During a videoconference organized by the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh, but his remarks greatly incensed Yerevan (Mid.ru, April 21). First, he expressed support for the current “firmly established format” of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This runs counter to Armenia’s insistence on involving the de facto authorities in Karabakh directly in the negotiation process (see EDM December 11, 2019). Second, Lavrov described the draft documents on the agenda to be a “very important step in implementing the [United Nations] Security Council resolutions.” This discomforts Armenia as Azerbaijan consistently refers to those resolutions, which call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied districts (see EDM October 2, 2017). Third, Russia’s top diplomat referred to international documents that “provide for movement toward a settlement using a stage by stage approach, with the resolution of the most pressing issues at the first stage, such as the liberation of a number of districts around Nagorno-Karabakh and re-launching the transport, economic and other communication lines.” In particular, his statement in support of the phased settlement of the conflict caused much uproar in Armenia, sparking criticism of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government and its apparent timidity or inability to articulate Yerevan’s negative position on this issue (Caucasuswatch.de, April 24). While the content of Lavrov’s statement generated intense debate in both Baku and Yerevan, less consideration was given to the apparent motives behind it.
First, a phased settlement could arguably offer a new instrument via which Russia would be able to legitimize its leverage over the conflict—in particular, by directly deploying peacekeepers to the conflict zone. Indeed, between 1992 and 1994, the same objectives motivated Moscow to guarantee the deployment of its peacekeeping forces to Moldovan Transnistria and Georgian Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The type of role such peacekeepers could play in a crisis was showcased during the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. To date—though at a heavy political cost—Azerbaijan has avoided permitting such Russian deployments in Karabakh (see EDM August 31, 2015; Panorama.az, December 14, 2018).
Under the proposed phased settlement, the deployment of peacekeepers to separate Armenian and Azerbaijani forces would importantly take place prior to determining the Karabakh territory’s final status. This would give Moscow far-reaching leverage since the phased settlement leaves the determination of the final status pending while granting Karabakh a temporary status. Unlike the phased settlement, a “full package” deal would require both sides to simultaneously agree to all stages of the conflict settlement. Armenia favors this approach because Yerevan’s aim is to attain a preferred final status for Karabakh in exchange for the return of the occupied Azerbaijani districts located around it. In contrast, Azerbaijan’s priority is the liberation of all occupied districts and return of refugees before tackling the final status issue (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 21, 2019; Mfa.gov.az, Preslib.az, accessed May 4, 2020).
The second set of motives behind Lavrov’s comments were likely motivated by the current political situation in the region. First, there is considerable unease in Moscow’s relations with Pashinyan’s government; and yet, on March 31, an individual regarded as loyal to Pashinyan became the “president” of Karabakh, beating out the Moscow-favored candidate. In that light, Lavrov’s statement may have been intended as a shot across the bow of the leadership in Armenia and Karabakh (see EDM June 5, 2019; Armeniasputnik.am, EurasiaNet, April 1, 2020; Oc-media.org, April 15, 2020; News.am, March 4, 2020).
Another consideration for Moscow was likely, Baku’s deadlocked negotiation on a new framework agreement with the European Union. As such, the comments from Lavrov may have been delivered to encourage Baku to play tougher with Brussels. The EU has, notably, not been particularly clear when it comes to expressing its own stance on the Karabakh conflict settlement principles, much to Azerbaijan’s chagrin (see EDM, May 22, 2019 and December 11, 2019).
Last but not least, Lavrov’s statement sent a message that Moscow is maintaining a close eye on the region despite distractions such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the EU has allocated some relatively substantial coronavirus-response funding to Eastern Partnership countries, including Armenia and Azerbaijan (Euneighbours.eu, April 8; Ec.europa.eu, April 22; see EDM, April 20), Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union has, so far, done little regionally in this regard (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 18; Rossyiskaya Gazeta, April 10; Izvestia, April 14). Nonetheless, media outlets and individual figures in Russia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet space continue to voice skepticism about the future of the EU, often depicting it as an ineffective institution in the fight against COVID-19 (1tv.ru, April 6; RIA Novosti, March 18; TASS, March 23; Nation-news.ru, March 25; Svoboda.org, March 31).
Moscow routinely maneuvers between Armenia and Azerbaijan, appeasing Yerevan on one occasion and Baku on another. However, on this occasion, the Azerbaijani media and public did not take the bait and avoided enthusiastically taking Lavrov’s statement at face value. Instead, some members of parliament actually blamed Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov for what they described as ineffective representation of the state, leading to speculation that he would be dismissed (EurasiaNet, April 24; Yenisabah.az, April 27).
Baku has been rather effective in engaging the international public by communicating its perspective on the conflict, especially through the efforts of President Ilham Aliyev. The dismissal of the country’s top diplomat will make little difference, however, unless the relevant public agencies as well as (in particular) government-linked think tanks understand the importance of working out novel strategies to engage Karabakh’s ethnic-Armenian community as potential citizens of Azerbaijan as well as to reach out directly to the public of the Republic of Armenia. Indeed, the International Crisis Group and the Centre for European Policy Studies both published reports, in 2019 and 2020, respectively, that indicate the conflict has become part of the identity of the affected populations in Karabakh (Crisisgroup.org, December 20, 2019; Ceps.eu, March 2020). Therefore, to achieve a breakthrough or any meaningful progress in the conflict settlement would require somehow reshaping their identity, necessitating direct engagement.
Russia has, indeed, played a crucial role in the early stages of the Karabakh conflict; but after three decades, its position has been downgraded somewhat. Now, Lavrov’s recent comments suggest Russia is looking to try to reverse that situation. But even if Moscow somehow ends up giving up its position and interests there, as the Russian proverb says, “A sacred space is never empty.”