Moscow is uniquely positioned to bring peace to Nagorno-Karabakh, due to its deep historical knowledge of the South Caucasus region and the emergence of fledgling institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union.

There were many initiatives to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, but little success in finding a lasting solution. Photo: Vagan Stepanyan/PAN Photo/TASS

The negotiated solution to the protracted conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh appears to be entering a new phase with the active involvement of Russia. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin who stopped the four-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh in early April, leading to speculation that a peace agreement could be reached soon.

It now appears that ongoing tensions between Russia and the West over Syria and Ukraine might compel Moscow, Baku and Yerevan to take the plunge for a major breakthrough in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. 

Russia aims to assume a leading role in the peace settlement while increasing its economic engagement and political rapprochement with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Considerable military might, a rich legacy that dates back to Tsarist Russia, as well as shrewd tactics and relatively flexible diplomacy that allows Russia to keep the West out of the South Caucasus (mainly through a multidimensional partnership with Turkey and a strategic alliance with Iran) are among the key factors that can help the Kremlin stabilize the situation. 

In the absence of a greater Western assertiveness, both President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia consider Russia as the closest mediator, which realizes much better than others what should be done, and which has enough political will to alter the status quo, and materialize peacekeeping initiatives.

Armenia and Azerbaijan face complex political, economic, and social processes that inevitably affect the security of Russia itself. For this reason, Russia’s mediating role in the region is firmly rooted in common security interests. With the lack of Western resources to actively interfere in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, Russia now has carte blanche for breaking the deadlock. The Kremlin seeks to cope with the mission singlehandedly, trying to bring Baku and Yerevan to the negotiating table by convincing them to reach a compromise. 

In principle, Russia’s activist role has become particularly relevant against the backdrop of regular ceasefire violations, border skirmishes and an increased number of casualties. Moscow finds further escalation unacceptable, calling for the restoration of the political dialogue.

That is why the Nagorno-Karabakh issue was thoroughly discussed during the one-day visit of Aliyev and Sargsyan to St. Petersburg where they met with Putin for closed-door talks on June 20. Consequently, Baku and Yerevan understand very well that it will be difficult to find a way forward for a lasting agreement by ignoring Russian national interests. 

In turn, the West seems to agree with the Russian leadership role, albeit the U.S. and the EU remain very worried about Russian hegemony extending to South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea region. Even though the Western powers possess considerable peacekeeping potential, they lack factual knowledge of the history of the South Caucasus, and have little understanding of the national interests pursued by nations of the former Soviet Union.

For this reason, the U.S. and the EU proved to be unprepared for procuring information in this conflict-torn region. Together, all these factors testify to Russia’s much stronger position in the region and explain why the West fears Moscow’s greater involvement in regional security issues directly influencing the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus. 

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Strikingly, Moscow started promoting the idea of resolving the conflict within a single, integrated organization like the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Russia is indeed viewed as a powerful player to initiate this process. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are members of the CIS, the political and economic dimensions of which are still developing.

Baku and Yerevan expect the Kremlin to present a road map for peace that will best suit the national interests of the two conflicting parties in the region. For example, Armenia already joined the Eurasian Economic Union to secure the Kremlin’s support on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and to enhance its pivotal relationship with Moscow. Azerbaijan’s importance for Russia is likewise quite obvious. But the tougher challenge facing the Kremlin leader is how to solve the Gordian knot that binds Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan together.  

Many in Russia believe that integration into the EEU holds great promise for Azerbaijan, arguing that an energy-rich country can also act as a bridge for the Union’s wider cooperation with Iran and Turkey. While hoping for a renewed impetus to the conflict settlement, Azerbaijan may well consider the possibility of joining the EEU, but as yet sees challenges for the membership in the Russia-led bloc. Instead, Baku seems to focus on boosting bilateral-level cooperation within the Eurasian organization.

However, the Kremlin may try out some new tactics based on a well thought-out peace proposal leading to a change in the situation. Such a settlement would need to take into account the deep-seated territorial disputes that surround Nagorno-Karabakh. By doing so, Moscow could demonstrate how obstacles may easily turn into opportunities.

While pursuing a very subtle two-pronged policy of delicate signaling to Azerbaijan and Armenia, Putin is most likely capable of unraveling the Nagorno-Karabakh conundrum. But if the Kremlin really wants to reach greater regional stability, the Armenia-Azerbaijan knot needs to be cut once and for all, not merely untied.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.