Over the past two decades, the main international mechanism for resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group—has shown itself incapable of achieving its underlying objective. During the most recent bout of fierce fighting in the region (September 27–November 9, 2020), the format’s two Western co-chairs, the United States and France, effectively sided with Armenia (see Parts One, Two and Three in EDM, November 25, December 1, 3). And while criticizing, instead of welcoming, their North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey’s newfound role in the South Caucasus amidst that war to balance Russia, the US and French statements voiced no objection to (third Minsk Group co-chair) Russia’s instigation and manipulation of the various protracted conflicts in this region, including that over Karabakh.
Calling for a solution based on the Helsinki Final Act is a formulation that implies withdrawing from the Minsk Group co-chairs’ previously agreed Basic Principles to resolve the Karabakh conflict. The co-chairs had proceeded from the Helsinki Final Act’s general norms to, in 2009, develop the specific Basic Principles tailored to the Karabakh conflict. Yerevan, however, has overtly repudiated the Basic Principles since Nikol Pashinian became prime minister (see EDM, November 25), to no censure from Moscow, Washington or Paris. Recommending simply a return to the Helsinki Final Act clearly implies stepping back from the Basic Principles, thus accommodating Yerevan.
Resuming Minsk Group–mediated negotiations (with or without the Basic Principles) looks like a pious hope at this stage. While wishing this to happen, US officials stopped short of promising in their statements a more active US engagement in the Minsk Group after a decade of passive involvement at the ambassadorial level, far outranked by Russia’s presidential- and ministerial-level involvement.
Nevertheless, the war’s surprising outbreak this autumn prompted Washington and Paris to attempt reactivating the institution of the Minsk Group’s co-chairs, in the hopes of recouping at least some degree of their lost influence. However, the US and French co-chairs were reduced to telephoning Moscow for information on ongoing faits accomplis in the war, assembling from time to time as a trio with the Russian co-chair (including an October 25 meeting in Washington), and issuing “for the record” public statements by tripartite consensus.
The themes running through these statements included an immediate ceasefire without preconditions (i.e., Azerbaijan’s preconditions); “no alternative to a peaceful, negotiated solution” (i.e., not seriously challenging Armenia’s earlier conquest of Azerbaijani territory); resuming negotiations toward a solution to the conflict (a worthy but belated attempt by Washington and Paris to work themselves back into a process that Moscow had already taken away from them); a number of humanitarian considerations; and, tentatively, to consider the possibility of working out some ceasefire-monitoring proposals by the three co-chairs (Osce.org/minsk-group, Osce.org/chairmanship, September 27, 29, October 2, 13, 25, 30).
Notably, the co-chairs’ multiple statements (with one possible exception) avoided any reference to the Minsk Group’s own Basic Principles (authored by the co-chairs themselves) for solving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. The reasons behind this omission seem obvious: Yerevan had repudiated the Basic Principles as unacceptable (see above); and the Kremlin was itself, during this war, developing the armistice agreement that was to depart from the Basic Principles (see Parts One and Two in EDM, November 25, December 1).
A joint presidential statement by Presidents Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron along with a joint ministerial statement by foreign ministry heads Sergei Lavrov, Michael Pompeo and Jean-Yves Le Drian were issued early in the war, on October 1 and 5, respectively, pro forma and without follow up (Osce.org/minsk-group, October 1, 5).
The fact that top-level US and French officials deemed it necessary to intervene signified, at least, their desire to raise the intensity of Washington’s and Paris’s involvement from the merely ambassadorial level. The Minsk Group’s co-chairs had been operating through their ambassadors since the format’s inception, in 1992, to date. From 2010 onward, however, Russia also became involved at the presidential and ministerial levels and on a permanent basis; while the US and French participation remained ambassadorial, bureaucratized, unpurposeful and ultimately dormant. This mismatch alone predetermined the Kremlin’s unilateral takeover of what had been an attempt at concert-of-powers mediation. That, in turn, carried a multilateral cover in the form of an OSCE mandate; but the OSCE cannot counter Russia’s monopolization of the process and, therefore, keeps silent about it (see below).
The Kremlin has firmly monopolized the mediator’s role between Armenia and Azerbaijan, brokered the November 10 armistice agreement, and unilaterally deployed “peacekeeping” troops to oversee the agreement’s implementation in the years ahead (see EDM, November 12, 13). Moscow will, nevertheless, keep the Minsk Group’s co-chairmanship alive, to the extent to which Washington and Paris are willing to provide a multilateral cover for Russia-driven decisions down the road. When the Minsk Group’s US and French co-chairs (Ambassadors Andrew Schofer and Stéphane Visconti, respectively) visited Moscow after the Karabakh armistice, to be briefed on the fait accompli, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov chided Washington and Paris for begrudging Russia’s own success and made clear that the co-chairmanship would continue operating on Russian-defined terms. These are acceptance (political endorsement) of the Russian-brokered armistice terms as well as support for post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Karabakh (TASS, November 19), points that Lavrov reiterated on his victory-lap visit to Yerevan and Baku (TASS, November 21).
Moscow has no wish to exclude Washington and Paris from the process. On the contrary, it welcomes their involvement, but only through the Minsk Group, not in their own right, and within the framework set by the Russian-brokered armistice. Accordingly, Moscow uses the courtesy talking point that the armistice draws on some of the Minsk co-chairs’ 2009 recommendations (dormant ever since—see Part Two in EDM, December 1). This compliment is partly fact-based but obscures Russia’s drastic departure from those recommendations with the deployment of its troops in Karabakh.
For their part, the United States and France regard the Minsk Group’s co-chairmanship as a means to work their way back into the process: for Washington to recoup some of its lost influence, and for Paris to seek a degree of influence where France heretofore had none. But this is a route to nowhere because the co-chairmanship is trilateral, Russian-US-French, and can only speak and act by internal consensus among its parties—a mirror image of the dysfunctional OSCE, which created the Minsk Group. Meanwhile, Russia is working bilaterally with Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively. Given Moscow’s faits accomplis on the ground, its political conditions (see above), and the co-chairmanship’s own structure, the only way for the US and France to operate in the Minsk Group is as travel companions to Russia-driven policies.