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The South Caucasian dimension of the war in Ukraine: Russia’s declining influence is giving the West a role in the Karabakh peace process

Karabakh remains a key global hot spot in terms of periodic clashes between conflicting parties – Armenia and Azerbaijan. The collective West has often been criticised because of its inability to take a leading role in the peace process, especially after the Second Karabakh War of 2020 enabled Russia to increase its influence in the South Caucasus. However, the ongoing war in Ukraine has influenced the Karabakh peace process, which in light of Russia’s shifting attention and declining resources has resulted in a weakened role for Moscow. There now seems to be momentum for the West to play an important role in the process, which will be beneficial for all parties. 

November 7, 2022 - Nino Chanadiri - Analysis

EU Council President Charles Michel, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan, French President EmmanuelMacron, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Prague on 6 October 2022. Source: OC media

The results of the Second Karabakh War of 2020 marked an important turning point in the region, which significantly changed the regional power configuration of the South Caucasus. It gave a long-desired victory to Azerbaijan, which created a need for talks with Armenia about the Karabakh region itself and also future relations between the countries. It is undoubtedly a difficult and long process with many challenges, including periodic military confrontations, but the process has begun and the parties continue to meet in various formats.

Another important development after 2020 was that Turkey began to rethink its relations with Armenia. Armenia lost the war – thus the emphasis placed on the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory lost its relative importance. There have been several meetings between the Armenian and Turkish sides discussing bilateral relations and the benefits of these potential relations for both parties, including new economic opportunities. There are even hopes that the border between Armenia and Turkey might open after decades of practically non-existent diplomatic relations.

It is often discussed that after the Second Karabakh War there was one more power who benefited from the situation and increased its influence in the region. This is namely Russia, which deployed its peacekeepers in Karabakh, and gained leverage in both Armenia and Azerbaijan through its role in the peace process. This situation was rightfully creating concerns that Armenia, whose dependence on Russia due to its regional isolation is already very strong, could become more vulnerable to Russia’s influence in internal affairs. The same scenario was discussed about Azerbaijan, which could be influenced by Russia through its presence in Karabakh, a region which is viewed not only as just a territory, but also an important part in national identity formation in both South Caucasian countries. Additionally, as a part of the 2020 ceasefire agreement, Russia became actively involved in unblocking the region’s economic and transport connections that had been shut for decades due to the hostile relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia also played a supportive role in the Turkey-Armenia normalisation process. It is worth noting that the first meeting of the envoys from Turkey and Armenia, who were deployed to work on the normalisation process, was held in Moscow.

All these together gave the impression that Russia’s role and 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 this reality. Russia had to shift attention to the Ukrainian front, which affected its mission in Karabakh. As the subsequent and periodic heavy clashes between the conflicting parties in Karabakh prove, the Russian peacekeeping mission has failed to fulfil its role in maintaining peace. We have seen Azerbaijan manage to improve its position through further territorial gains, including territories that were once controlled by the Russian peacekeepers. This not only shows the inability of the mission to keep the peace as it was intended, but also how the conflicting parties started perceiving the role and significance of the Russian presence in the region.

Peacekeeping mission failed

As noted above, border clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia have not been a rare phenomenon after the 2020 agreement. The weakness of the Russian peacekeeping mission was visible even before the war in Ukraine. It was unable to prevent heavy clashes between the parties like in November last year. Russia’s attack on Ukraine resulted in it shifting its 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. Russia’s declining ability to sustain the Ukrainian front and its attempt to mobilise these resources influenced the Karabakh peacekeeping mission, with Russia regrouping its troops. Reports claim that a significant number of personnel and equipment were transferred from Karabakh to Ukraine. As the weakness of the mission became visible due to its inability to ease tensions, Karabakh’s population started openly expressing dissatisfaction with the Russian mission, claiming that it was unable to maintain peace. On the other hand, the Azerbaijani side became more bold in blaming it for having a pro-Armenian stance. Armenia has been also dissatisfied with the mission, seeking answers from Russia over the escalations, which were often leading to the deaths of Armenian soldiers.

The chronology of events following this shows that soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine the mission almost completely lost its role as a peacekeeper. The Azerbaijani side, as the side with more military capabilities compared to its opponent, started ignoring the Russian presence in the region. In March, stories from the Karabakh region started circulating that 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 did little to respond to the Russian demands, and called its statements “one sided”. Baku also said 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 its actions 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 in the area was weak. This enabled the status quo to change according to the military success of one side or another.

Soon, Azerbaijan demanded that the Armenians leave 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 clearly 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 the construction of an alternative road to connect Karabakh with Armenia. However, it is the responsibility of the Armenian side to finish building the road on its territory. As noted after the 2020 ceasefire agreement, Lachin was to be controlled by Russian peacekeepers. Azerbaijan gaining back control over the Lachin region will only further weaken Russian positions in Karabakh.

Another list of indicators concerning the failing Russian peacekeeping mission appeared on September 12th, as some of the heaviest clashes since the 2020 war flared up on the border. The Armenian side accused Azerbaijan of shelling towns in Armenia proper, while Azerbaijan claimed Armenia had attacked its positions in the Lachin district and had no choice but to respond with fire. The information about some damaged Russian equipment spread on social media channels, claiming that Russian border guards had left their bases in Armenia after Azerbaijan’s strike. As the military death toll grew, Armenia asked Russia and other CSTO allies for help. On September 13th, Russia said that it had brokered a ceasefire between the parties, but it was one which soon failed. Tension continued almost throughout the month. For many, Azerbaijan’s military actions, which did not take into consideration the Russian peacekeeping mission in the region and even damaged its military base, are perceived as a new direct indication that Baku no longer considers Russia a major player in the process.

Growing western involvement

Now, with Russia’s position 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 is safe to say that previously the West has been absent from the Karabakh peace process and that the 2020 agreement and its implementation placed Russia in the role of “a conductor” of the process. It seems now that Brussels sees this opportunity to play a new, bigger role in the South Caucasus region. Over the last few months, there have been multiple meetings involving Pashinyan, Aliyev and Charles Michel. Their talks are said to revolve around unblocking transport routes, humanitarian issues and a possible peace treaty.

Additionally, in early October, during the EU leaders’ summit in Prague, important decisions were made between Azerbaijan, Armenia and EU leaders. The EU will deploy its civilian observer mission on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border and will stay there for a maximum of two months. It is noteworthy that the mission will be stationed on the Armenian side of the border. Overall, it is an important decision in terms of indicating the EU’s growing role in the peace process of Karabakh. On the other hand, deploying a mission on the Armenian side could also be seen as a sign that Armenia’s trust of Russian “efforts for peace” is weakening, opening a chance for a future of deepened partnerships with the West. Aliyev even voiced the need for a South Caucasian trilateral discussion platform between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia under the motto of “peace and security on the European continent”. Previously, the “3+3” platform was initiated by Ankara to discuss regional security, economics and humanitarian issues in the region. The format includes Turkey, Russia, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. However, Georgia officially refused to participate in the format due to the Russian presence, which was also a demand from the public. It is yet unknown what will be the fate of the initiative voiced by Aliyev, but as a Russian role seems to be absent at least according to this first statement, it might be more realistic. Georgia has always expressed its interest in supporting the peace and stability between its neighbours.

During the summit Pashinyan also met Turkish President Erdogan. After the meeting, Erdogan expressed the hope that soon it might become possible to open borders and communication links between the two countries.

It is clear that the EU’s increased role in the Karabakh peace process does not please Russia. Russian media has been questioning agreements reached with the EU, noting that without the direct participation of Moscow peace in the South Caucasus region is impossible.

Hopes for the OSCE Minsk Group?

In parallel with developments both in Ukraine and the South Caucasus, 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 Armenia in negotiations, and in achieving a “comprehensive peaceful settlement”. For some, this might have been viewed 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. In June, the US co-chair of the Minsk Group released information about talks with his French colleague and noted that the Russian co-chair did not accept an invitation to the discussion. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow said that the two other states had stopped working with it in the Minsk Group format. The US denied the claims, saying that the format remained important for Washington. While the war in Ukraine rages on, it is indeed a challenge for the Minsk Group to continue effective work due to the presence of Russia in the format. Of course, the West now has an unprecedentedly tense relationship with the Kremlin. 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 is 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 of much of Karabakh through its military operations, it is less likely to be motivated to renew the functioning of the Minsk Group at all. Considering this, it is still doubtful whether the Minsk Group will continue effective work regarding the Karabakh issue.

Speaking about US involvement in the Karabakh peace process and Azerbaijani-Armenian relations, it is important to note that just days after the September clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Armenia and became the highest ranking US official to visit the country since its independence from the USSR. The visit aimed to express US support for a lasting settlement in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, it could also be seen as a strong signal from the US that it remains interested in the South Caucasian region and amidst the war in Ukraine and weakening role of Russia, it is ready to be involved in the conflict resolution process to stabilise the region.

Benefits for all sides

The increased western involvement in the peace process is beneficial for all parties. The Russo-Ukrainian War led to Europe cutting its energy links with Russia and created a need for the diversification of energy suppliers. Azerbaijan was one of these partners with whom Europe agreed an energy partnership. The new Azerbaijan-EU memorandum, which was signed in July during Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to Baku, showed that partnership with the country in the energy sector is strategically important for the EU. The EU’s increased importance in South Caucasian relations, including in peace processes, can have a positive effect on partnerships between the EU and the region’s countries across various sectors, as it will increase mutual interests and trust between the parties. 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. As for the US, being present in the Karabakh peace process and playing a role in positive developments in the region in general, offer a chance to balance Russian influence in South Caucasus.

Simultaneously, increased western involvement in Karabakh is beneficial for Armenia and Azerbaijan as well. Armenia’s frustration will continue to grow, leading to a damaged partnership with Russia, given the Kremlin’s failed peacekeeping mission and refusal to provide military support in the fight against Azerbaijan. Seeking alternative strategic partners is beneficial for Armenia, as such a move could lessen its dependence on Russia. Having partners other than Russia, whose reputation as a “peacekeeper” has long been damaged, will benefit Armenia in terms of negotiations with its neighbours. Fruitful outcomes from improvements in regional relations will put an end to the country’s isolation.

Even though Azerbaijan proved to be successful when it comes to its military operations, gaining back territories in the Karabakh region, military power cannot be its only method of engagement. As mentioned above, Azerbaijan and the EU reached partnership in the energy sector, which means that the EU is an important market for Azerbaijan. On the other hand, it is widely known that Azerbaijan is not a democratic country. Partnership with the West can be seen as a tool for the authorities to promote an acceptable image of the country in the international arena.

To conclude, the Ukrainian front is significantly 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. Azerbaijan’s improved position in the region will further decrease Russia’s potential to maintain leverage over Baku. The failed peacekeeping mission should also undermine trust in Moscow among the Armenian public and ruling class. From this perspective, and 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 Azerbaijani-Armenian negotiations, and to help move the conflict resolution forward.

Nino Chanadiri is a Georgian analyst focusing on developments in Eastern Europe and beyond. She has conducted analysis for the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

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