CGI Around Town: A Critical Look at Russia’s Mediation in Nagorno-Karabakh

July 1, 2013

Written by Olga Kuzmina, CGI’s Research Assistant

Ten years ago, the British journalist and South Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal released a book that became the definitive introduction to the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2003’s Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, de Waal traced the historical context of what he called a “suicidal struggle” over disputed territory between two Soviet republics during the final years of Soviet rule. At the time, de Waal concluded that a military solution did not exist and called for a heightened diplomatic effort to reach a peace agreement that could begin to repair the damaged social fabric of both nations.

But the prospect of peace seemed even more distant when de Waal launched the tenth anniversary edition of his book at a June 20, 2013 gathering at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Since Black Garden’s initial publication, the conflict has ossified into a nearly intractable situation that has gotten worse the longer it has persisted: opposing positions harden, the author explained, and local populations become increasingly used to the status quo of perpetual conflict. At the same time, the conflict continues to retreat on the international stage. During his talk, de Waal presented a thorough analysis of the ongoing conflict that emphasized the need for international assistance, but left the issue of Russian involvement underexplored.

De Waal took the 10-year milestone as an opportunity to update his book with recent developments and offer a new narrative for reconciliation. According to the author, realities on the ground have moved in a direction less conducive to peace. Azerbaijan has transformed into a much stronger economic player than it was a decade ago, channeling its swift GDP growth into a massive increase in military spending. The level of aggression in public sentiment has also risen in both countries, particularly among the youth, leading to a polarization so extreme that some in the international community have begun to consider a conflict management process, rather than a peace process, as the only realistic approach. Finally, the lack of domestic political space for constructive dialogue about the issue has resulted in local citizens being unable to extend a hand to the other side without being branded as traitors.

Foundations for compromise do exist, however. De Waal shared the example of a small village in neighboring Georgia, approximately 20 miles from the Azeri and Armenian borders, where both nationalities live together in peace. The lack of animosities between the two populations outside the bilateral context is evidence that the current conflict is a political construct. But this construct has become an effective tool for politicians in both countries to garner public support by drumming up opposition against the “other.” As long as local elites continue to capitalize on the conflict, de Waal said, the incentive to move toward conciliation must come from abroad.

Unfortunately, international pressure for peace has grown weaker than local resistance to change. With the simmering conflict at an apparent standstill, the international community has turned its attention to other wars, while the neighboring countries that have an interest in ending the conflict—chiefly Iran, Turkey and Russia—do not perceive it as serious enough to warrant a coordinated response. Against this backdrop, de Waal said, things may have to get worse before they get better—most likely, through a military crisis. And while the costs of an intentional strike by Armenia or Azerbaijan are prohibitively high for both countries, the existence of a 120,000-mile ceasefire line and the presence of 20,000 troops on either side of the Karabakh border pose a significant risk of accidental war.

Given these obstacles, how should the international community respond? De Waal suggested that the OSCE’s Minsk Group, tasked with finding a political solution to the conflict since 1992, should help future bridge-builders emerge in Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as within the disputed territory itself. Audience member Bob Bradtke, former Minsk Group co-chair from 2009-2011, noted that it wasn’t as important to raise the issue on the international agenda as it was to overcome internal resistance by increasing the political costs of non-cooperation for both parties. To that end, de Waal identified two potential areas of leverage: discussions with Azerbaijan about becoming a NATO transit country in 2015 and negotiations with Armenia to form a free-trade zone with the European Union. Lastly, de Waal noted that prior experience in the Balkans is partially transferrable to Nagorno-Karabakh, particularly in the effort to restore the region’s hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons to their rightful homes.

What the discussion did not sufficiently address was how Russia factors into the conflict. De Waal noted that Russian interest in the area waned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, making Russia less willing to exert meaningful pressure on local elites. But outside analyses show that Russia is not only unwilling to push for peace, but is actually reaping benefits from the continued tension.

As Janusz Bugajski argues in “Georgian Lessons: Conflicting Russian and Western Interests in a Wider Europe,” Russia uses its role as mediator in Nagorno-Karabakh as a source of leverage over Armenia and Azerbaijan. While publicly supporting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, Russia provides military assistance to Armenia and Karabakh Armenians in what has effectively become a mutual defense agreement. This military support keeps Yerevan reliant on Moscow to balance it out against the militarily superior Azerbaijan while simultaneously constraining Baku’s options for unilateral action. By managing a tenuous power balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia is able to keep the conflict contained while continuing to stoke the fire.

Russia’s leverage over the two countries is highly asymmetrical. According to James Nixey in “The Long Goodbye: Waning Russian Influence in the South Caucasus and Central Asia,” Russia has a stronger foothold in Armenia, where Russian companies control almost the entire energy market and where cultural ties, strengthened by a shared Orthodox background and a large Armenian diaspora in Russia, make local elites more receptive to Russian demands. Azerbaijan has a stronger position vis-à-vis Russia thanks to its energy wealth, which has allowed the country to reject Russian military presence on its territory. Since the 2003 opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhun (BTC) pipeline, Azerbaijan has also considerably reduced its dependence on Russia for exporting its crude oil (although it still depends on Russia for approximately half of its gas). As Azerbaijan increasingly turns to the West, Russia is expected to use Nagorno-Karabakh as an excuse for continued presence in the region, meaning it will have little interest in seeing the conflict resolved.

Yet it is not in Russia’s interest for the conflict to continue indefinitely. As Nixey notes, a renewal of full-scale war “would jeopardize Russia’s energy security and financial profit in the region, which it prizes over conflict manipulation.” And the countries themselves increasingly view the conflict as a barrier to modern development. According to Bugajski, Armenia feels especially isolated; based on the scholar’s discussions with government officials and independent policy analysts, Armenia’s younger generation is becoming increasingly frustrated with their estrangement from Europe, their government’s dependence on Moscow, and the over-emphasis on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to “unblock” the country.

Russia’s efforts to keep the conflict under its oversight—which include its objections to establishing an international peacekeeping force and to changing the makeup of the Minsk group—will only delay a resolution while breeding resentment among the very countries it is trying to court. The possibility of imminent war in its southern neighborhood should make Russia reconsider the full costs of delaying action in the area. It should also consider the benefits of action: as one of the three current co-chairs of the Minsk Group (along with the United States and France), Russia would gain a diplomatic bonus from overseeing a successful resolution to the conflict. Achieving peace in Nagorno-Karabakh may not give Russia a strategic advantage in the region, but it would go a long way in affirming Russia’s intent to promote positive change in the post-Soviet space.

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