The 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan (September 27–November 9) has resulted in an Azerbaijani national triumph, a Russian geopolitical and diplomatic victory over the West, and a conclusive discrediting of multilateral diplomacy as an instrument for conflict-resolution in and around the post-Soviet space (see EDM, November 12, 13, 17). The discrediting is conclusive simply because this instrument has run out of places in which to fail in former Soviet and nearby territories where Russia is involved. The West has tried multilateral diplomacy only to be defeated at its own game in Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Syria, and now in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Karabakh.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group was instituted in 1992 and activated in 1994, with a mandate to promote a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict through negotiation and mediation (Osce.org, accessed November 23). (The Group was supposed to convene and act in Minsk but never did so, regardless of which it kept that official name ever since.)
Its structure includes the Minsk Conference (from 1992 onward), comprised of about a dozen OSCE states with a purely symbolic role; and (from 1997 onward) the triple co-chairmanship comprised of Russia, the United States and France (the latter acting in a national capacity to keep the European Union out—a point in Moscow’s favor). Turkey has all along been excluded from the co-chairmanship and relegated to the irrelevant Conference (another point in Moscow’s favor).
The triple co-chairmanship has been the Minsk Group’s sole initiating and operating agent all along. It has mediated between Armenia and Azerbaijan, acting by internal consensus among the three co-chairs. However, Russia has been the most active co-chair by far from 2010 to date. The Barack Obama administration decided, as a matter of its Russia policy, to defer to Moscow on this issue; and Moscow upgraded the level of its involvement, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Kremlin itself. Owing to US disengagement and French irrelevance to this region, Russia has practically monopolized the mediator’s role between Armenia and Azerbaijan, nominally through the Minsk Group but often bypassing it in practice, throughout this past decade.
Exceptionally, the period 2006–2009 became the most fruitful on the Minsk Group’s record, with the US co-chair’s committed and creative engagement. This period produced the Minsk Group’s legacy in the form of the “Basic Principles” for a settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Karabakh. Presented to the parties by the triple co-chairmanship at the OSCE’s 2007 annual conference in Madrid (hence also the “Madrid principles”) in preliminary form and updated for public presentation at the G8 summit in L’Aquila in 2009, the Basic Principles comprise (Osce.org, July 10, 2009):
– Return of the territories surrounding “Nagorno” (Upper) Karabakh to Azerbaijani control [reference to the seven inner-Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Upper Karabakh];
– A corridor linking Armenia to Upper Karabakh (reference to the Lachin corridor);
– An interim status for Upper Karabakh, providing guarantees for security and self-governance;
– Future determination of the final legal status of Upper Karabakh through a legally binding expression of will;
– The right of all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence;
– International security guarantees that would include a peacekeeping operation.
An accompanying joint statement by the US, Russian, and French presidents, representing the Minsk Group’s co-chairing countries, endorsed these updated Basic Principles, and called on the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to “finalize their agreement on these Basic Principles, which will outline a comprehensive settlement” (Osce.org, July 10, 2009).
The Basic Principles did, at that stage, and could still constitute a viable and appropriate basis for a mediated political settlement of this conflict. Post-2010 developments, however, frustrated any further advances and, in due course, eroded the Basic Principles themselves. Those developments included: declining US interest, Russia’s takeover of the driver’s seat in the negotiations (see above), Moscow’s tilt in favor Armenia, Azerbaijan’s consequent loss of trust in the Minsk process, and Armenia’s “velvet revolution” which resulted in Yerevan’s outright repudiation of the Basic Principles from 2018 onward and paved the way to war (see accompanying article).
Even before the war’s outbreak (September 27), Russia had practically appropriated what had been the OSCE Minsk multilateral process. Following the outbreak of war, the U.S. and French co-chairs found themselves excluded from Moscow’s unilateral mediation between Baku and Yerevan. The U.S. and French co-chairs were reduced to telephoning Moscow for information. Yet Moscow has not killed the Minsk Group; it may still need it for a multilateral cover on Moscow’s own decisions down the road. Moscow has therefore kept the Minsk Group’s formal co-chairmanship barely alive during the 44-day war through meaningless “for the record” statements.
The armistice agreement, signed on November 9, 2020, by Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, consecrates Russia’s monopolization of the mediator’s role (see EDM, November 12, 13). Although the agreement does contain some of the Basic Principles, it makes no reference to them, nor to their collective author, the Minsk Group. It thereby conveys a message that multilateral diplomacy is over and Russia is now in charge. The armistice agreement departs from the Basic Principles in four respects:
– it omits any reference to Upper Karabakh’s legal or political status, current or future, although it does not prejudice that either;
– it places approximately one third of Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh’s territory de facto under Azerbaijan’s direct administration, apparently but not necessarily excluding this part of Upper Karabakh from the purview of self-governance and status that the Minsk process had envisaged for “Nagorno” Karabakh;
– it adds, as an entirely new provision, the opening of a corridor between western Azerbaijan and the latter’s exclave of Nakhchivan, across Armenian territory and under Russian border troops’ supervision; and
– it inserts Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Upper Karabakh, in a dual role: to supervise the ceasefire and to protect the Armenian population of rump Upper Karabakh. This move contravenes the understanding that all parties to the Minsk process had achieved from the outset (OSCE’s 1994 annual conference) and had maintained until now: namely, that any future peacekeeping mission would exclude troops from the three Minsk Group co-chairing countries (Russia, US, France) or from neighboring countries (such as Russia or Turkey).
These changes to the Basic Principles introduce significant elements of ambiguity; which, combined with Russia’s military presence on the ground, enable Russia henceforth to manipulate or block the negotiations toward a final settlement. Armenia has now fallen into full dependence on Russia; whereas Azerbaijan can rely on Turkey, the new entrant and game-changer in the region, to protect Azerbaijan’s interests to some extent though not fully yet.