Even with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov shuttling between Baku and Yerevan to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, it appears that both sides – Armenia and Azerbaijan – are hardening their positions.
Armenian volunteers in a state of readiness in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Photo: AP / PAN
Back in 2013, Foreign Policy magazine’s editor-in-chief Susan Glasser called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “Minister Nyet,” likening him to Soviet statesman Andrei Gromyko, who was legendary for his firmness in conducting negotiations with the American side during the Cold War. Lavrov will need all of this firmness and resolve in attempting to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
After the breakout of unprecedented armed hostilities between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh on Apr. 2, Russia’s “hard-drinking, hard-charging, relentless and smart negotiator” has been engaged in bringing about a durable ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh. His goal has been to reconcile the positions of Yerevan, Baku and Stepanakert [the capital and the largest city of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic] to enable a breakthrough in stalled negotiations.
On Apr. 22 Lavrov had another face-to-face encounter with Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian in Yerevan, the second since the four-day war between Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. The meeting shows that getting Armenia and Azerbaijan to agree on anything is going to be a nearly impossible challenge.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s initially hopeful statement about the availability of “all necessary elements” for a negotiated solution transformed into a request “to move forward in the political process even a little.” Armenia suggested that even this might not be possible, claiming that the Azerbaijani offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, which killed at least a hundred combatants on each side, has created new realities on the ground.
Russia – a default peacemaker in the Caucasus – is navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis in the mountains of Karabakh, and it’s negotiating power, including in perceptions of the local parties in the conflict, has been weakened for many reasons. . Russia’s real negotiating power, as well as its perceived power to resolve the conflict by the local parties - has been weakened for many reasons.
Azerbaijan, which has purchased arms from Russia for around $5 billion in recent years (purchases that eventually made the April offensive possible), is dealing with frustrations about its shrinking oil revenues and the weakening domestic regime. In short, Baku may not be as flexible as the Kremlin would expect.
Instead, it’s obvious that Azeri President Ilham Aliyev is determined to drive up the spiral of escalation until he gets what he wants – which is essentially the capitulation of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member Armenia. This is Cold War-style brinkmanship - all while fighting takes place in World War I-style trenches.
And Russia, which has been arming Azerbaijan to the dismay of Armenia, won’t be able to adopt more persuasive measures now because the long-held policy of keeping Aliyev in the Kremlin’s orbit would just crumble, allowing Russia’s friend-turned-foe Turkey to provoke another offensive against Armenia.
Another offensive against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Yerevan sees as its responsibility to protect, will lead to decisive engagement from Armenia, leaving no choice for CSTO allies (read: Russia). They will either have to dismantle the organization or expel Armenia, with neither choice being particularly pleasant after so much political rhetoric behind Kremlin-led integration projects of the CSTO and Eurasian Economic Union.
It goes without saying that an extra moment of deliberation in Yerevan about intervention in the conflict may lead to strong reverberations within the government itself and “topple it in two hours,” to cite an unnamed government official speaking to Kommersant ahead of Lavrov’s visit.
And the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic demonstrated the high-level readiness of its extremely well-trained and mobile armed forces during the four-day war – a force that can no more be left on the sidelines of the peace process.
Therefore, Russia is going through a tragedy of great power politics in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with no party living up to its commitments and expectations on a bilateral basis. Lavrov (as well as the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs before him) was welcomed with sizeable protests in the streets of Yerevan – a sign of changing perceptions in the country.
Despite high expectations, mainly in the media and among the expert community, Lavrov did not bring any new proposals to Yerevan. The leaks in the Russian media (as well as the unearthing of the Madrid Document on an Armenian blog site) after the April offensive suggest that the mediators, and the Kremlin in particular, are keen on revitalizing the proposals tabled in Kazan back in June 2011.
Lavrov declared in a joint press conference with Armenian colleague Nalbandian that “Armenia did not reject Kazan” (affirmed by the Armenian side, too), hinting that it may still be back on the table should the Azerbaijani side agree. However, it is not clear what the position of Stepanakert may be.
Five years ago, Azerbaijan obstructed the agreement in Kazan, primarily because the price of oil in the international market was at its peak in 2011, with Azeri Light selling on average for $110 per barrel. It allowed for hopes in Baku that maximalist expectations might become possible one day. But oil prices touched a bottom of $31 in January 2016, and Azerbaijani export capacities are also thinning.
“As an experienced diplomat, Lavrov understands well that talking about negotiations after the Four-Day War is not very logical,” said Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in interview with Bloomberg on Apr. 25, implying that the international community will not make proposals to Armenia about Nagorno-Karabakh without making Azerbaijan pull out its tanks and artillery from the frontline.
In Yerevan, the Armenian message to Lavrov, who left with a picture of Mount Ararat in his pocket, was that moving ahead with the peace process would only be possible with implementation of confidence-building measures, establishment of incident investigation mechanisms and international guarantees of non-resumption of armed hostilities.
All this, in Lavrov’s words, had been part of a negotiating deal on the table “three or four years ago.” It remained on paper because of the maximalist position of Baku.
To make things even more difficult, Azerbaijan has allegedly revoked its signature from the 1994 ceasefire agreement in a written communication to the UN Security Council on Apr. 14. This, according to the worldview in Baku, relieves it from obligations of the non-use of force – something that has nothing to do with principles of international law.
How are sustainable peace and negotiations even possible in a crisis where one of the parties drives the situation to the brink of war and outside players have extremely limited leverage? This is the challenge facing the diplomats across the Line of Contact, as well as in Washington, Moscow and Paris. For now, hawks and other irrational players are running the show – and that’s what makes the situation so dangerous.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.