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Path to Peace in the South Caucasus – Part Two

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Geopolitical Competition

The momentum in the peace process has been undoubtedly generated by the intensifying geopolitical competition brought about by events in Ukraine.

Recently there has been the 2 October meeting in Geneva between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the 5 October meeting in Prague between President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia, the 14 October 2022 meeting in Astana between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the Sochi meeting between the heads of both states presided over by the Russian President on 31 October.

Significantly, the meetings have taken place under the auspices of international states on both sides of the geopolitical divide, with the President of Russia still mediating the main process but with events facilitated by the President of the European Council, and supported by the US Secretary of State and the U.S. National Security Advisor augmenting (or competing with?) the process.

Before Sochi, the last time the Armenian and Azerbaijani heads of state and Putin had met was on November 26, 2021 to discuss the realisation of the November 10, 2020, and January 11, 2021, Trilateral statements. At that time, Russia was holding a tight grip over the Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiation process, and it seemed that no one could challenge the Russian position which had been gained by Putin’s successful management of the ending of the War in November 2020.

However, since then, came the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine and the West has seized its chance to recover influence in the process lost by the years of failure by the OSCE Minsk group. The European Union, and recently the US, have re-engaged in active involvement in the Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations. European Council President Charles Michel has organised 4 Armenia–Azerbaijan summits in Brussels (December 2021, April, May and August 2022). The next talks in this format are preliminarily scheduled to take place in Brussels later this month.

The U.S. entered the process in mid-September 2022, bringing Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers to New York and the Secretary of the Armenian Security Council and top foreign policy aide to President Aliyev to the White House in late September 2022. As a result of the EU and the U.S. mediation efforts, the sides approved the Prague statement on October 6, 2022, which recognised mutual territorial integrity, reinforcing the UN Charter and Alma-Ata declaration of 1991 (The UN Charter established the principle of territorial integrity of states, while the Alma-Ata protocols stated that communist-era administrative boundaries became state borders after the Soviet Union’s collapse).

Simultaneously, the U.S. ambitiously proposed a signing of an Armenia-Azerbaijan peace treaty by the end of 2022. According to the Secretary of the Armenian Security Council, Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed to sign a peace agreement and finish the border delimitation process by the end of the year during September 27, 2022, meeting in the White House. 

The active re-involvement of the U.S. in Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations while generating competition that has injected momentum into the process has also the potential to bring the South Caucasus peace process within the framework of the U.S.–Russia geopolitical confrontation.

The renewed U.S. involvement in the South Caucasus has undoubtedly concerned the Kremlin which believes that the primary goal of the U.S. is to use influence over the Armenia–Azerbaijan peace agreement to push Russian peacekeepers out of the remaining Armenian rump of Karabakh as a part of a global strategy against Russian interests. The Russian logic is that if Armenia and Azerbaijan were to sign a peace treaty, Azerbaijan would be influenced not to extend the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers beyond the initial five-year term, which ends in November 2025. Moscow is concerned that an Armenia–Azerbaijan peace treaty and withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from Karabakh would be the first step to push Russia out of the region and increase Western influence in the South Caucasus, on the borderlands of the Russian Federation. 

The West would undoubtedly like to encourage the demand for the withdrawal of the Russian military base and border troops from Armenia itself. But to achieve this it would have to bring about the normalisation of relations between Armenia and Turkiye. President Erdogan has reiterated that Turkiye would normalize its relations with Armenia immediately after the signature of an Armenia–Azerbaijan peace treaty.

Within Armenia itself, some political forces and intellectuals are already demanding the withdrawal of the Russian military base at Gyumri from Armenia and argue that Armenia should leave the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The normalization of Armenia–Azerbaijan and Armenia–Turkey relations will undoubtedly strengthen these pro-Western voices in Yerevan. In August, Azerbaijani military action forced the handing back of the Lachin corridor between Armenia and Karabakh to Azerbaijan. This demonstrated to the Armenians that the Russians were not prepared to militarily intervene on their behalf and sounded alarm bells in Yerevan and among the Armenians of Karabakh, who see the Russians as their guarantors of security. These alarm bells rang again in September when Azerbaijani forces crossed the state border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in some places after a military confrontation with Yerevan’s forces.

The most important thing about the September military escalation for Yerevan was who stopped it. The war of 2020 was stopped by Moscow and its ending carefully managed by the Kremlin. But in September the Armenians certainly believe that calls from Washington to Baku were sufficient in rescuing them from defeat while the Russians stood idly by.

The West’s diplomatic offensive in the South Caucasus reached its peak at the European Political Community summit held in Prague in early October, where the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders met in person and agreed to allow an EU observer mission to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border. This was something that would have been difficult to imagine a few months ago, before the events in Ukraine. Yerevan’s decision to involve the European Union in the border delimitation process on the ground, and the EU’s agreement to do so, was probably the immediate cause of Moscow’s dissatisfaction with what it perceived to be an EU attempt to enhance its role from a facilitator of the peace process to one akin to that of a mediator, like Russia. Azerbaijan has subsequently blocked the EU observers from appearing on its side of the border.

The most striking statement to come out of this summit, however, was the aforementioned declaration that the signing of a peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia was expected by the end of the year.

In late October, Moscow attempted to regain the initiative which was being wrested from it by Washington and the EU. The Russian President hosted the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Sochi.

The Sochi statement itself tends to suggest this was a kind of holding operation. There was still some momentum in the Russian peace process. But nothing looked like it had changed. The major importance of it was the things that were omitted from the statement. Pashinyan’s wanting a reference to the future “status” or future negotiations on “status” were not in the statement. And certain territorial gains Azerbaijan has made, which Pashinyan wanted the Russians to reverse, were not overturned or even referred to in the statement. So, the most significant thing about the statement is what was not in the statement.

At Sochi, President Aliyev made it clear that the question of special “status” for the Armenian-populated parts of mountainous Karabakh was not on the table. He emphasized to Yerevan that Azerbaijan will only sign a peace treaty with Armenia if that treaty fixes the existence of all of Karabakh as an integral territorial administrative unit of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan again rejected any ethnic-based Armenian autonomy for Karabakh.

The Armenians were concerned that Washington was ready to support this position if it forced a Russian retreat from the region.

Some Armenian sources have suggested that the primary Moscow goal in the Sochi summit of October 31 was not to achieve a breakthrough in Armenia–Azerbaijan negotiations but to prevent the signature of a potential US-mediated peace agreement. This argument suggests that the Kremlin is satisfied with the current status quo with Karabakh being a de jure part of Azerbaijan but part of it remaining de facto controlled by Russia and its peacekeeping presence. The best case scenario for Russia, it is argued, would be to extend this situation for at least another 5 years after 2025 to maintain leverage over all parties. The Kremlin would then be able to use the absence of a peace settlement as justification for its continued military presence in the region.

On the other hand, a peace agreement would undermine the basis of the Russian military presence. Putin made the remark to Prime Minister Pashinyan that if he wished to sign an agreement with President Aliyev he could – but he would be taking his chances with the West if he did and, in that event, there would no longer be “Russian protection”. That was probably designed to concentrate Armenian minds on the value of the Russian presence.

On 27 October, when asked a question by a journalist at the Valdai Club, Putin answered by saying that there were now two competing peace plans: One was represented by a Washington plan recognising “Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh as a whole”. The second was the Russian plan which recognised the complexities of Karabakh, taking account of the Armenian presence as well as Azerbaijan’s sovereignty.

This was undoubtedly Putin’s play to Yerevan in providing a carrot along with the stick, to maintain Armenia’s adherence to the Russian peace plan, lest they be tempted away by Nancy Pelosi, Washington and the EU into a new Promised Land of Western milk and honey. 

A few days before the Sochi summit, Pashinyan said he was ready and willing to sign a document in Sochi that would extend the Russian peacekeepers’ mandate by up to 20 years. However, the Sochi statement did not extend the mandate, currently set to expire in 2025.

Certainly, if Russia’s primary goal during the Sochi summit was to obstruct progress it succeeded. It was shown that Armenia and Azerbaijan could not agree on an extensive joint statement because of disagreements. President Putin was able to present the argument that if Armenia and Azerbaijan could not agree on an extensive statement, how could they ever agree on a final peace agreement? Both Armenia and Azerbaijan confirmed the significant role of the Russian peacekeepers and agreed not to use force or the threat of force in the future. The Sochi summit, therefore, succeeded in obstructing any hopes Washington had in detaching either Armenia or Azerbaijan or both, at present from the Russian process.

After Sochi Edmon Marukyan, Yerevan’s Ambassador-at-large said that Armenia’s negotiators were “satisfied” with the Sochi summit because it showed that two competing peace tracks — a Western one and a Russian one — are not “contradictory.” This was very much in line with Armenia’s policy of riding 4 horses at once – US, France, Russia and Iran – waiting to see which horse delivers the best deal for them. However, the fact that these 4 horses are riding off in different directions will surely make this policy unsustainable and hazardous.

Some pro-Western observers have suggested that Baku should jump at the Western offer and embrace the Washington peace process as an alternative to the Kremlin’s. But Baku is wise to express caution at “Greeks bearing gifts”. For one thing, any such move would drive Yerevan firmly toward Moscow and the protection of Russian power. The Azerbaijan Government would be wary of Western Governments, particularly those of the US and France, with their influential Armenian diasporas and interest groups, presenting themselves as “honest brokers” when they have been pro-Armenian before, during and after the wars over Karabakh.

The Azerbaijani experience of the OSCE from 1994-2020 would not have engendered confidence in Baku in the objectiveness of Western diplomacy. The historical experience of the 1920s, when the Western Governments abandoned the Azerbaijan Republic to the Red Army also could not be forgotten. A year or two earlier Russia was down and out and on its knees, with Britain in control of the South Caucasus. By 1920 Russia was back in the region for a further 70 years. Predictions of Russian disaster should always be treated with a pinch of salt by any statesmen who have to deal with the reality of power in the region!

Another possible platform for the peace process is emerging in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where, as SCO Secretary-General Zhang Ming said in March 2022, the granting of observer status to Azerbaijan and Armenia is now being actively discussed. The 3+3 regional formula proposed by the Azerbaijani and Turkish Presidents remains relevant too. This format could bring Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia together with Iran, Russia, and Türkiye in order to deal with regional issues. At present this proposal is handicapped by Georgia’s reluctance to participate within such a format due to its unresolved territorial disputes with Russia over the two breakaway entities, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that unilaterally declared their independence from Georgia in 2008.

The hedging Armenian policy, and the West’s toleration of Yerevan’s links with Russia and Iran, which would not be intolerable in relation to other countries, makes Azerbaijan’s position a difficult one. It can only pursue a principled position in relation to Moscow and Washington and react to Yerevan’s opportunistic choice when it comes. All this resembles a game of Chess on the South Caucasus chessboard.

The first part of the Path to Peace in the South Caucasus report was published on November 21, 2022. 

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