Russia, not the Minsk Group, will reinvent the Minsk Group, and is working on it (see Part One in EDM, January 28). The object is not the 12-nation Minsk Group Conference (this has been inactive since the mid-1990s), but its triple co-chairmanship of Russia, the United States and France, in which Russia seized the leading role from 2010 onward, ultimately to discard this setup through unilateral Russian action in November 2020. Usurping the Minsk Group’s collective mandate, the Kremlin unilaterally mediated the armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan; and breaking that mandate, which had envisaged international peacekeeping, Russia deployed its own troops to Karabakh. The absentee Western players made it easy for Russia to fill the vacuum; and that made it inevitable for Azerbaijan and Armenia to accept, or even seek, Russia’s arbitration for lack of other options.
Western diplomacy failed yet again to counteract Russia’s method of working both within multilateral bodies (such as the Minsk Group) and around those bodies at the same time, using bilateral channels to circumvent the multilateral process.
In the next stage, Moscow intends to use the Minsk Group’s triple co-chairmanship to legitimize Russia’s faits accomplis on the ground. The Kremlin is prepared to let the co-chairs return to the region in support of Russia‘s initiatives. President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabov continue briefing Washington and Paris about Moscow’s initiatives regarding Armenia and Azerbaijan. Those are basically post factum notifications of Russian actions; they are neither a trilateral negotiation among the co-chairs, nor the co-chairs’ mediation between Baku and Yerevan as per the group’s mandate. Such briefings amount to a pretense that the Minsk Group’s co-chairmanship continues to operate. Washington and Paris seem to go along, partly out of face-saving considerations and partly in the hopes of climbing back into the process. On January 30, in an interview with Dozhd TV, the US ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, said that such briefings are “yet another example of an area where the United States and France cooperate with the Russian government as Minsk Group co-chairs, and we wish to continue our cooperation” (RIA Novosti, January 30).
Putin and Lavrov (TASS, November 18, 2020 and December 17, 2020) have made clear all along that they would confine the co-chairs to humanitarian and economic assistance functions in Karabakh for the time being. Moscow expects Washington and Paris to help mobilize international financing for post-conflict reconstruction. Along these lines, Putin told the Davos Economic Forum on January 27 that the Minsk Group’s co-chairing countries “face the task of helping the war-affected areas to resolve humanitarian problems, restore damaged infrastructure, [and] assist the return of refugees” (Kremlin.ru, January 27, 2021).
Russia is the only actor participating in—and dominating—all the existing platforms and formats in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict theater. Besides its near-monopoly in the Minsk Group, Russia is the sole “peacekeeper” with troops on the ground; it is Armenia’s official ally and security guarantor; it is the unrecognized Karabakh “republic’s” security guarantor and de facto protector; it is Turkey’s exclusive partner in the Joint Center for Ceasefire Monitoring (inaugurated on January 30); it is the mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the border-demarcation processes in Karabakh and Syunik; and it is the initiator and convener of region-wide strategic transportation projects involving Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia, alongside Russia itself (see EDM, January 12).
All this is a tribute to Russia’s diplomatic agility, regional expertise and non-ideological pragmatism. It has managed to maintain conflict-free relations with all regional players, work with any and all of them, and gain unmatched leverage in all directions. Russia effectively postures as upholding international law through support of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity; as providing security guarantees via “peacekeeping” to the Armenian population of Karabakh; and as promoting region-wide economic development through Russia’s role as convener of strategic transportation projects. In all of this, Russia capitalizes on the disengagement of the United States and the European Union from the region.
At this stage and going forward, Turkey is the only player in the region that can at least in part offset Russia’s influence, mainly by guaranteeing Azerbaijan’s full independence and sovereignty. The Turkey-Azerbaijan tandem protects Georgia also. Washington and Paris are prone to viewing the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict—and the situation in the region overall—through the prism of the US’s and France’s own strained relations with Turkey on issues unrelated to the South Caucasus. The multifaceted task before them, however, is to learn to compartmentalize, encourage Turkey’s newfound role in the South Caucasus, and solidify the Turkey-Azerbaijan-Georgia alignment.