Staunton, August 13 – Vladimir Putin’s Sochi meeting with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan did not bring about any breakthrough toward a resolution of the Karabakh conflict between the two south Caucasus countries, but it nonetheless had an important consequence: it is part of a Moscow effort to downgrade or even eliminate the Minsk Group.
That group, created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was set up in 1992 to promote a settlement of the Karabakh dispute by finding a combination of the principles of the territorial integrity of states and the right of nations to self-determination that Armenia and Azerbaijan could accept.
The group consists of co-chairs, who at present represent Russia, France, and the United States, has repeatedly visited the region, promoted confidence-building measures, and been praised for preventing the conflict from re-igniting into violence since the 1994 ceasefire. But it has not found a solution.
One reason for that is that Armenia and Azerbaijan base their policies on the competing principles of territorial integrity and self-determination. A second is that not all the co-chairs have the same view of what should done or, in the case of the Russian Federation, whether any solution would be better for its interests than a continuation of the status quo.
And still a third is the evolving views of the co-chair countries as to who should be involved in discussions to find a solution to the conflict. France and the US support the Minsk Group despite its difficulties and despite the recent rise in violence because they see it as the best way for reaching a settlement that would enjoy broad international support.
But for some time, Moscow has been sending signals that it would like to be the chief intermediary between Yerevan and Baku, both because that would give it the whip hand in determining outcomes and because it would reinforce Putin’s vision that Russia can and must be the dominant power in the post-Soviet space and that other countries must not interfere.
In a commentary on Politcom.ru, Sergey Markedonov, a specialist on the Caucasus at the Russian State Humanitarian University, argues that the new outbreak of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan makes the restoration of “the trilateral format” of Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan essential.
But his statement that “Moscow has not limited itself to normal solidarity with the other co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group” but is pursuing its own diplomatic efforts in the south Caucasus may say more about what is going on than even he intends.
On the one hand, Moscow has been concerned by what it sees as the increasing American involvement in the region, as reflected in the statements of Ambassador James Warlick, the US Minsk Group co-chair, and the US role in organizing the last meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in Vienna in November 2013.
But on the other, as Markedonov makes clear, Putin has a clear interest in playing on his personal ties with the two presidents – both of whom have good relations with him, the Moscow analyst says – to restore Russia’s role in the region not only by promoting itself but also by limiting the freedom of action of outside powers.
France and the US may not like this shift, but “2014 is not 2008 or even 2012,” Markedonov says, and “in this case, the question arises: are the two other co-chairs ready to offer something real in exchange?”
The Moscow analyst acknowledges that whatever one thinks about Putin, “the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict does not affect only Russian interests.” The US and France have interests there as well concerning access to oil and gas and pipeline roots.
Any “new formats” for talks about the conflict, Markedonov continues, would inevitably lead to “unpredictability,” something that he says Moscow does not want. And therefore is “not interested in a multiplication of geopolitical challenges along Russian borders.”
“If the West and especially the US reads the results of the Sochi meeting in a pragmatic fashion by recognizing that under current realities there are no other means of stopping the escalation of violence and a complete ‘thawing’ of the conflict, then the Nagorno-Karabakh issue could play a positive role as a precedent for other regions in Eurasia.”
However, he acknowledges, “it is impossible to exclude the strengthening of another logic in which the strengthening of Russian participation in the peace process will be considered as an additional challenge and as an occasion for competition.”
According to Markedonov, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict “is not an issue about imperial complexes. This is a sensitive geopolitical knot on the borders of the Russian Federation. And as a result, it is impossible to limit its actions to those within the frameworks exclusively of international formats (the Minsk Group).”
The Moscow analyst argues that Putin’s moves in Sochi do not “contradict” but represent “a unification of the two approaches.” But in words that suggest he is far from certain anyone should accept that, he concludes that “the trilateral format again has turned out to be in demand,” noting that “it is difficult to say whether it will be effective.”