Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently supplanted the Minsk Group’s triple co-chairmanship (the United States, France, Russia) as mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It was Putin, not the Minsk co-chairmanship, who mediated the November 10 armistice agreement, shunting aside the Minsk Group’s troika. The armistice agreement does not even mention the Minsk Group and does not reference any “status” goal for Karabakh Armenians (see EDM, November 12, 13).
The US and French co-chairs, removed from the negotiations by Putin’s maneuver, are keen to re-enter the process by having the Minsk troika discuss the Karabakh “status” issue with Baku and Yerevan. The Kremlin, however, will probably take up this issue on its own initiative, dealing directly with Baku and Yerevan (the same procedure it used when mediating the armistice); and Moscow will await a convenient opportunity to initiate this process on its own timing.
Indeed, according to Putin (and contrary to Azerbaijan’s position—see above), this conflict is not conclusively resolved because the problem of Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh’s status remains open (TASS, November 17, 21).
The Kremlin had played “neutral” during the 44-day Karabakh war before intervening to stop the fighting. Exploiting Yerevan’s adventurism (see EDM, November 25), and undoubtedly anticipating its debacle, Putin intervened at the last moment on the Armenian side as a providential “savior,” namely on three counts: “saving” the Karabakh Armenians by sending Russian “peacekeeping” troops; “saving” the Armenian army’s remnants from total destruction by stopping the war at that point; and “saving” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s government from collapse with fulsome praise for Pashinian’s acceptance of hard but inevitable armistice terms (TASS, November 17, 21, December 2).
Putin’s salvage operation has rendered an exhausted Armenia more dependent on Russia than ever before. Moreover, all of Armenia’s political forces—from Pashinian to his Yerevan opponents to the Stepanakert leaders—are outbidding each other in expressions of gratitude to Putin’s Russia and faith in the bilateral alliance.
Russia, however, had made clear all along that its treaty-based security guarantees to Armenia do not apply to Karabakh. It was Yerevan that guaranteed Karabakh’s security until this lost war. After this war, Russia has taken over from Armenia the role of guaranteeing Upper (“Nagorno”) Karabakh’s security—if not officially, then clearly de facto by stationing Russia” “peacekeeping” troops there. As a cumulative result, Russia’s guarantees now cover both Armenia and the parts of Upper Karabakh not regained by Azerbaijan. By the same token, Russia’s military presence helps perpetuate this territory’s separation from Azerbaijan and the unrecognized “Karabakh republic” proto-state. Its “president,” “parliament,” “government” and “defense army” continue their existence. Russia does not officially recognize them but deals with them and sustains them de facto. At the same time, amply using the tools of humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, Russia is increasingly taking control of Upper Karabakh from the debilitated Yerevan (see EDM, December 8, 10).
Nevertheless, even as it strengthens its grip on Upper Karabakh de facto, Russia officially deems it to be part of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory de jure (unlike Upper Karabakh’s hitherto-guarantor Armenia, which did not and does not recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty in this territory). The Kremlin duly requested and received Baku’s consent to Russia’s “peacekeeping” presence in this territory of Azerbaijan, a spart of the quid pro quo terms of the armistice (see Part One in EDM, December 16).
In sum, Azerbaijan now finds itself confronted with two patrons of the “Karabakh republic”: Yerevan the declared but weak patron, Moscow the unofficial but strong patron. Yerevan, for all its weakness, remains absolutely intractable in negotiations, while Moscow is all too willing to mediate some compromise on the “frozen conflict” model: professing to recognize Azerbaijan’s sovereignty while preventing it from exercising that sovereignty in practice, and making it subject to perpetual negotiations with Yerevan through Russia’s mediation.
Controlling Azerbaijan’s Lachin corridor between Armenia and Upper Karabakh with Russian “peacekeeping” troops, as well as controlling the Armenian transit route to and from Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan exclave with Russian border troops, as per the armistice agreement, will provide Russia with additional opportunities to manipulate this conflict.
Moscow must be content to have allowed Yerevan to de-frost and heat up this conflict, setting the stage for Russia to intervene and re-freeze it, with built-in opportunities to warm it up again if necessary in the future.
Russia has positioned itself as arbiter between Armenia and Azerbaijan for a long time to come. The Kremlin is not interested in a conclusive resolution of this conflict. It is, instead, interested in prolonging and managing it, with the collateral benefit of justifying Russia’s military presence.
The Kremlin is also mindful of the domestic ramifications to its involvement in the Karabakh conflict. Addressing a senior staff meeting devoted to this matter, Putin noted that more than two million Armenians and more than two million Azerbaijanis currently live and work in Russia, and their sentiments must be taken into account. Russia, therefore, should pursue a “balanced approach [to the Karabakh conflict] in the interest of consolidating Russia’s internal stability” (TASS, November 20).