armenia. Following the dissatisfaction comments of Armenian leadership to the Russian arms sale to Azerbaijan, Armenians protested visit of Russian FM Sergei Lavrov to Yerevan, accusing him for being biased.

Amid public anger in Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh peace plan of Russia, PM Dmitry Medvedev on his interview to Interfax said that maintaining the status quo is better than conflict resolution achieved at the cost of human life. His statement clarifies real motives of Russia as a broker.

Russia’s blueprint is to achieve “Finlandization” in the South Caucasus by maintaining the frozen conflicts. Slight developments such as withdrawal of Armenian troops from some occupied towns of Azerbaijan could be agreed in order to deploy Russian peacekeepers in Azerbaijan but entire resolution of the conflict does not coincide with the interests of Russia.

Over the past two decades both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been the prisoners of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that hampered regional integration. But Azerbaijan unlike Armenia has succeeded to pursue independent foreign policy and didn’t accept to enter Russia’s orbit.

Russia which is lack of soft power has been struggling to keep its former satellite states under its umbrella. Two organizations of Putin, EEU and CSTO are representing traditional “carrot and stick” policy of Kremlin and aims to restore the Soviet Union. Countries such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, refusing deeper economic, political and military engagement with Russia also have been confronted with similar separatist conflicts.

All these examples create distrust on Moscow’s intention to achieve long term peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and discredit its role as a fair broker.