Why Russia’s hands are tied in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict



  • Claims over a disputed territory in the Caucasus has led to a deadly resurgence in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan
  • Two Russian-brokered ceasefires have failed to contain the conflict, and peace may depend on Moscow leveraging its relationship with Turkey

Josh Nadeau

Ethnic Armenian soldiers on in a bunker on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict front line. Photo: Reuters

Clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops have entered a fifth week as both countries battled to control Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region in the South Caucasus.

Nagorno-Karabakh is recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan but is de facto administered by ethnic Armenians. The war over the region had been considered a “frozen conflict” for decades, leading to international dismay when the long-simmering dispute reignited late last month.

While reported death tolls have been contested by both sides, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said last Thursday about 5,000 people had died since fighting erupted again. Russia, which has a long-standing strategic interest in the region and shares part of its southern border with Azerbaijan, has stepped in as mediator.

Kremlin officials moved quickly to invite diplomats from both countries for ceasefire negotiations, resulting in two deals brokered on October 10  and 18 that were each broken within hours of being signed. A new series of talks, this time taking place in Washington last weekend, resulted in a third ceasefire that was broken on Monday.

Russia’s failure to effectively halt the fighting comes as an irregularity in its foreign policy record. In other territorial frozen conflicts within the former Soviet Union (including Transnistria in Moldova, Donbas in Ukraine and both Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia), Russia is seen as having far greater influence due to its alleged military and political support for the separatist groups.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, however, Moscow’s options were limited by its complicated history in the region as well as its relationship to another regional power: Ankara.

“What is really key to understanding the current war is the role of Turkey,” said Mikayel Zolyan, a member of the Armenian parliament.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has loomed large in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Zolyan claimed, with a long history of military cooperation with Azerbaijan and an unstinting support of the smaller country’s territorial claims. This has been a matter of alarm for Armenia, which is landlocked between the two allies.

 “On the one side there are nine million Azerbaijanis,” he said. “And on the other there are 80 million Turks. Between them are three million Armenians. Erdogan is trying to dismantle the consensus that has shaped the Turkish border.”

Armenia’s diplomatic relationship with Turkey is virtually non-existent, with long-standing disputes between the two countries over border troubles and Turkey’s non-recognition of the Armenian genocide conducted by the Ottomans during World War 1.

Much of the strife over the region dates back to the Soviet Union.

“The map of the Caucasus, both North and South, was created by Joseph Stalin,” said Mikhail Minakov, a senior adviser at the American Kennan Institute in Kiev, Ukraine.

The USSR annexed both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1920, while the two states were still at war over the Armenian-majority Karabakh region (known as Artsakh in Armenia). The Kremlin allocated the territory to the Azerbaijan SSR (a subregion of the USSR) but recognised the ethnic-Armenian majority by creating the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) as an enclave within it.

These conditions resolved the fighting for the time being, but national awakenings during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Minakov said “gave impetus to the Armenian-Azerbaijanian conflict”. The clashes intensified when ethnic Armenians demanded either independence or full union with Armenia, and the fighting reached its peak from 1992-1994.

Hostilities died down with a Moscow-brokered ceasefire, but no official peace treaty was settled upon and the conflict was effectively frozen. By then, up to 30,000 had died and over a million civilians were displaced on both sides.

Russia continued its involvement in ongoing negotiations by taking part as co-chair (along with France and the United States) of the OSCE Minsk Group, which developed a set of peace proposals called the Madrid Principles.

These stipulated the return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijanian control while providing Artsakh a special, interim status. A corridor to Armenia would also be provided. The proposal, however, met with resistance and failed to produce a settlement.

While some signs of rapprochement emerged in 2018, relations between the two countries soured and tensions are now higher than at any point since the 1990s. Russia has promoted itself an active partner in the stalled peace process, though its capacities as a mediator have often been contested by Azerbaijan.

“Moscow is taking sides in the conflict,” said Turan Gafarli, an Azerbaijani researcher at the Istanbul-based TRT World Research Centre. Moscow maintains a military base near the Armenian city of Gyumri, and both countries are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Nato-like military alliance that considers an attack on one of its members as an attack upon all of them. “Azerbaijan does not want to play the game by Russian rules any more,” Gafarli said. “Since it does not trust Moscow’s sincerity.”

Putin has since affirmed that its security guarantees to Armenia do not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh. What’s more, Minakov said: “Armenia has worsened relations with Russia after the recent ‘Velvet Revolution’” of 2018, which saw a pro-European coalition take power under the leadership of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

This pushed the smaller nation further away from the Moscow-orchestrated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Pashinyan, Minakov added “has made several unforgivable decisions against the CSTO”, leading him to be branded by certain Russian media outlets as a “carbon copy” of Petro Poroshenko, a former Ukrainian president known for his antagonistic relationship with Moscow.

Despite Russia’s strained relationship with Armenia, Azerbaijan has nevertheless gone on to strengthen its position through increasing ties to Turkey. The two nations share a common cultural and linguistic heritage, and President Erdogan has promised that he “stands with and will continue to stand with … Azerbaijan with all our means and all our heart”.

Turkish support for Azerbaijan has drawn criticism from both Armenia and the international community, especially regarding claims that Erdogan has mobilised foreign fighters and mercenaries from Syria and Libya.

Russia’s ability to facilitate peace in the region may depend on leveraging its relationship with Turkey, but ties between the two countries are themselves famously unstable. Ankara had in fact been in the midst of a foreign policy pivot towards Moscow until a 2015 crisis involving a Russian fighter jet shot down near the Turkish-Syrian border.

Opposing positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continue to generate tension – making any missteps in Russia’s engagement in the South Caucasus carry the risk of spilling over, affecting its interests in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the meantime, the international community has declared its support for the Moscow-brokered ceasefires, the latest of which involved the presence of the Red Cross. Members of the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member, have urged sides to respect the agreements.

Representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan declared their readiness on Monday to return to Moscow for continued talks on Thursday, but this week’s failed Washington-brokered ceasefire may signal a pivot away from Moscow.

The Kremlin, however, has committed to remaining a relevant player in the peace process, pointing to Vladimir Putin’s  controversial nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize last month for legitimacy. Moscow’s resources and attention, however, have been stretched thin by ongoing crises in Belarus  and  Kyrgyzstan, as well as by recent sanctions relating to the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalnyand the devastating second wave of Covid-19.

Regardless, peace remains the official agenda according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “We stand by our viewpoint,” he said at a press conference this month. “A peaceful settlement is not only possible, it remains the only way.”



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