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Russia’s Foreign Policy Towards and Influence on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Image source: Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence

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On the 27th of September 2020, the international community witnessed the outbreak of hostilities in the South Caucasian non-recognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. It was not the first such occurrence since the Bishkek Protocol of 1994 put an end to the most violent phase of the conflict, which started during the last years of the Soviet Union and further escalated after its dissolution. The Russian Federation was from the very beginning concerned by the developments in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, as the Russian scholars Andrei Sushentsov and Nikita Neklyudov contend that, “Russia sees both the North and South Caucasus as a unified sphere of interest, source of vulnerability, and field of responsibility.” Thus, in 1992, Russia became a co-chair of the newly-created OSCE Minsk Group tasked with finding a sustainable peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The input of an experienced Russian diplomat and expert – Vladimir Kazimirov, the then head of the Russian mediation mission, official representative of the President of the Russian Federation on Nagorno-Karabakh, and co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, was crucial in negotiating the 1994 Bishkek Protocol.

Twenty-six years later, on the 9th and 10th of October 2020, it was Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose mediation role was critical in the more-than-ten-hour negotiation marathon with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts, which eventually led to the ceasefire agreement. Nevertheless, it took notably longer than before to bring the sides to the negotiation table and all attempts at upholding the ceasefire (the second agreed upon with the input of Sergei Lavrov, the third brokered by the US, and the last mediated by the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group) fell short of halting the armed clashes and returning the sides to the peace talks. These developments signal a diminishing Russian influence on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and therefore, this article aims at analysing the evolution of Russia’s foreign policy toward and influence on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, shedding light on the differences of the current situation.

Unlike in all other de facto (or unrecognized) states in post-Soviet space, Russia does not fulfil the role of Nagorno-Karabakh’s patron, which is in this case Armenia, with Azerbaijan being Nagorno-Karabakh’s parent state. For Russia, it has always been important to have a balanced relationship with both Armenia and Azerbaijan due to: first, Russia having strong Armenian and Azerbaijani diasporas; second, Russia wanting to retain military presence in Armenia, while having good relations with Azerbaijan that shares a border (demarcated in 2010 after 14 years of talks) with the Russian region of Dagestan, which is of high security concern to Russia. Neither does Russia want a deterioration of relations with any of the two in the context of already seriously strained relations with the third South Caucasian state – Georgia. Russia’s preferred approach is thus for Armenia and Azerbaijan to settle their disputes themselves, with Russia willing to serve as a mediator and broker rather than supporter of one of the sides.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan cultivate relations simultaneously with Russia and the West, which has also been reflected in the fact that the approach(es) to Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have not been influenced by the deterioration of Russian-Western relations. Therefore, regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, there is still a convergence of Russia’s and the West’s approaches, representing a unique case in the contemporary state of relations. This has been reflected in Russia’s foreign policy approach in this particular case, which has been rather consistent since the fall of the USSR, although it took some time until it became more consolidated, as in the early 1990s, the Russian military took some foreign policy steps independently from official Moscow. The peculiarity of the Russian position has since the inception been the country’s simultaneous role as a mediator and a as a supplier of military equipment to both conflicting parties. Although Russia has invested considerable effort into conflict resolution and has tried to achieve an outcome that would be favourable to its interests (e.g. one that would include a Russia peacekeeping mission), it has been neither willing nor able to impose a settlement on the conflicting sides.

After the dissolution of the USSR, Russia undertook steps to balance the Azerbaijani military advantage by authorizing supplies to Armenia. At the same time, Russia assigned a particularly high value to mediation and conflict resolution efforts, which was perceived by Boris Yeltsin, then President of Russia, and Andrei Kozyrev, then Russian Foreign Minister, as crucial for Russia’s international status and its ambitions to integrate into the international system. As a result, Russia became involved in the work of the OSCE Minsk Group together with the West, although at that time, the two could not find a common position and thus, Russia was also engaged in mediation efforts on its own. Nevertheless, it is important to underline that while Russia has presented certain initiatives beyond the OSCE Minsk Group, those never ran against the activities of the Group and Principles agreed upon within its framework.

Although the Russian initial mediation and conflict resolution attempts fell short of committing the sides to a ceasefire, it was abovementioned input of Vladimir Kazimirov that finally secured a ceasefire on the 12th of May 1994. Nevertheless, in spite of Russia’s unwearying efforts, a political agreement on conflict settlement could not be reached and Russia has over the years repeatedly, yet unsuccessfully, attempted to send a peacekeeping mission to Nagorno-Karabakh, which would have increased its presence and influence in the region, satisficing Russia’s national interests and quest for ontological security to a larger extent than the status quo.

Under Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Russia’s foreign policy toward the post-Soviet space became more consolidated and systematic, aiming at increasing influence, integration, and conflict settlement efforts in the post-Soviet space. In 1997, two important events happened: first, Azerbaijan became a founding member of the GUAM group seen by Russia as aimed at containing it; second, Russia expanded its military ties with Armenia, though assuring that it was by no means directed against Azerbaijan. From the Russian side, it was a reactive strategic move serving its objectives of securing influence and military presence in the post-Soviet space, which has to be interpreted in the context of gradually deteriorating relations with the third South Caucasian state – Georgia.

In the 2000s, Russia maintained its active role in conflict settlement. With the other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, it worked out the Madrid Principles that were adopted in 2007 and have, in their updated 2009 version, ever since been the cornerstone of the conflict settlement efforts, abided by all the mediators. Nevertheless, the beyond-the-Minsk-Group initiative of the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which culminated in the 2011 Kazan summit attended by the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev, did not result in the sides signing a document committing them to follow these Principles. In the aftermath, Moscow scaled down its pro-active conflict resolution efforts.

In late July 2014, when the deadliest violence since the 1994 ceasefire agreement erupted at the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact, Russian mediation once again stepped in to de-escalate the situation The following initiative of President Vladimir Putin, undertaken due to Russia’s “special and particularly close relations” with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, did not materialize and progress in the peace process could not be achieved. In 2015, Russia put forward the so-called Lavrov Plan (it was not officially published) and when the four-day war broke out in April 2016, as the Azerbaijani and Armenian forces started fighting at the line of contact, it was Russia that helped to de-escalate the situation by brokering a ceasefire. The Lavrov Plan was again on the table and while Azerbaijan was willing to consider it, removing opposition to Russian peacekeeping, Armenia rejected it due to the vagueness of provisions on the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Over the years, the openness of Azerbaijan and Armenia to a solely Russian peacekeeping mission has faded and progress in conflict settlement has not been achieved.

For a long time, Russia has maintained close contact with both Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships. Moscow has not considered adopting a revisionist approach in favour of supporting a change of borders and/or recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh, and anytime the conflict escalated, Russia refrained from making categorical statements and value judgements on who is to blame. Therefore, both sides have valued the contribution of Russian mediation, which has also been demonstrated in the current situation. Nevertheless, the September 2020 flare-up has indeed been different from the previous instances of escalation, due to two important changes in the region, which have diminished Russian influence on the conflict and thus led to the prolonged period of armed clashes.

First, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have assertively cemented their contradictory positions, which was to be seen in the October 2020 interviews of Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian Prime Minister, and Ilham Aliev, the President of Azerbaijan, with Dmitry Kiselev, Director General of Russiya Segodnya International Information Agency. This development has palpably reduced the possibility of a negotiated compromise, which in turn poses limitations on the Russian influence on the sides. Second, the regional influence of Turkey, which has a closed border and no diplomatic relations with Armenia, has been on the rise, as its ties with Azerbaijan have grown stronger, conspicuously demonstrated by the Summer 2020 two-week joint military drills that followed the Armenian-Azerbaijani border clashes of July 2020. Indeed, after the fighting broke out in late September 2020, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on Armenia to end the occupation of Azerbaijani territories and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu claimed that Turkey was ready to support Azerbaijan at the negotiation table as well as on the ground. While the Russian-Turkish communication channels are in place and well-tested (Syria serves as an example), and the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers have recently been in contact to discuss the crisis, the positions and strategic interests of the two countries notably differ in this case, which makes the situation in the region more complex and entangled.

These two factors have thus hindered Russia’s mediation efforts as well as its ability to prevent the escalation, which would be in line with Russia’s national interests of maintaining stability in the region and preventing a potential spill-over to Russian Northern Caucasus. On the other hand, while having limited and diminished capability to influence the process and the outcome, Russia’s role as a mediator remains indispensable, which is recognized by the conflicting parties as well as by the international community. In this context, it is to be expected that Russia will refrain from openly supporting one side at the expense of the other, unless the conflict spreads to the Armenian territory. It is nearly certain that Russia will carry on with its mediation efforts aimed at bringing the violent phase of the conflict to a halt and addressing the situation in accordance with the Madrid Principles, be it within the OSCE Minsk Group or beyond.

From our partner RIAC

Second-year student of Multilateral Diplomacy Master's Programme jointly organized by MGIMO University and UNITAR

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Eastern Europe

An Impending Revolution

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Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.

The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.

The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.

On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.

European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.

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Eastern Europe

The 44-Day War: Democracy Has Been Defeated by Autocracy in Nagorno-Karabakh

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The people of Artsakh are seen as pro-Russian. Is this Pro-Moscow assessment of people of Artsakh accurate, and why Russian peacekeepers are welcomed in Nagorno-Karabakh?

***

The Republic of Artsakh and its people developed the nation’s democracy for approximately three decades. Back in 1991, Artsakh held a referendum on its independence, as well as democratic elections under a barrage of Azerbaijani rockets. The people of Artsakh accomplished this step by themselves, being convinced that without freedom of the individual, there is no freedom for the country. The Artsakh National Liberation Movement was nothing but a struggle for freedom and the right to decide one’s own destiny.

The development of democracy was not easy for a war-torn country with ade-facto status, limited resources, lack of institutions, combined with the threat of resumption of hostilities and the temptation of using elements of authoritarianism in governance as well as in the public mood. 

Nevertheless, during the last three decades, the people of Artsakh have managed to develop working democratic institutions, ensure political pluralism, and form effective human rights institutions. The vivid examples thereof are the 2020presidential elections held on a competitive basis, a 5-party Parliament, and the constitutional mechanisms for the separation of powers.

It is noteworthy that the full spectrum of democratization in Artsakh has been carried out by the country alone, without the direct support of international governmental and non-governmental organizations, and despite the numerous appeals by the civil society of Artsakh made to them.

However, Artsakh’s democracy has been highly regarded not only by parliamentarians, politicians and experts who have visited Artsakh, but also by the international organizations, such as Freedom House in its Freedom in the World annual reports. In these reports Artsakh is on the list of partly free countries, making progress in ensuring political and civil liberties each year, while Azerbaijan holds on to a not free status all the while making regressive steps in every aspect.

The people of Artsakh believed that the development of democracy would inevitably strengthen the position on unimaginability of any vertical relationship with dictatorial Azerbaijan. The people of Artsakh believed that they were keeping the eastern gate of the European civilization and its set of values. The people of Artsakh believed that those in West involved in the conflict settlement process, particularly France and the United States would view the Artsakh struggle with an understanding that it was created by their examples and ideals of freedom.

And what did the people of Artsakh receive as a result of believing in the West? They faced a new war and a new bloodshed unleashed by the same Azerbaijan. They also faced a harsh reality in the form of gross violations of human rights, war crimes and destruction of their cultural heritage. The principle of equality and self-determination of peoples in general, and the notions of freedom and human rights in particular completely collapsed before the eyes of the people of Artsakh.

One doesn’t have to be a military expert to understand that Artsakh, a small country with limited resources and capabilities, could not on its own resist Turkey-backed Azerbaijan for long, especially given the direct involvement of Turkish command staff and thousands of mercenaries from the Middle East terrorist organizations in the conflict, and the use of advanced military technology likethe banned weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What did the people of Artsakh need to prevent this war? The answer would have been the de jure recognition of Artsakh that at least would have dampened the possibility of a new war, put an end to the century-old conflict, and establish long lasting peace and security in the region.

Instead of recognizing their unalienable right to self-determination, a new war was imposed on the people of Artsakh. As a result of this war, the people of Artsakh were left with a devastated country, thousands of dead and wounded compatriots, a new generation of refugees and IDPs, dependence on the peacekeeping mission for physical security, a “neither peace nor war” situation, as well as an uncertain future.

Russia wanted to come to Karabakh and so it did. Russia is in Artsakh not because the people of Artsakh were dreaming of weakened sovereignty while they continued to think of what West would do, but Russia came to Artsakh because Russia, unlike the West, acts rather than speaks. When on the one hand there are European and American concerns expressed in empty statements and on the other hand there are Russian peacekeepers and tanks, there is no room left for thinking long.

Let’s look at the values in which European Union, United States, Canada, and the rest of the so called “civilized world” believe in: the ideas of human rights and freedoms which they been advocating for years across the world. Now let’s try to see what is left from them all. Maybe once can find an inspiration for writing new books and sharing ideas about the future of humanity vis-à-vis the civilized world. Perhaps, in the European Union, in the United States, in Canada, and in the rest of the so called “civilized” world, their population may enjoy the ideals of human rights, but the people living in small and unimportant countries are often deprived of such rights. Perhaps the Western intellectuals and authors will write books on how the West left the faith of the people of Artsakh to the hands of the terrorists while empowering the Turkish-Azerbaijani dictators with their indifference and inaction. Indeed, for the West, the lives of the people of Artsakh are not valuable just because they are from a ‘gray’ zone, because they live in a country that doesn’t officially ‘exist’. These discriminatory phrases are definitions time and again used by the Western officials. It is what it is. The West, however, should not forget to celebrate Zero Discrimination Day and quote articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Later, when Turkish expansionism and terrorism will knock on the Western doors, the West will remember those unimportant people from an unrecognized country that absorbed the first blow. At that juncture, the West will also remember how it admired the people of Artsakh’s endurance and collective resistance, but at the same time left them alone in their fight against terrorism and modern military technology. Perhaps, for the West it is just like watching a fun action movie with popcorn and cola.

Having 193 or 194 member-countries in the United Nations (UN)as a result of recognition of Artsakh would not change the existing international legal order, however, it could serve a textbook example for rising democracies and a lesson for the dictatorships and international terrorism. By not recognizing the right of the people of Artsakh to self-determination, the West is burying the concepts of human rights, freedoms, and democracy, thereby paving a way for the next military-political adventures of dictators. The West should decide. The longer the West spends on thinking without any concrete action, the further the region will move away from it.

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Eastern Europe

NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States

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It seems as if NATO has changed its priorities in the Baltic States.

It is well known that NATO member states agreed at the 2016 Summit in Warsaw to enhance NATO’s military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance.

So, the arrival of the multinational Allied battlegroup in Latvia in June 2017 concluded the deployment of forces under NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Poland, thereby implementing the decisions made at the NATO’s Summits. Since than NATO has been actively enhancing its military capabilities in the Baltic States. It increased the number of troops and deployed heavy weapons including tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery. Canada is the framework nation for the battalion-size NATO battlegroup deployed to Latvia.

It was said that NATO’s enhanced forward presence is defensive, proportionate, and in line with international commitments.

Though it was absolutely evident that NATO pursues not only the stated goals, but some hidden ones. Among them are convincing of the need to increase defence budgets of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, political support at all levels, loyalty to all decisions made by leading NATO member states.

The more so, NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States. All of a sudden the Baltic States have been turned to the drone test site. In order to justify NATO new interests, it was said that unmanned aerial vehicles are an emerging threat to NATO soldiers deployed around the world, and especially in the Baltic region.

The leadership of the enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia even held a symposium in Camp Adazi in November to talk about how to deal with the drone threat.

Latvia’s Battle Group Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Norton said that NATO recognized this threat as they prepared to deploy to Latvia, and made it a priority to come up with solutions.

“When I was looking at our adversaries and the way in which they have conducted recent operations around the world, it was obvious that they used UAS to great effect,” he said. “I determined that if we were to continue to be successful in deterring foreign aggression, we must demonstrate the ability to counter the threat of UAS. This is what led me to the idea of running a counter-UAS symposium and exercise.” In his turn Latvian Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks acknowledged that “the Latvian Defence Department has taken into account the lessons learned from the use of drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

It should be said that this conclusion looks more than odd. Does Pabriks consider Armenia and Azerbadzan as adversaries?

The symposium combined presentations by experts from the United Kingdom and Canada with open discussion between members of all nine nations of the Battle Group as well as members of the Latvian National Armed Forces about the capabilities they have in Adazi, and how they could use them to minimize the UAS threat. Finally, they tested some of their weapon systems in shooting down target drones at the Camp Adazi range. And, probably, this was the main goal.

Major Matt Bentley, the organizer of the symposium, stressed that this is a complex problem that will not be solved with one symposium. He said it was an important first step in the process of developing practices and capabilities that can defend Allied soldiers from drones while defending Latvia. Following the symposium, the Battle Group drafted a service paper to send to all sending nations for each ally to consider as they develop ways to defeat this threat.

According to LCol Norton, as Allied nations develop ways and means to combat the threat posed by UAS, the Battle Group will be in a good position to test them in a multinational context. In the meantime, the Battle Group will continue to build and refine tactics, techniques and procedures using the tools at hand to mitigate the threat. So, NATO invented new threat in the Baltic States to convince these countries in need to pay more and to deploy more foreign troops on their territory. And all this against the backdrop of a pandemic and an acute shortage of funds for medicine in Latvia.

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