Nino Chanadiri, Contributing Analyst
The results of the Second Karabakh War of 2020 significantly changed the South Caucasian regional power configuration. It gave a long desired victory to Azerbaijan and opened a momentum for Turkey to rethink its relations with Armenia; Armenia lost the war – thus the emphasis on the Armenian occupation of the Azerbaijani territories lost actuality.
However, there was one more power who benefited from the situation. Russia, who deployed its peacekeepers in Karabakh, gained leverage in both Armenia and Azerbaijan through its role in the peace process. Additionally, as a part of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, Russia became actively involved in unblocking the economic and transport connections in the region that had been shut for decades due to the hostile relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia also expressed a desire to play a supportive role in the Turkey-Armenia normalization process. The first meeting of the envoys from Turkey and Armenia for that process was held in Moscow.
All the above gave the impression that Russia’s influence could be further strengthened in the region through its involvement in the ongoing peace process. However, Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 significantly changed the reality. Russia had to shift attention to the Ukrainian front, which affected its mission in Karabakh. As the subsequent periodic heavy clashes between the conflicting parties in Karabakh prove, the Russian peacekeeping mission has failed to fulfill its role in maintaining peace, and we have seen Azerbaijan managing to improve its positions in further territorial gains, including of territories that were controlled by the Russian peacekeepers. Russia’s influence on the Karabakh peace process has thus been weakened.
Russia’s weakened role
The failure of the Russian peacekeeping mission was visible even before the war in Ukraine. Episodic border clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as in November last year, proved that the mission was not doing its job. Russia’s attack on Ukraine resulted in it shifting attention from the region, as the Ukrainian front did not turn out as easy to deal with as originally planned, and required a large number of military resources. The attempt to mobilize these resources influenced the Karabakh peacekeeping mission, with Russia regrouping its troops, and reports claiming that personnel and equipment was transferred from Karabakh to Ukraine. Karabakh’s population started openly expressing dissatisfaction with the Russian mission, claiming that it was unable to maintain peace, while the Azerbaijani side blamed it for having a pro-Armenian stand.
Already in March, Azerbaijani forces had been able to take back control of territories that were being “protected” by the Russian mission. Azerbaijani forces took the village of Farukh, which led Russia to demand Azerbaijan pull back its forces. Azerbaijan called Russia’s statements “one sided”, while saying that the step had been taken as a response to Armenian sabotage. In August, heavy fighting was seen again on Russian peacekeeping territories. This time, Azerbaijan explained it as revenge for an Azerbaijani soldier who had allegedly been killed by the Armenian side. Fighting resulted in Azerbaijan taking more strategic heights, and it once again showed that the Russian peacekeeping mission’s influence on the spot was weak, enabling the status quo to change according to the military success of one side or another.
Azerbaijan then demanded the Armenians free the Lachin corridor – the road linking Armenia with Stepanakert, controlled by Russian peacekeepers – and cede its control to Azerbaijan. In 2020, an agreement had been reached that Armenia would build an alternative road and Azerbaijan would control the territories of the current one. The issue was to be dealt with within three years from 2020. However, the sides interpreted this agreement differently. The Armenian side announced that closing the Lachin corridor was an “illegal” demand, while Azerbaijan responded that if Armenia wanted to avoid further conflict, it should withdraw from the Lachin corridor and build a new road. At the end of August, it was announced that Azerbaijan had taken control of Lachin and the nearby villages. It then began construction of an alternative road to connect Karabakh with Armenia. However, it is on the Armenian side to finish building the road on its territory.
On September 12, clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia renewed across the border. The Armenian side accused Azerbaijan of shelling Armenian towns, while Azerbaijan claimed Armenia had attacked its positions in the Lachin district. As the military death toll grew, Armenia asked Russia and other CSTO allies for help. On September 13, Russia said it had brokered a ceasefire between the parties, but it was one which soon failed. For many, Azerbaijan’s military actions, which did not take into consideration the Russian peacekeeping mission in the region, are perceived as a direct indication that Azerbaijan no longer considers Russia a major player in the process.
Is Western involvement gaining importance?
The EU has been criticized for its failure to take an active role in the Karabakh peace process, enabling Russia’s growing role in the South Caucasus. Now, with Russia’s positions weakened in Karabakh as a result of its concentration on the Ukrainian front, there is room for the EU to play a more important role in the peace process. It seems Brussels sees this opportunity, and, over the last few months, there have been multiple meetings involving Pashinyan, Aliyev and Charles Michel. Their talks are said to revolve around unblocking the transport routes, humanitarian issues, and a possible peace treaty. A new meeting has been scheduled within the same format for November 2022.
The EU’s increased involvement in the process is beneficial for all parties. The Russia-Ukraine War led to Europe cutting its energy links with Russia and created a need for diversification of energy suppliers. The new Azerbaijan-EU memorandum, signed in July during Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to Baku, showed that partnership with Baku in the energy sector is strategically important for the EU. It is also worth remembering that the South Caucasus is part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. Thus, the desire for increased involvement in different processes should be in the EU’s logical interest.
Interestingly, in September, the new US co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group visited the South Caucasian countries. Philip Reeker stressed the desire of the US to help Azerbaijan and in achieving a “comprehensive peaceful settlement”. This was soon followed by the visit of Nancy Pelosi in Armenia which once again pointed to the continued interest of the US in the South Caucasus. For some, it might have been as a sign of the renewed work of the Minsk Group on the Karabakh issue. Three countries – the US, France and Russia, have been members of the Group working on the Karabakh conflict for decades. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the work of the Minsk Group experienced challenges due to unprecedentedly tense relationship between Russia and the Western countries. Russia said that the two other states had stopped working with Moscow in the Minsk Group format. The US denied the claims, saying that the format remained important for Washington. Yet this is not the only challenge the Minsk Group faces, as Azerbaijan has become strongly critical of it, with Aliyev stating that the Group was “not resolving the problem, but was benefiting from the continued occupation.” What’s more, Azerbaijan believes that since 2020, it has resolved the conflict by military and political means and has partially restored its territorial integrity, thus it sees no need for continuing the work of the Group. Now, with Azerbaijan gaining control in Karabakh through its military operations, which seem set to continue, it is less likely to be motivated to support the renewal of the Minsk Group at all.
To sum up, the Ukrainian front is affecting Russia’s influence in the Karabakh peace process. In parallel with the war, Russia’s economic and military potential is suffering in the long-term perspective, not to mention its long damaged reputation in peace efforts. Azerbaijan’s improved positions in the region will further decrease Russia’s potential to maintain leverage over Baku. Armenia’s frustration will continue to grow, leading to a damaged partnership with Russia, given the latter’s failed peacekeeping mission and refusal to provide military support in the fight against Azerbaijan. Seeking alternative strategic partners might seem beneficial for Armenia, as such a move could lessen its dependence on Russia. From this perspective, in light of Russia’s declining role, it is now more important than ever for the West to show its potential as a reliable and strong actor in Azerbaijan-Armenian negotiations, and to help move the conflict resolution forward.