Now that current attempts at resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have proven ineffective, it’s time to consider other alternatives that can bring the conflicting sides to the negotiating table in a meaningful way.

The town of Askeran, near the area where clashes with Azeri forces were taking place, in Nagorno-Karabakh region. Photo: Reuters

The recent escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory located between the post-Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, has already become the biggest military incident in the region since the conflict was frozen in May 1994. Until a ceasefire was agreed to by Armenia and Azerbaijan on Apr. 5, experts were concerned about the resumption of a more serious and longer military confrontation, with the potential involvement of aviation, artillery and tanks.

Problems with current OSCE attempts at conflict resolution

Even with a ceasefire, however, there’s growing concern that the institution tasked with regulating the conflict – the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – is no longer effective. This negotiating format was created in 1992 as an attempt to look for a compromise on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. In 1997, the Minsk Group brought together Russia, France and the U.S., which collectively attempted to come up with a roadmap of how to resolve the conflict.  

But since 2010, the OSCE Minsk Group has found itself in a deadlock. The U.S. has even tried to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem without involving other participants of the peacekeeping process – Russia and France. Washington started negotiations in two different formats, involving both Armenia and Turkey and Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh republic.  

The U.S.-initiated Zurich protocols signed by Armenia and Turkey in 2009 became another sign of Washington’s attempt to play a leading role in Transcaucasia. Under these protocols, Armenia and Turkey restored rigorous diplomatic relations and, most importantly, created a special commission on resolving historical (i.e. territorial) disputes.

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This move was met with skepticism and indignation in Azerbaijan, which could create more obstacles for an effective dialogue for the two conflicting sides on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. So, a number of regional stakeholders blocked these protocols. Moreover, in response to the Zurich protocols, Azerbaijan threatened to turn down the Minsk Group’s “Madrid Principles,” which laid out the steps for achieving a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

As a result, the threat of a new war in the region has loomed on the horizon. For the last five years, the peacekeepers and the conflicting sides have failed to resume the effective work of the OSCE Minsk Group or create a new negotiating format.

Russia’s attempts at conflict resolution

For its part, Russia tried to come up with the concept of “a balanced partnership”  maintaining collaborative relations with Armenia, a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan and political and economic cooperation with Turkey.  

The Kremlin seems to have been confident that cooperation with both Armenia and Azerbaijan would allow the two conflicting sides to reach a deal at the negotiating table. The abrupt decline in Russia-Turkey relations after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in Syria in 2015 disrupted the Kremlin’s plans, especially given Turkey’s recent attempt to reinvigorate communications with Azerbaijan, which included talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.

“Turkey will consider it best to accelerate the liberation of the occupied territories [in Nagorno-Karabakh],” said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutolgu before the meeting with Azeri President Ilham Alyiev in November 2015. With Azerbaijan expecting more vigorous support from Turkey, Armenia assumes that tensions between Moscow and Ankara makes the Kremlin’s cooperation with Azerbaijan less relevant.       

At any rate, the resumption of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh will create many problems for Russia. Back in 2012, many American experts warned Moscow about the problems facing Russia in Nagorno-Karabakh. In many ways, said experts, it was a lose-lose proposition for the Kremlin.

If the Kremlin supports Armenia, it would result in a rupture with Azerbaijan and Turkey, which could weaken Russia’s positions in the Caspian and Black Sea regions. And if Russia were going to take a wait-and-see position, such a policy would bring about negative perceptions about Russia: Moscow might be accused of not fulfilling its commitments under the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Finally, Russian military aid to Armenia might also bring about a negative response from Georgia.

That’s why Moscow is so interested in restoring the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, as indicated by statements of Russian officials.

Three new scenarios for the resolution of the conflict

Hypothetically, three scenarios for resolving the thorny issue of Nagorno-Karabakh are possible here, all of them building on previous attempts to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The first scenario is the resumption of the work of the OSCE Minsk Group – which will not be easy. To resume the negotiations of the Minsk Group, leaders will have to accept that the Madrid principles have failed and offer to start the negotiating process with a clean slate.

Neither Washington nor Paris is ready for such a scenario. They refer to the decisions made at the 2009 G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy where they most recently discussed a potential peace settlement using the Madrid principles.

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The second scenario is changing the membership of the Minsk Group to include other actors. Five years ago, Moscow and Washington gave consideration to including Turkey in the negotiations. Yerevan made hints about the potential inclusion of Iran at the negotiating table. But, given the conflict between Russia and Turkey, such a scenario is highly unlikely. The time for extending the Minsk Group has passed.

The third scenario is Russia’s direct mediation. Something similar happened in autumn 2008 when, thanks to the mediation of Russia, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed the Mayendorf Declaration agreeing to continue the negotiations.

This didn’t create any new format for dialogue but against the background of difficulties in the OSCE Minsk Group, it could preserve the negotiating process. Georgia also supported the development, since any military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh threatened to escalate into its own territory.

Acting as a mediator is a difficult task, but a possible war between Armenia and Azerbaijan would most likely lead to a revision of borders in Transcaucasia. Moscow’s task is to explain to Baku and Yerevan the dangerous implications of that. It would also be helpful to use Moscow’s contacts in Berlin to explain the whole complexity of the problem to Turkey. Only in this situation there might be a slight chance to resume the negotiating process.

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