Russia has become increasingly critical of western involvement in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict settlement process, writes Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu.
"Armenia and Azerbaijan should take all necessary steps to avoid being trapped in Russia – West or US – Iran confrontation. The ongoing war in Ukraine proved that this scenario might have catastrophic implications for both states. It does not mean that negotiations should be stopped. However, the hectic moves to sign a US or EU-prepared agreement, which Russia may view as an attempt to kick it out from South Caucasus, may destabilize the situation and bring new war instead of peace. In this context, the possible option to not lose the momentum could be a signature of a document that will envisage the principles of the future peace agreement while providing more time to carefully draft a peace treaty based on the balance of interests of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other actors."
The trilateral statement of November 10, 2020, which ended the 2020 Karabakh war seemed to sideline the US and France, who with Russia had for decades co-chaired the OSCE Minsk Group, from involvement in any post-war conflict settlement arrangements. It established instead a Russian monopoly in mediating future arrangements in the region. Neither Washington nor France was involved in preparing the November 10 statement, while the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno Karabakh fomented the role of Russia as the only security provider for Nagorno Karabakh Armenians. Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia signed another trilateral statement on January 11, 2021, focused on restoring communications. The leaders' November 26, 2021, summit aimed to promote a border delimitation and demarcation process. In late 2021, the West started taking small steps to re-insert itself in the negotiation process, with the President of the European Council organizing the first Aliyev – Pashinyan summit in Brussels. However, at that time EU's efforts appeared to be in line with Russian perceptions of the conflict settlement, and not aimed at challenging the role of Russia.
The situation started to change after Russia launched the war against Ukraine. Russia – West relations reached their lowest point in decades, and the EU joined the US in imposing tough economic sanctions on Russia and in supporting Ukraine militarily. At this point the Brussels format for Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiations started to be perceived as an alternative platform. Initially, the Russian reaction was muted, but in recent months the Kremlin started to overtly criticize the West-facilitated formats, arguing that their primary goal was to push Russia out of the region. The situation became even more complex after the September 2022 Azerbaijani aggression against Armenia. The US took the lead in the mediation efforts. The meetings between Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers in New York, and Secretary of the Armenian Security Council and the top foreign policy aide to President Aliyev in Washington, paved the way for the October 6 Prague statement agreed by Pashinyan and Aliyev on recognition of mutual territorial integrity and deployment of the EU civilian mission in Armenia. The Washington meeting also resulted in a preliminary agreement to sign a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of 2022, even though this outcome hardly seemed realistic after the September attack against Armenia.
The recent events in and around Armenia – Azerbaijan relations raised alarm bells in the Kremlin. On October 24, 2022, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman issued a lengthy statement arguing that the West put unprecedented pressure on Armenia to change its foreign policy vector while the NGOs funded by the West actively spread anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia. According to Moscow, the West's suggestions for normalization of Armenia – Azerbaijan relations were unbalanced, while the primary goal of the West was to push Russia out of the region. Russia argued that the Western efforts would break the fragile balance in the region established by the November 10, 2020, trilateral statement.
In parallel with harsh criticism against the West, Russia decided to reengage in the Armenia – Azerbaijan negotiation process actively. President Putin invited Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to visit Sochi on October 31 for a new trilateral summit. Probably, the Russian leader will tell Aliyev and Pashinyan that rumors of imminent Russian decline due to the war in Ukraine are exaggerated and that Azerbaijan and Armenia should be careful not to act against Russian interests. The Kremlin may face significant setbacks in Ukraine, but has still enough power to inflict pain if its interests are ignored.
Thus, Armenia – Azerbaijan normalization process slowly starts to become part of the Russia – West conflict, which may negatively impact Armenia and Azerbaijan. Another feature of the ongoing regional geopolitical chess game is the growing Iranian involvement. Tehran is unhappy to see increased Azerbaijan – Israel defense cooperation, and Israel’s indirect presence along the Azerbaijan – Iran border. The ongoing Azerbaijani and Turkish claims on the "Zangezur corridor" to connect Azerbaijan with Turkey via the Syunik region of Armenia are another concern for Iran. In recent days the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps launched large-scale military drills along Iran – Nakhcevan and Iran – Azerbaijan borders. The Iranian foreign minister visited Armenia and opened an Iranian consulate in the Syunik region. Russia is objectively focused on the war in Ukraine and cannot provide significant attention to the South Caucasus. Meanwhile, given the growing Russia – Iran strategic cooperation, the Kremlin may ask Iran to increase its involvement in the South Caucasus to balance the US and Turkey.
Armenia and Azerbaijan should take all necessary steps to avoid being trapped in Russia – West or US – Iran confrontation. The ongoing war in Ukraine proved that this scenario might have catastrophic implications for both states. It does not mean that negotiations should be stopped. However, the hectic moves to sign a US or EU-prepared agreement, which Russia may view as an attempt to kick it out from South Caucasus, may destabilize the situation and bring new war instead of peace. In this context, the possible option to not lose the momentum could be a signature of a document that will envisage the principles of the future peace agreement while providing more time to carefully draft a peace treaty based on the balance of interests of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other actors.