A new order is taking shape in the Caucasus, following the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan last year. Although the war was between those two countries, the instigators and beneficiaries were two major players, namely Russia and Turkey.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has cause to rejoice, yet he has a hollow victory to present to his public, which has begun to question the cost for that win: 18,000 Azerbaijani casualties.

The actual winners were Russia and Turkey, at the expense of Azerbaijani sovereignty. Ankara has virtually taken over the command of the Azerbaijani government and army, under the slogan of “one nation, two governments.”

In the meantime, Russia, which had lost its foothold on Azerbaijani soil, has returned there with force for the long haul. As Neil Hauer writes: “If you’re sitting in the Kremlin, you are likely quite pleased with how 2021 turned out in the Caucasus. … The entrance of Russian peacekeepers into Karabakh at that war’s conclusion had been a goal ever since the conflict’s outbreak three decades ago. Their presence has seen the territory transform into a Russian protectorate in all but name. Even more crucially, it is a hefty source of leverage against both Armenia and especially Azerbaijan. So alongside the Georgian breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose status is unchanged, Russian troops are now deployed on the de jure territory of all three South Caucasus republics.”

Moscow’s intention to keep Karabakh under its sway was manifest since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Arkady Volsky, the representative of the USSR Politburo to Karabakh, promoted the idea. But at that time, the inexperienced Karabakh movement leaders had their own unrealistic goals which ran counter to Volsky’s.

Today, Moscow has been consolidating its position in the region and jealously guarding it against intruders. It is in this landscape that the renewed East-West rivalry is being enacted. It is in Russia’s interest to keep the conflict continuing as the warring parties have come to accept Russia’s role as a mediator and arbiter. Hence, every time the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, tasked with bringing peace to Karabakh since 1992, tries to take the initiative, Moscow comes up with a counteroffer to keep the West away from the region.

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Although Russia is one of the co-chairs of the group, alongside the US and France, it believes it can be outvoted in that format. Therefore, it comes up with its own plans.

The trilateral Sochi meeting on November 26 between the leaders of Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan had not been part of those plans – at least it had not been announced previously. Yet, as soon as European Council President Charles Michel announced that on December 15 Armenian Premier Nikol Pashinyan was to meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Brussels, Russian President Vladimir Putin preempted that meeting and summoned the two to Sochi. The communique which was released following that summit did not reveal much; the only worthwhile news was Aliyev’s low-key behavior at that meeting and the absence of a reference to the Zangezur Corridor.

Little would we know that within a week of that meeting, Aliyev would return to his combative posture, demanding a deadline from Armenia for the opening of the so-called corridor, which meant that nothing had been achieved in Sochi.

Another diplomatic casualty of this interference was the cancellation of a previously announced meeting between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in early December in Stockholm on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council.

Ankara and Moscow at this time are actively promoting the 3+3 format, conceived by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and actively supported by President Aliyev. Russia pretends to have joined this effort reluctantly but since its tenor is to keep the West away from the region, it has come to fully subscribe to it.

The 3+3 format includes Russia, Turkey and Iran on one side, to be joined by the regional nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It purports to resolve all the current problems between these nations. Since it has a markedly anti-West bent, the Islamic Republic is sanguine about the plan, as Tehran’s ambassador to Ankara, Mohammad Farazmand, has stated: “Tehran supports the proposal of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in November 2020 to establish a regional cooperation mechanism in the South Caucasus with the participation of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia as three countries in the region and also with the presence of Turkey, Iran and Russia in the form of 3+3. The ‘3+3 format’ is exactly in line with the principles and foundations of the foreign policy of Iran, which is solving the problems of the region by the regional countries, minimizing tensions and developing cooperation and creating a strong region through synergy.”

Georgia is decidedly against the format and has refused to participate in the first meeting which took place in Moscow on December 10, on the level of deputy foreign ministers. Tbilisi refuses to participate in any structure where Moscow can decide its fate.

The 3+3 format is the alternative forum to the Minsk Group, which has a different agenda. Thus far, Moscow and Turkey have been successful in keeping the Minsk Group inactive.

After a long hesitation, Armenia decided to participate first in deference to Moscow and second, because thus far that format remains the only forum where it can negotiate its problems face to face with Turkey.

After participating in the Moscow meeting, Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vahe Grigoryan made a significant statement regarding the 3+3 format, stressing that “the platform must refrain from duplicating other international forums.” That reference can only be to the OSCE Minsk Group, which has or had, until recently on its agenda, the future status of Karabakh. However, Armenia cannot expect any positive results from that format, because for Turkey and Azerbaijan, the Karabakh conflict has been settled by force and there is nothing to discuss.

For Russia, the issue of Karabakh’s status has to be postponed for an indefinite future, until Moscow can implement its own solution. Iran has already congratulated Azerbaijan for having recaptured “its own territory.”

Incidentally, Iran is adamantly opposed to the Zangezur Corridor, but not for any altruistic reasons. That corridor will render redundant Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s trade over Iranian territory and will cede a competitive edge to Ankara in its trade with Central Asia.

Among several reasons why the Minsk Group could not resume its mission was the formulation of its agenda. Moscow assumed it was its role to define Karabakh’s status and any significant progress by the Minsk Group was viewed as an increased role for the West in the Caucasus. Therefore, Russia always tried to deflect the attention of the other co-chairs from the issue of the status, emphasizing the humanitarian issues instead. Now that things have started moving, it looks like Moscow has consented to participate with a revamped agenda.

That move is reflected in the December 7 declaration of the three foreign ministers of the Minsk Group countries. Indeed, Antony Blinken, Sergey Lavrov and Jean-Yves Le Drian have stated in their communique, “The Co-Chair countries call on Armenia and Azerbaijan to continue their engagement under Co-Chair auspices to make concrete progress on humanitarian issues — including, inter alia, detainees, demining, missing persons, voluntary return of displaced persons, and the protection of historic and cultural sites, and to work constructively to resolve other outstanding issues, such as border delimitation and demarcation and the restoration of economic and transportation links. The Co-Chair countries also note with concern recent incidents on the non-demarcated Armenia-Azerbaijan border and reaffirm that the use or threat of force to resolve border disputes is unacceptable. The Co-Chair countries also remind Armenia and Azerbaijan of their obligation to comply with the requirements of international humanitarian law and urge the sides to lift immediately all restrictions on international humanitarian organizations accessing conflict-affected areas and populations.”

As we can see, only humanitarian issues are mentioned and for the first time, the status issue has been sidelined. Is this a concession to Russia to assure its participation or are there other underlying reasons?

The political puzzle in the Caucasus politics is too complicated to find a clear picture. Besides powerplay, each party is concerned with the configuration of road and energy networks which will eventually emerge from these negotiations. Armenia is fighting for its life. The parties have left no say for Yerevan over the Karabakh issue.

If Armenia comes out unscathed in one piece, without losing its sovereignty over Syunik, this will prove to be a miracle.


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