With the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict far from being resolved, Russia needs to persuade all the stakeholders that its attempts to alleviate the tensions are effective and crucial.

Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (L-R) meet to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement at Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg on June 20, 2016. Photo: TASS

On June 20 in St. Petersburg, talks took place on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian President Vladimir Putin held bilateral meetings with his colleagues from Azerbaijan and Armenia, followed by the three leaders discussing behind closed doors the prospects of a peaceful settlement.

The results of the summit were summarized for the public in a joint statement by the leaders of the three states in which they confirmed their adherence to a peaceful resolution of the conflict, expressed their support of the ceasefire regime, and announced that talks in the trilateral format would be continued in addition to the work of the OSCE’s Minsk group.

The last point of the June document invites considerable interest. Here, Russia virtually defines its special role in the resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. It positions itself not only as a co-chair country in the Minsk group (where it works alongside the U.S. and France) but also as an independent mediator capable of contributing to the achievement of peace in the turbulent region.

After a ceasefire was reached in April 2016, in which Moscow played an exceptional role, its leadership ambitions have met with an ambivalent, even somewhat concerned reception.

Thus, former American ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza stated: “Strategically, when the U.S. has been so silent, Putin has filled a vacuum that leaves the impression in Baku and Yerevan that they are alone, that he’s the only game in town.”

In the past two years, the Western countries’ perception of Russian foreign policy, especially Moscow’s activity in the post-Soviet space, has been formed under the strong (if not definitive) influence of the events in Ukraine.

In the words of professor Daniel Treisman, “Annexing a neighboring country’s territory by force, Putin overturned in a single stroke the assumptions on which the post–Cold War European order had rested.” But can one say that Russia uses the same approach to all the conflicts over the space of the former Soviet Union? And how reasonable are the apprehensions that the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement will turn into another ground for competition between Russia and the West?

Usually, when experts and politicians discuss Moscow’s activities in the “near abroad,” both the backers and stern critics of Russia’s policy agree that the post-Soviet space is a sphere of Russia’s special interests. Some urge recognition of this fact while others consider Russia’s claims unwarranted.

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Yet, however strongly the Kremlin may oppose the expansion of NATO and cooperation of the new independent states with the European Union, it does not have a uniform, universal approach to dealing with conflicts in the territory of the former USSR.

Russia’s three approaches in the post-Soviet space

Today, we can tentatively identify three approaches Russia takes in the post-Soviet space.

The first is exemplified by the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with military-political guarantees for their self-determination. At the same time, in spite of South Ossetia’s aspiration to join Russia, Moscow is not trying to force the process, but rather makes it conditional on broader contexts (such as the relations with Georgia and the West).

The second is a de facto recognition of an entity as a party to the negotiation process and peaceful settlement, without recognizing it as an independent state. Such an approach has been implemented by Moscow with respect to Transnistria. Moreover, that is the way Tiraspol is recognized by Moldova, the OSCE, the U.S. and the EU.

With some reservations, a similar model has been adopted by Russia in Donbas. The two so-called “people’s republics” have been given political support, but not recognition, by the Kremlin. At least, that possibility will be conditioned by the further dynamics of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

The third involves careful balancing between the sides to the conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan, while refraining from political or ideological support of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. At that, Yerevan is Moscow’s military ally and a participant of the Eurasian integration projects, while Baku is an important economic partner of Moscow. Moreover, Russia and Azerbaijan share a stretch of land border that is critical for the safety of both countries.

It should be noted that this diversity of approaches existed before 2014 and remained after the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. It was determined not by the Ukrainian developments alone, but by the specificity of each conflict case. Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia in August 2008, but did not extend that experience to Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh.

Moreover, Russia’s relations with the West do not follow a rigidly determined scheme, either. While the positions of Moscow and Washington diverge severely over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria settlements have been areas of interaction between Russia and the West for years.

Also, while the Kremlin’s interference in the Donbas conflict has been severely criticized in the U.S. and the EU countries, it was the Kremlin that made possible the signing of the Minsk agreements, which may be controversial and hard to implement, but give a chance for de-escalation.

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Why attempts to de-escalate Nagorno-Karabakh tensions have failed

By the way, the trilateral format on Nagorno-Karabakh with Russia as the moderator party did not just suddenly appear in the spring and summer of 2016. Moscow had a similar experience in 2008-2012. Over the period, the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia held 10 meetings which, unfortunately, did not result in an appreciable breakthrough.

The most that could be achieved was the signing of a few declarative agreements which were not legally binding. It would be naïve though to blame the lack of result on Moscow alone as the trilateral format was supported by the two other co-chair countries in the Minsk group: the U.S. and France.

Besides, the sides of the conflict themselves did not show willingness to make mutual concessions. In June 2011, at a summit in Kazan, they were the closest to that but were unable to reach an agreement. However much the peacemaking activity of Russia may have been criticized for inefficacy, the other players have not put forward any more attractive ideas for the past 22 years since the May 1994 agreement on the permanent ceasefire between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan (in which Russian diplomacy played a definitive role).

According to the reputable German expert Sabine Fischer, “The case of Nagorno-Karabakh is even more complicated as the role of the European Union in the settlement of this conflict is very small.”

What is more, the participation of Brussels is actually discussed only in the context of financing programs to promote confidence-building measures between Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as between Armenian and Azerbaijani societies, while today, it is much more important to ensure mechanisms for the prevention of armed incidents and fortify the negotiations format.

Russia’s role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict 

It is for that purpose that Russia has noticeably stepped up its activity recently. Still, it is hardly possible to see anything new in its actions. The Nagorno-Karabakh settlement has been traditionally one of the foreign policy priorities of Moscow, and the escalation of the confrontation has been regarded as a factor of high risk threatening both the prospects of Eurasian integration and the safety of the country’s southern borders.

With all that, Russia is not going to either undermine the efforts by the OSCE’s Minsk group or engage in a standoff with the U.S. and France on Nagorno-Karabakh, regardless of the existing differences over Syria and Ukraine. Neither does the West reject the Kremlin’s participation in the capacity of a special moderator.

Both American and European diplomats are well aware of the good personal relations of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia, Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargsyan, which guarantee opportunities for an informal influence on the conflicting sides.

Both the U.S. and EU see that Moscow does not strive for “revisionism” on Nagorno-Karabakh, while their own diplomatic resources are clearly insufficient for a breakthrough and the risks of escalation are high (the conflict zone being not far away from the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline). It is no accident that the American co-chairman of the OSCE’s Minsk group, James Warlick, voiced support for the talks in St. Petersburg.

However, in spite of the expressions of official support from Western diplomats, many experts, journalists and politicians in the U.S. and EU countries are not ready to cede leadership to Russia. And most likely, we will hear yet many times doubts about the Kremlin’s efficacy at the talks and allegations of “lack of progress.”

Therefore, Russia is going to need not only creative PR moves but also distinctive criteria to show its efficacy, as well as the conviction of the conflicting sides themselves that without Moscow with its special role, the movement towards peace would be much slower.