During his November 9 visit to Armenia, NATO South Caucasus Liaison Officer Romualds Razuks declared that NATO is ready to deploy peacekeeping forces to the South Caucasus, if necessary. Razuks stressed that any potential deployment would be within the context of the OSCE Minsk group negotiation process and would be possible only if both Armenia and Azerbaijan agree to it.
Commenting on Razuks’s statement, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov stated that it is premature to speak of any deployment of NATO peacekeepers to the conflict zone, as “we have not even started discussing the mandate of peacekeeping missions” (Interfax, November 10).
Mammadyarov, nonetheless, added, “If a peacekeeping mission is opted for, it must be performed within the framework of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe…[and] peacekeeping forces must not represent the countries co-chairing the Minsk Group [Russia, United States, and France] or neighboring states [Turkey and Iran]” (Interfax, November 10). Azerbaijan objects to the deployment of Russian troops on its territory, while Armenia opposes the involvement of Turkish troops.
The head of the Press and Information Policy Office of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, Tahir Tagizade, further elaborated on the issue. Tagizade argued that the so-called “Prague process” has roughly 10 elements that deal with various issues of the conflict resolution, including the possible deployment of peacekeepers to the conflict zone. “Without an agreement on other elements, the issue of deployment of any peacekeeping contingent to the region does not make sense,” he commented (Zerkalo, November 10).
To avoid potential negative reaction from Russia, Mammadyarov also stressed that Azerbaijan did not favor the presence of foreign military troops on its soil and that state law “bans the establishment of foreign military bases in the country” (Interfax, November 10).
Yet, it did not prevent Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Treaty Organization (CIS CSTO), from declaring NATO and U.S. bases on Russia’s periphery to be “a potential threat to Russia’s security,” indirectly voicing Russia’s disapproval of NATO’s intention to expand to the South Caucasus. “These bases are powerful elements of an overall military structure that could be used during special operations to attack military, economic, and informational sites in a particular region,” declared Bordyuzha (Echo-Az, November 15).
The head of the Caucasus Department at Russia’s CIS Institute, Mikhail Alexandrov, claimed that NATO’s sudden interest in the South Caucasus is not accidental. “NATO has two major objectives in the Caucasus: to oust Russia and encircle Iran.” It is also interested in projecting its power to Central Asia, from where it could pressure China, he claimed (Pravda.Ru, November 11).
Alexandrov expressed his skepticism about the deployment of NATO peacekeepers at the current stage, but did not rule it out entirely. He claimed that, for the time being, the deployment of NATO troops to Karabakh region is not beneficial for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. By agreeing to it, Azerbaijan “would ruin its relations with Russia and Iran, [which] Azerbaijan cannot afford.”
Armenia, on the other hand, needs Russia’s support and despite “certain pro-Western sentiments [in Armenia]…the West would eventually make Armenia acknowledge that Nagorno Karabakh is Azeri territory. Armenia is much less important for the West as opposed to Azerbaijan, [which] is rich with oil and has access to the Caspian Sea” (Pravda.Ru, November 11).
Paradoxically, while Azerbaijan has been cautious in not overemphasizing NATO’s role in the region, it has been Armenia that has called for more NATO involvement, especially with respect to the Karabakh conflict. For example, when NATO’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Robert Simmons, visited Armenia in February, Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian hinted that NATO could do more on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. Simmons rejected the proposal and said that NATO did not directly participate in conflict resolutions.
But during his recent visit, however, Simmons stressed that all three states, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, could benefit from NATO’s involvement in the South Caucasus. “It is very important that the relations between NATO partners [are] normalized and, [therefore] attention should focus on peacekeeping missions and multilateral military force participation in those actions,” said Simmons (PanArmenian.Net, October 29).
He also emphasized the positive role that the Alliance could play in the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. “We realize that Armenia has serious problems with Turkey, [which] is a member of NATO. Yet, we believe that NATO should be used as a forum to solve current problems,” he said (PanArmenian.Net, October 29).
Despite its close military ties with Russia and the presence of Russian troops on its soil, Armenia has so far managed to balance its security interests and has actively worked to not lag behind its two neighbors, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The North Atlantic Council approved the two states’ Individual Partnership Action Plans (IPAP) last year. Armenia submitted its IPAP Presentation Document to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer this summer.
NATO could potentially deploy its peacekeepers to Georgia’s breakaway regions –Abkhazia and South Ossetia — though this move would inevitably trigger a negative reaction from Russia. The Alliance’s involvement in the Karabakh conflict, however, is possible within the OSCE Minsk Group framework but would ultimately depend on the signing of a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.