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Why Russian peacekeepers are a threat to peace in the South Caucasus

The presence of Russian peacekeepers in the Armenian inhabited part of the Karabakh region and along the Lachin corridor connecting Karabakh Armenians with Armenia remains a contentious issue. Officially tasked with normalising the situation on the frontier after last year’s war, this group has been accused of not supporting the finalising of peace accords between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

November 25, 2021 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Russian peacekeeping forces to Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. Photo: Emil Aliyarli / Shutterstock

The recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan were predictable as a large proportion of Yerevan’s political and security elites are unwilling to accept defeat in last year’s Second Karabakh War. Of course, this refusal is also clear regarding the loss of territory in and around Karabakh, which Armenia had controlled for nearly three decades. In the country’s June elections, the Armenian National Congress Party led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, the only well-known political figure that has campaigned to normalise relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, received a mere 1.54 per cent of the vote and failed to enter parliament. Armenia’s new parliament includes two political forces that openly demand that the country retake the lost territory. These are former President Robert Kocharian’s “Armenia Alliance” and the “I Have Honor Alliance” led by Arthur Vanetsian. Together these two parties received 26 per cent of the vote. Desires to retake Karabakh are undoubtedly higher within the senior officer corps of the Armenian siloviki (security forces).

Armenia continues to drag its heels over the signing of a peace treaty with Azerbaijan for two main reasons.

The first is an inability to accept that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan and that Baku will ultimately decide the fate of the region. The Armenian diaspora, dominated by the nationalistic Dashnak party, has a great deal of influence over the country’s worldview and attitude towards its neighbours. The Dashnaks openly support territorial claims to eastern Turkey and western Azerbaijan as part of wider desires to create a “United (i.e., Greater) Armenia”. The Armenian diaspora rules out any compromise over Karabakh’s sovereignty.

The second issue is the presence of Russian peacekeepers in the area. This should not be surprising to those who have studied the former USSR since 1991, as Russian peacekeepers have never helped resolve any conflict. This is because the Kremlin has allocated them different goals other than peacekeeping. For example, in August 2008 in Georgia Russian peacekeepers were joined by a larger invading army that led to the Kremlin’s recognition of the supposed ‘independence’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In other words, Russian peacekeepers have always promoted separatism wherever they have been stationed.

A long-term strategy

In the mid-1990s, when former SVR (Russia’s foreign intelligence service) Chairman Yevgenny Primakov became foreign minister, Russian security policy shifted from viewing the country as part of a common European home to a more Eurasian outlook. Since then, Russia has demanded an exclusive sphere of influence in Eurasia and has used a variety of instruments, including so-called peacekeepers, to establish forward bases in many former Soviet republics.

Russian peacekeepers have directly strengthened Russia’s sphere of influence in Eurasia, as they have dragged out numerous conflicts. In Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova they have even sided with separatists, who have been equipped, trained and transformed into proxy forces to fight central governments. If Russian peacekeepers sought to ultimately resolve these conflicts then their rationale would eventually dissipate and their mandate would be terminated. As the Kremlin views its peacekeepers as outposts of Russian influence, it has no intention of withdrawal. This would naturally undercut its long-term policy of carving out a Eurasian sphere of influence.

Russia has no intention, therefore, to use its five year mandate as a peacekeeping force to finalise a treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan. One year into the mandate, there is no evidence that Moscow’s peacekeepers are encouraging Armenia to sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan. Recent clashes between the two countries are driven by Yerevan’s political and security elites, who are unwilling to complete negotiations regarding the country’s border with Azerbaijan. Such an agreement would be the cornerstone of a post-conflict peace treaty between both countries. An Azerbaijani diplomatic source has claimed that various groups and individuals against a peace treaty in Armenia are “trying to provoke Russia to be directly involved in the conflict, which will mean the end of the Russian role of a mediator in establishing peace.” The leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party, Edmon Marukyan, who opposes the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, called upon Russia to intervene under the mandate of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation). Armenia also points to a 1997 security treaty with Russia that it believes can be activated in the event of a threat to Armenia’s territorial integrity.

Ever since the start of last year’s war Armenia has been pushing for Russia to side with it under the CSTO mandate. Russia’s official position during the war was that the CSTO would only intervene if Azerbaijan attacked Armenia proper and not if Baku undertook military operations on what is internationally recognised as its sovereign territory (including Karabakh). The Kremlin also favours balancing between Armenia and Azerbaijan rather than potentially losing leverage over one side. The Kremlin does not seek to punish Azerbaijan, as it has with Georgia and Ukraine, because Baku does not wish to join NATO or the EU.

The Kremlin’s continued ability to balance both sides will decline as the five-year mandate for its peacekeepers draws to a close. During the 2020 war, many feared that Russia would intervene in support of Armenia just as it did in the early 1990s. The trigger for Russian intervention could have been if Azerbaijan had captured the portion of Karabakh inhabited by a small Armenian minority.

The effects of a new Ankara-Baku alliance

Azerbaijan no longer has to be too concerned with potential Russian intervention. A Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership is now a reality following the Shusha Declaration, which recently resulted in real action as Turkey threw its support behind Azerbaijan in response to Iranian threats. Azerbaijan could therefore refuse to renew Russia’s peacekeeping mandate in 2025 with support from Ankara.

Two factors could tip the balance in the region. The first is this growing Turkish-Azerbaijani strategic partnership that first appeared during the 2020 war. Russia has never accepted other powers and international organisations, such as NATO, the EU, or even the UN, acting in what it views as its exclusive Eurasian sphere of influence. Russia has always opposed potential UN peacekeeping in the former USSR, a region in which it has demanded an exclusive right to act as a peacekeeper. At some point in the future Russia may no longer accept Turkey’s right to act in what the Kremlin considers to be its South Caucasian backyard.

The second involves the Kremlin’s potential actions in 2025 if Azerbaijan does not renew its peacekeeping mandate. In Azerbaijan, there is a growing view that Russian peacekeepers are allowing Armenia to drag its heels and postpone the signing of a peace treaty.

Azerbaijan’s strategic partnership with Turkey will also stiffen Baku’s resolve against a possible extension of the peacekeeping mandate. An Azerbaijani diplomatic source has said that Baku would prefer to respond with force to provocations, as there is “a firm opinion that Yerevan is not just delaying the process of border delimitation, but actually undermining the trilateral (Azerbaijan-Russia-Armenia) format of the conflict settlement, which formalised the results of last year’s war.”

But this is where ongoing competition becomes both interesting and dangerous for regional security. Iran, even more so than Russia, is itching to teach Azerbaijan a lesson. Theocratic Shia Iran and Christian Armenia have been unusual, albeit long-term, military and geopolitical allies since the early 1990s. Tehran has also long viewed Azerbaijan and its territory as an integral part of its historic national identity in much the same way as Putin’s Russia views Ukraine.

In a joint telephone call, the presidents of Russia and Iran warned against changes to existing borders. This move will be a surprise to Baku; after all, both Russia and Iran never questioned Armenia’s occupation of 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory for nearly three decades and neither country has pressured Yerevan to sign a peace treaty recognising the boundaries of former Soviet republics as international borders. Iran, not surprisingly, praised Russia for bringing “peace and stability” to the South Caucasus in contrast to historical facts that show the opposite to be true.

Fundamental misunderstanding

Russia has long sought to establish a military base in Azerbaijan. Baku has always opposed such a move because it still remains bitter over the Kremlin’s support for Armenia in the First Karabakh War in 1988-94. Aside from its two military bases in Armenia, a Russian peacekeeping base in the South Caucasus is the best the Kremlin could achieve and not something they would therefore easily give up. Moscow has always sought to assert influence over the former Soviet republics but has not been successful in the case of Azerbaijan. A third Russian strategic goal has been to maintain Armenia as a proxy state. This has helped Moscow create a strategic partnership with Iran.

Azerbaijan’s goals are different to those of Russia. Azerbaijan seeks to normalise relations with Armenia, re-open borders and revive economies, trade and transportation. Azerbaijan is the main supporter of a post-conflict peace treaty that would recognise former Soviet internal republican boundaries as international borders. Azerbaijan views the Russian peacekeeping force through the lens of whether it does – or does not – promote the implementation of the 2020 ceasefire agreement and a peace treaty. Baku’s final strategic goal involves the development and consolidation of the country’s strategic partnership with Turkey. This relationship would be based on the Shusha Declaration, military exercises, training, and the joint production of military equipment. Azerbaijan also hopes to establish balanced relations with the US, NATO, and EU. The country probably hopes to have more balanced links regarding the OSCE’s Minsk Group, which was created to negotiate a closing resolution to the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijan was disappointed with France’s role in the Minsk Group as it often sided with Armenia while the US had not taken an active role under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

The presence of Russian peacekeepers in the area only encourages Armenia to drag its heels over the signing a post-conflict peace treaty. If this continues, there will continue to be periodic military clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With Turkey covering its back, Baku will increasingly embrace the belief that the mandate of Russian peacekeepers should not be renewed in 2025. Fundamentally, the crux of the problem lies in the fundamental disagreement between Turkish and Azerbaijani interests and those of Russia and Iran in the South Caucasus.

Taras Kuzio is an Associate Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London and Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. His latest book, Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War, is to be published by Routledge in January.

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